As a child Diepenbrock grew to dislike the style of the masses for male choir used by composers from the first half of the nineteenth century, like Johannes van Bree, Johannes Verhulst, G.A. Heinze and J.J. Viotta, which embellished the Sunday services at the parish church he attended. At a festival of the Allgemeine Cäcilien-Verein in Munster the twenty-year-old Alphons came in touch with church music that followed the ideas of the Cecilian movement, which aimed at reviving liturgical music based on the Palestrina style. Initially Diepenbrock was sympathetic towards this movement, but soon he realised that the principles it subscribed to generally resulted in compositions that fell short in quality and power of expression. He wanted to go a step further by integrating modern musical elements, in particular the innovative harmonies of Richard Wagner, into church music.
Diepenbrock wrote his mass in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where he had acquired a position teaching Greek and Latin in 1888. The impressive, Gothic St John Cathedral and the in those days still almost untouched, ancient neighbourhood around the church, were a source of inspiration. Having completed his Ave Maria for mezzo-soprano and organ (RC 23) in May 1889 and his Jesu dulcis memoria for baritone and piano or organ (RC 24) in September, Diepenbrock began his mass the following year. The title page of the first autograph gives 17 May 1890 as the date this work was started. This corresponds with a remark Diepenbrock almost casually dropped at the end of a letter he wrote to his parents on the evening of Whit Monday (26 May):
A week ago I started to compose a Mass. (BD I:220)
After he had worked on the score for half a year, he confided the following about his ideas on the composition to a college friend:
In this form of art the words and the music have been so terribly violated, that from the age of 10 or 12 I almost unconsciously planned to do it properly. [...] Well, I would like to correct all of them in one word. Writing a better mass than the ones we have for male choir. I feel that I can do it, only it is taking a very long time. I feel the ancientness and grandiosity of these words that have stood for twenty centuries as pillars in the cathedral of the minds of the people, deeper than a battalion of musicians put together, and the emotions of my very religious early youth that lies so far behind me, are even now great and beautiful enough to channel that feeling into sound. (BD I:240)
He was full of ideas, even though at times he did not touch the composition for ages. Years later he still recalled:
Never again did I write anything with such dedication and such an unconscious tyrannical drive. (BD IV:22)
Diepenbrock’s musical ambitions were supported by his friend Antoon Derkinderen (1859-1925), a painter from ’s-Hertogenbosch. Like many other artists and intellectuals of their generation, Diepenbrock and Derkinderen were filled with the ideals of a “Communal Art” which – in accordance with the romantic idea of the Middle Ages that prevailed in those days – was based on a mystical religiosity that was to provoke higher thoughts in the common people. Diepenbrock played his music for Derkinderen. After purchasing Remy de Gourmont’s Le Latin mystique (1892), they often exchanged ideas about the rediscovered texts of religious songs, hymns and canticles in this anthology.
Characteristics of the first version
Diepenbrock arranged his score for solo tenor, four-part male choir (with a division into eight parts in the Sanctus) and organ. For some time he considered orchestrating the organ part. He even discussed this with the conductor of the choir of the Moses and Aaron Church, Bernard Zweers (1854-1924), who liked the idea.
The Missa solemnis virorum choro vocum quatuor ad organum cantanda (Solemn Mass for four-voice male choir and organ) was completed on 23 July 1891. Two days later he enthusiastically wrote to his parents:
Now it has been committed to paper in a score that counts 94 pages. At times I feel very happy to have accomplished this and to have written a work that is quite unique. Although it is not very remarkable purely as a composition, that does not matter. It is not the music alone that counts. But what is unique, is that it expresses emotions which are very rare these days, while its technique is as modern as can be. (BD I:286-287)
Here the composer discloses the essence of his ambitions.
By then Diepenbrock was banking his hopes on a performance in the Concertgebouw, where the Michael Maarschalkerweerd organ was to be inaugurated shortly. However, as the organist J.A. Verheijen objected to the chromaticism in the organ part of his mass, Diepenbrock seriously considered rewriting the composition for mixed choir, orchestra and organ. (BD I:288) Shortly afterward organist C.F. Hendriks took away his doubts when he played through the music on a Cavaillé-Coll organ.
