In the course of 1888-89 Diepenbrock read La faute de l'abbé Mouret by Émile Zola. He had borrowed a copy from his college friend Aegidius W. Timmerman. A letter Diepenbrock wrote to Timmerman on 23 January 1890 shows the book made an impression on him:
What an incredibly sultry mood that book has! What sentiment for Catholic mysticism. It has led me back to church music and since then I have written some new things, which were novel, if only to me. (BD I:205)
Diepenbrock is referring to Ave Maria for mezzo-soprano and organ and Jesu dulcis memoria for baritone and organ (RC 24).
The melody of the Ave Maria is dominated by descending intervals. The intensity of the supplication increases as the descending leaps get bigger, from a fifth, via a seventh, to a descending octave on the climax gb / f# in mm. 12-13. The first strophe modulates from f minor to f# minor, the main key of the second strophe, to return to f minor in soft p and pp tones on the passus “et in hora mortis nostrae”. The emotional climax has already occurred on the words “Ora pro nobis” (Molto appassionato), which are sung twice. In the “Amen” the Ave theme is used with descending fifths, which also dominate the piano part right to the end.
According to the date given by Diepenbrock in semi-autograph A-35(7), he composed his prayer to the Holy Virgin in May 1889. The oldest autograph has not been transmitted. The copies A-4(8) and A-35(7), which belonged to the singer Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius, have survived. In these copies the composition, which originally must have been conceived for mezzo-soprano, was transposed from f minor to g minor. The work was performed for the first time in this version by Noordewier-Reddingius and pianist Anton Tierie in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 30 April 1898. They also premiered six more songs by Diepenbrock (see RC 20, 29, 37, 40, 41 and 42).
A letter from A.A. Noske dated 17 March 1905 (BD IV:348) confirms that the Ave Maria was included in the first selection of Diepenbrock's songs Noske wanted published. After his visit to the composer of 3 and 4 April 1905 (BD IV:353), this song was scrapped from the final anthology, as were three other songs (see BD IV:355). Possibly this was because, like his Jesu dulcis memoria, Diepenbrock had in the first place intended his Ave Maria for voice and organ. In 1919 he still categorised both works as “Latin Songs for Voice and Organ (or Piano)”. (BD X:47)
On 5 January 1912 Diepenbrock notated measures 5 to 16 of the piano part with several alterations on a loose leaf. These are incorporated in autograph B-11(1) and semi-autograph B-18(1) which were in the possession of mezzo-soprano Anke Schierbeek. The Ave Maria was also included in the collection of songs Diepenbrock gave to Berthe Seroen in 1916. The Alphons Diepenbrock Fund commissioned Alsbach to publish this version in 1929 (with organ registration suggestions). It contains more harmonic changes and has a richer counterpoint. The broken chords from measure 32 onwards have disappeared and the final “Amen” has been changed into “Ave Maria”. Nowadays modern editions are available of both versions.
Curiously, the Ave Maria is mentioned remarkably little in Diepenbrock’s correspondence. The diary of Elisabeth Diepenbrock alludes to a cryptic remark her husband once made. On 29 May 1921 (in other words after his death) she wrote that he, according to Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius,
did not want to hear the Ave Maria sung by her anymore. (BD X:356) It is unclear when and why Diepenbrock made this statement. If it was on his sickbed, he might have meant that he would rather avoid the emotional impact Noordewier-Reddingius would have on him with this particular religious song.