RC 78 Der König in Thule (“Es war ein König in Thule”)

  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
  • contralto and orchestra
  • 1907-03-29 00:00:00.0
  • duration 4:30

The ballads Mignon (RC 12) and Der König in Thule (The King in Thule, RC 16), composed in 1884 and 1886 respectively, were orchestrated shortly after each other in February and March 1907 at the request of the alto Pauline de Haan-Manifarges (see RC 77).

In the orchestral version of Der Köning in Thule the wind instruments (oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trombones and solo trumpet) have a central role. Diepenbrock exploits their palette to illustrate Goethe’s narrative poem. At the opening of the fourth verse “Er saß beim Königsmahle” (He sat at the king’s meal) the solo trumpet accentuates the text and in the last interlude the entire wind section is employed to reach an impressive climax. Interestingly, in the autograph score Diepenbrock gives more performance instructions than in the original piano version. For example, to the Sehr ruhig at the beginning he has added märchenhaft, traumartig erzählend in the orchestral version.

On 21 April 1907 Pauline de Haan premiered the two songs in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Mengelberg’s baton. She also sang the Hymne an die Nacht “Muss immer der Morgen wiederkommen” (Hymn to the Night “Must the Morning Always Return”, RC 50), which was dedicated to her and conducted by Diepenbrock himself. Judging by the reviews of the concert, the ballads made a big impression on the audience. Diepenbrock also considered it a success and told the singer:

It sounded lovely. […] Luckily the voice was clearly audible throughout, and I am very pleased that you are happy with the orchestration. Possibly you will feel even more free when you have sung the songs more often, just like Mengelberg when he has conducted them more often, but I am delighted and think you may even have sung the König more beautifully than Mignon. The former had something very touching. (BD V:371)

The composer was honoured by the conductor Willem Mengelberg’s proposal to programme his two orchestral songs at a concert by the French Colonne Orchestra that he was going to conduct. (BD V:458) On 3 November 1907 this orchestra and the Dutch baritone Jan Reder, who lived in Paris, performed the ballad Der König in Thule. He also sang Recueillement (Contemplation, RC 80) on a text by Baudelaire, which Diepenbrock had written and orchestrated that same year.

Désirée Staverman