This has convinced me that it is good. It sounded marvellous. (BD I:291)
Henri Viotta’s judgement of the performability of the vocal parts came as a huge disappointment. The founder and director of the Wagner Society and the conductor of the choral society Excelsior had a lot of practical experience and believed the independence of the voices would prove an insurmountable problem for choirs in the Netherlands. He also signalled the difficulty of the small range of a male choir,
which, in such extensive polyphony, is not beneficial to clarity, nor to the accuracy of the many modulations that occur in it. His conclusion was:
I am afraid [...] that your Mass is a work more for the eye than for the ear. (BD I:294-295)
Thereupon Diepenbrock gave up the hope that his work would be performed soon. However, he kept faith in his composition, partly due to a second session with Hendriks. We find more about this in a letter Diepenbrock sent from ’s-Hertogenbosch to his family at the beginning of March 1892:
It may well be a melancholic pleasure if in my old age I will eventually hear this jubilant music which I have written here under such great pressure. I was so happy to hear it again; it is like a pitcher of water in the desert of this barren life, as well as the elimination of my doubts about it and the confirmation that it is beautiful and great. Oh, if only you could hear it. It may be a little strange and wry, but it is in no way arid or obsolete; maybe I will never be able to make anything like this again. (BD I:335)
Nevertheless, Diepenbrock started to revise the Credo on 22 February 1892. At the beginning of July he even took the first step towards getting the work published. He sent part of the mass to the firm Roeloffzen & Hübner in Amsterdam with a request for an estimate of what it would costs for it to be engraved and printed by one of the renowned engravers in Leipzig. For the title page, for which Derkinderen was to do the calligraphy, Diepenbrock designed a text which for the first time contained the designation “in die festo” (for a Festive Day). (BD I:389) That autumn he decided to go ahead with De Nieuwe Muziekhandel. There was a good response to the subscription campaign which Derkinderen started in November: halfway through January 1893 the minimum amount of fifty subscribers at 10 guilders each had already been reached, so the contract was signed in April 1893. Diepenbrock was very pleased:
I thought it would never come through. (BD I:452-453) He received 300 guilders for his score. In June 1893 the Muziekhandel published a circular announcing the publication in the autumn. However, this was not to be.
Complete revision and deluxe edition
Now Diepenbrock was to enter the public arena with a major opus, he decided to revise it thoroughly. After the example of the sixteenth-century coro spezzato practice of the San Marco in Venice, he changed the original concept by dividing the choir into two halves that sometimes alternate, sometimes sing as a full eight-part choir (in the Sanctus and in large sections of the Agnus Dei) and at other times are combined into a four-part choir. In the vocal parts in particular the simpler part-writing and the avoidance of the high register are notable. The organ part also underwent significant changes: in many places Diepenbrock introduced more rhythmical diversity and he prescribed the occasional tacet where the organ participated in the first version, but he also added short passages in the organ part.
Other major changes are: the Kyrie has been reduced from 111 to 67 measures and the Benedictus has been expanded considerably from 58 to 80 measures; the polyphonic opening line of the Gloria and the Credo has been replaced by a Gregorian intonatio by the celebrant; the Sanctus and the beginning of the Agnus Dei have been transposed down a semitone; there are no longer quotes from other movements in the Agnus Dei.
This revision caused a delay in the production process. In November 1893 Diepenbrock sent the first two parts to the engraver. The following February he had finished rewriting the Credo. Then the Sanctus, which already had an eight-part choir in the first version, also underwent the
tyranny of the eraser so
a soft spring breath would go over it, making everything more singing and delicate, as he wrote to his future wife Elisabeth. (BD II:154)
At this stage of his development Diepenbrock received a lot of support from a composer from Liège, Charles Smulders (1863-1934). The frequent contact he had with this kindred spirit made him feel he was no longer working in isolation. At the beginning of January 1894 Diepenbrock spent some days with Smulders, who was so enthusiastic about the Missa that he promised to undertake steps to realise a performance.
