In August 1908 Diepenbrock started working on vocal quartets for Gerard Zalsman’s ensemble of soloists (RC 85, 86 and 87), focussing on poetry by Goethe. On 21 October of that year, the day after the premiere of two of the quartets, Diepenbrock began Celebrität (Celebrity) for baritone and piano, also on a text by Goethe.
In the poem Goethe makes fun of people’s veneration of heroes and martyrs who have been immortalised in statues of stone, wood or metal. Irony becomes self-mockery when Goethe sketches the alleged glory of the character of his own novel, Werther, whose picture is shown everywhere in taverns and on fairs. On 22 September Diepenbrock discussed the meaning of Goethe’s text with his friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek who was paying him a visit that day – which is evident from a note in the sketches. Diepenbrock continued the composition and the next day he sent Hondius a postcard (see Illustration) with the passage of his just completed Celebrität in which he quotes a melody by Richard Strauss in the piano: the theme in A-flat major from the “Hinterweltler” (afterworldsmen) from the symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). In Celebrität Diepenbrock solemnly (religioso, molto rall.) quotes the beginning of that theme in the right hand of the piano on the words “Jeder hat seine Andacht davor” (Everyone is devoted to this) and again at the end on the words “Und jeder sprach bei Bier und Brot” (And everyone talked over beer and bread). In Diepenbrock’s setting Goethe’s irony is expressed through a reference to the style of Wagner’s Meistersinger (Master Singers).
This satirical song, which is unique in Diepenbrock’s oeuvre, is especially meant to question Strauss’ sensationalism and aim for maximum effect. As an expert on Nietzsche, in 1898 Diepenbrock openly condemned the way Strauss (whose Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – he admired) had incorporated the Gregorian Credo in unum Deum in Also sprach Zarathustra, followed by a semi-religious section by divided strings that should be performed “mit Andacht” (with devotion).1
Humour and satire
Hondius van den Broek was an excellent partner with whom Diepenbrock could discuss such topics. Celebrität comes up regularly in their correspondence. The song was not meant to be taken very seriously, as Diepenbrock himself frequently referred to it as a
little joke (BD VI:41) that was
not something to give to others. (BD VI:44)
Gerard Zalsman (1871-1949), to whom Celebrität is dedicated, sang the song at Diepenbrock’s home several times, for instance on 12 October 1909. (BD VI:152) He was also the one who, in collaboration with the pianist Anton Verhey, initiated its first public performance in October 1912. (BD VIII:32) The month before Zalsman had already performed the “little joke” at an informal musical soiree in celebration of Diepenbrock’s fiftieth birthday on 2 September of that year. On the day after the premiere in Rotterdam of 14 October 1912 the critic of the newspaper Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, H.W. de Ronde, wrote that he was impressed by Celebrität. De Ronde’s curiosity about the song had been aroused by a passage from a jubilee article on Diepenbrock written by Hondius van den Broek that had been published in the weekly magazine De Amsterdammer of 21 September 1912. In this piece Hondius put forward:
Lastly, there is another side to Diepenbrock’s character, one that is least known and recognised by the audience, indeed, we have even come across people who hold him somewhat accountable for this side. It is his humoristic, satirical side. Those who know him to speak in company at the table, know how he may come up with one most amusing, satirical, crazy idea after another. This Diepenbrock also exists in his music, but it appears that there are characters who do not think this is becoming of the author of the Te Deum. […] The strong satire of Goethe’s Celebrität, which has often been performed by Zalsman, has even eluded professional musicians. [...] What traces of this humour and satire may also be found in his large works will become apparent in due course. (BD VIII:588)
In his review, in which De Ronde did not discuss the quote from Also sprach Zarathustra, he gave the following characterisation of Celebrität:
A piece of musical, satirical mockery of the banal veneration, which desires to make a monument for the “hero” of each petty feature; a satire that is in fact more than mockery, as is appears to stem from indignation, as we can conclude from the carnival music that Diepenbrock reprovingly “applies” in the last two episodes and that strongly intensifies the intention of Goethe’s “moralising” poetry. [...] The [song] is rich in fine, disparaging depiction, both in the voice and in the piano part, and in my opinion it exudes that kind of satire, with which Wagner’s music shrouded the conventional fogeyishness of the Mastersinger type; it is just that Diepenbrock is less mild, sharper, more caustic and he more openly showed his own take on the matter. (BD VIII:593)
Désirée Staverman & Ton Braas
Illustration: postcard from Alphons Diepenbrock to W.G. Hondius van den Broek, dated 23 October 1908
1 The incentive for Diepenbrock to write his critical reflection Over Nietzsche en Strauss (On Nietzsche and Strauss), which was published in the magazine for culture and literature De Kroniek of 6 November 1898 (see VG 195-198), was the Dutch premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra on 30 October 1898, conducted by Strauss himself. Nietzsche’s philosophical work and Strauss’ music were two of the most discussed topics in Diepenbrock’s letters.