On 13 March 1894 Diepenbrock completed the remaining parts of the Missa, but the revision of the work was by no means finished. There are considerable differences between the printer’s copy and the final print. These alterations must have been made by Diepenbrock in a proof copy, which has been lost. Many major corrections made it necessary for the page in question to be engraved again entirely or in part. Other passages may have been adapted by retouching. All in all it cost the publisher an extra 300 guilders, the same amount he paid Diepenbrock for the publishing rights.
It was not until the autumn of 1894 that Diepenbrock deemed the composition completed. Towards the end of the year, long before the publication of the edition, he gave the autograph score of the Missa solemnis to Smulders, with an honorary dedication. It would take almost two more years for Diepenbrock’s mass to become available in print: the date of publication is 20 October 1896. Meanwhile Diepenbrock had intimated that he wanted to simplify the title of his work by omitting both the word “solemnis” and the designation “in die festo”, which he told Derkinderen were
superfluous, incorrect or pretentious. (BD II:377) The title simply reads: Missa duobus choris vocum virorum cum organo concentu cantanda. The lithography with multicoloured decorations by Antoon Derkinderen can be regarded as an exemplary result of the “union of arts”.
Diepenbrock’s mass is a composition in which all the vocal parts are expressive – even in the numerous homophonic passages. This is clear right from the first entry. The melody Diepenbrock has given to the solo tenor at the opening of the Kyrie is based on the theme of the prelude in c-sharp minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier I. With its declamatory opening, graceful triplet motion and ascending octave leap it expresses the plea for mercy. The counterpoint in the organ part also conveys this idea. The polyphonic texture with which Diepenbrock lets both halves of the choir take over and develop the melody, shows how skilled he was in expressing the nuances of the text. Every voice contributes to the whole, with details that not only have a decorative, but also a constructive merit. The independence is closely connected with the differentiated rhythm in the vocal parts. The frequent alternation of triplets with ‘common’ quavers on different beats, combined with the rubato Diepenbrock prescribes on numerous occasions in the score, requires a great deal of flexibility of the singers. Independent voice leading (both in the choir and the organ) is also characteristic of several passages of the other movements, such as the “pleni sunt coeli et terra” in the Sanctus, where the nine independent voices all contribute to a collective jubilation.
Unlike the Kyrie, the structure of the Gloria and Credo is for the most part homophonic. The texts, which have many lines and are sung antiphonally in Gregorian chant, inspired Diepenbrock to predominantly use the two halves of the choir as blocks, often in changing tempos which correlate with the meaning of the text, at times alternated with a polyphonic section, like the devout and peaceful “Et incarnatus est”.
Diepenbrock did not strictly follow the order of the liturgical text. After the exuberant “Hosanna in excelsis”, the word “sanctus” reappears with the same tranquil atmosphere of peaceful ecstasy from the beginning of the movement. He also ends the Benedictus with a recapitulation of the opening line. Ending the Agnus Dei with an “Amen” is not in accordance with the rules either.
When the edition was published nobody expected that the work would not be performed for another twenty years. Composer and conductor Daniël de Lange (1841-1918), who in a review in Het Nieuws van den Dag (The News of the Day) ranked the Mass
with the most advanced movement of modern art, called the publication
an important event for the Dutch music world. (BD II:577) A statement like this seemed promising. Now the printed score could be used to promote the mass abroad as well. In the autumn of 1898 Diepenbrock sent a copy to Charles Bordes, conductor of the Saint-Gervais in Paris and one of the founders of the Schola Cantorum. Charles Smulders approached, among others, Eberhardt Schwickerath, conductor of the outstanding choir of the Dom in Aachen. However, none of these communications led to a performance.
Not a single review appeared in any of the music periodicals in the Netherlands, not even in the well-informed magazine Caecilia. The silence in the St. Gregorius-blad – Tijdschrift tot bevordering van kerkelijke Toonkunst (St Gregory Magazine - Journal for the Stimulation of Church Music), the official organ of the Nederlandsche St. Gregorius-Vereeniging (Dutch St Gregory Society), must in the first place have had something to do with Diepenbrock’s extensive use of chromaticism. In those days there were strict guidelines for liturgical music, prompted by the fear that Wagnerian elements might evoke sensual feelings in churchgoers. These guidelines prevented the Missa from being performed in church. The opening line of the Credo, for example, shows why Diepenbrock’s music could not qualify for use during the liturgy. The many accidentals, the succession of chords which are tonally as far apart as A major and g minor, or – moreover – E-flat major and A major, did not comply with what was considered acceptable in those days.
However, Diepenbrock most certainly had intended his Missa for the Catholic liturgy. In 1900 he emphasised this to Mgr. J.A.S. van Schaik (1862-1927), an influential author on church music and a composer in the Regensburg (Cecilian) tradition himself. Van Schaik’s comments elicited an interesting exposé from Diepenbrock on the thematic relations in his work and the psychological background of the leitmotifs. (BD III:217-219) But with this, the discussion came to an end for the time being.
Attempts to realise a performance and eventual premiere
In the autumn of 1902 Diepenbrock made plans for the mass to be performed by singers of an Amsterdam church choir. He meant to rehearse and conduct the work himself and he had parts made at his own expense. But this initiative came to a dead end as not enough choir members agreed to take part. Once again Diepenbrock tried to raise interest in his mass wherever he thought people would be receptive to it, even as far away as Rome (Dom Hugo Gaisser, renowned researcher of Byzantine church singing and director of the training college Pontificio Collegio Atanasiano) and Venice (library of the San Marco).
He believed, however, that the situation in the Netherlands was definitely hopeless after his Veni Creator Spiritus for male choir and organ (RC 69, composed in 1906) had officially been rejected by the Episcopal Committee for the Approval of Compositions for the Church. This Committee had been established to keep an eye on the implementation of the decree on church music, which was the outcome of the encyclical Motu proprio by Pope Pius X of 1903. While Diepenbrock had one success after another in the main concert halls in the Netherlands, he failed to make headway when it came to church music, where mediocre compositions were accepted and even praised. This brought about a cynical resignation.
For his 12.5th wedding anniversary on 8 February 1908, some close friends whom Diepenbrock had told in earlier years that he considered the Missa his best work, wanted to surprise him by collecting a substantial sum intended for the performance of this work and the Reyen uit Vondels Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (Choral Songs from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, RC 28, 30, 31 and 33). But Diepenbrock was despondent and dismissive; he even went as far as to call his mass
a juvenile error. (BD V:500)
Thereupon Antoon Derkinderen decided to obtain the nihil obstat through Mgr. van Schaik. Curiously, it was only then that van Schaik realised, as becomes clear from the correspondence, that in his setting of the text Diepenbrock did not strictly adhere to the liturgical formulary. The main obstacle for van Schaik (“from a liturgical point of view unacceptable”) was the “Amen” at the end of the Agnus Dei, which he considered the height of self-will of a composer who did not take the religious text seriously, and which he found sufficient reason to decide not to help him out; at any rate he did not want to venture to advise Diepenbrock to make certain changes. (BD V:522-523) Therefore Derkinderen approached Diepenbrock about this himself. This was the first step, cautiously sounding out strategies, towards bringing the parties together, a process that would take many more years and that at this moment hardly had any tangible result.
Another close friend of Diepenbrock, W.G. Hondius van den Broek (1867-1913), kept insisting that the mass should not be written off completely. It turned out that Diepenbrock had not yet given up the idea of making a version for mixed choir and orchestra, even though he really considered a mass for the concert hall
an absurdity, as he repeatedly said. (BD III:212) At the beginning of 1913 Diepenbrock gave in to Hondius’ insistence. However, having orchestrated the Kyrie and the Gloria (see RC 116), he put the score aside, because there was no prospect of a performance and he preferred to dedicate himself to a new composition.
In those years two serious attempts were made to realise a performance of the Missa: one by Anton Averkamp and another by Theo van der Bijl with the choir of the Moses and Aaron Church. The first initiative foundered due to the inadequacy of the singers (even three rehearsals a week did not suffice to get the parts up to standard). Diepenbrock himself put off the second attempt, because he thought the church’s Adema organ was unsuitable.
Meanwhile Mgr. van Schaik had become convinced that the mass deserved to be performed. He brought about two breakthroughs: he not only persuaded Diepenbrock to make the changes in his score essential for obtaining the nihil obstat, he also managed to interest the young, ambitious conductor of the Utrecht Cathedral Choir, Johan Winnubst (1885-1934), in the work. Van Schaik founded a ‘Committee for the performance of the Mass by Dr Alphons Diepenbrock’ which raised the necessary funds and he set out to write a long article on the Missa for the first edition of the new periodical De Beiaard (The Carillion).
The letters that Diepenbrock wrote in response to van Schaik’s questions about the genesis of the work and the ideas behind its form, provide clear information on his attempt to come to
a fusion of Cecilian and Wagnerian stylistic principles. Diepenbrock also reveals his first idea of May 1890, the polyphonic opening of the Credo, which he omitted for liturgical reasons in the second version, and he discloses the experience he had during the summer holidays of 1890 of
being led by a strange force, which made it impossible for me to occupy myself with anything other than the Mass. (BD IX:52) Diepenbrock also voiced the ideal circumstances for the performance of his work which he had in mind from the offset, to van Schaik:
It requires the mystical sound of a modern organ, with a viola da gamba registration throughout, the chiaroscuro of a large cathedral both for the eye and for the ear, and the metaphysical timbre of male voices, the impersonality of an invisible choir, an invisible conductor and an invisible, anonymous tenor soloist. (BD IX:93)
The rehearsals for the mass may have started at the end of May at the earliest.
From the outset the project was under time pressure, as the performance was already to take place on the day of the annual meeting of the St. Gregorius-Vereeniging, on Monday 2 October 1916. Four months are a short time for any choir to master such a complicated work. Diepenbrock attended the rehearsals in September, but he was not given the opportunity to work with the choir himself. However, he did coach Nic. van Wessem, the amateur singer selected for the solo part. The restricting circumstances (in those days the Maarschalkerweerd organ only had two keyboards) and lack of time made Diepenbrock sigh after the dress rehearsal on Sunday 1 October:
They should have left it on the shelf. (BD IX:168) Nevertheless, with a lot of effort from all participants, not in the least that of the organist Henri Hermans, it was performed in a way the author found
very respectable, though not ideal. (BD IX:190) Afterwards the composer telegraphed:
Hail and salute to the conquerors of the countless sharps and flats in the Mass by Diepenbrock. (BD IX:168)
Reviews show that at the solemn high mass of Monday 2 October 1916 the work made a great impression on the audience that had turned up in large numbers and on the assembled Dutch press. In general people appreciated and admired the performers. However, the characterisation by music critic Constant van Wessem, who spoke of a reproduction
like some kind of faded chromo after a good painting, was probably the most realistic. (BD IX:505)
Other performances followed in Nijmegen (Franciscan Church, 5 November) and Zwolle (Cloister Church, 7 January 1917, for the 700th anniversary of the Dominican order). When the performance in Nijmegen turned out to be even less close to what he had envisioned than the premiere, Diepenbrock refused to attend the performance in Zwolle. He did hope for a repeat, but one with better preparations. However, this was not to be during his lifetime.
Some months after his death there were three performances in the St John Cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch (26 June and 3 and 7 July 1921) under the auspices of the Maatschappij ter Bevordering der Toonkunst (Society for the Stimulation of Music) by a double male choir consisting of eighty singers from various church choirs in the town, conducted by Peter Kallenbach. Once again Henri Hermans played the organ; this time Louis van Tulder was the tenor soloist.