As a student Diepenbrock was fascinated by the prose and ideas of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Already in 1899 he considered setting Aphorism no. 423 from Morgenröthe (Daybreak) to music. (BD V:5) After a three-week visit to Italy, he started the composition in July 1905, completing it with never diminishing inspiration on 2 February 1906. In the first version of the work the passages in which the text is recited form merely a third of the total number of measures of the composition (157 of the 470). The orchestral introduction already comprises 74 measures. The episodes of varying lengths in which Diepenbrock presents the text are alternated with elaborate orchestral interludes. Remarkably, these proportions are not considered a problem in any of the early reviews of the composition.
Nietzsche wrote the aphorism in Genoa around 1880. In the opening line, the author leaves behind the hustle and bustle of the port to go for an evening walk and suddenly sees the majestic Mediterranean Sea in front of him. When reading this text, this image must already have made such an impression on Diepenbrock that after his visit to Rome and Florence he travelled back by train over Genoa to undergo Nietzsche’s experience himself. (BD IV:393)
With the presentation of a few short melodic fragments in counterpoint, the orchestral introduction places us in the middle of the tumult of the port. The sea announces itself with a new motive suggesting broad waves: three descending seconds, of which the first and second note form a punctuated upbeat. Then the wanderer observes: “Hier ist das Meer, hier können wir die Stadt vergessen.” (Here is the sea, here we can forget the town.) In the following instrumental intermezzo of 45 measures the sea is presented to us in its austere beauty, but we also hear what the wanderer still perceives of the world he has just turned his back to: “Zwar lärmen eben jetzt noch ihre Glocken das Ave Maria […] aber nur noch einen Augenblick” (Indeed, the bells are still ringing the Ave Maria [...] but only for a moment more). To suggest the ringing of the bells, Diepenbrock uses the same three-note motive as in Vondels vaart naar Agrippine (Vondel’s Voyage to Agrippine, RC 64.) After the meaningful words “Jetzt schweigt Alles” (Now all is silent) this section of the composition concludes with a general pause.
An orchestral intermezzo dominated by the ‘waves’ motive is followed by the line “Das Meer liegt bleich und glänzend da” (The sea lies there pale and brilliant) – the beginning of Nietzsche’s reflections on nature, which in comparison to human emotions shrouds itself in a ‘dazzling silence’, eliciting from the author the words “ja, ich bemitleide dich um deiner Bosheit willen!” (yes, I pity you for your malice!) The next orchestral intermezzo of 81 measures is divided into two sections and can be considered the instrumental development of the preceding material. First motives from the introduction are used, whereby the ‘waves’ motive frequently recurs, then the orchestra plays the melody to which the words “Das Meer liegt bleich und glänzend da” were sung. The wind instruments then introduce a new motive of seven relatively long notes, starting with a marked ascending fifth. The second phase of Nietzsche’s contemplations is introduced by the words “Ach, es wird noch stiller und noch einmal schwillt mir das Herz.” (Ah, it is growing even quieter and once again my heart swells.) This is followed by the painful realisation that it is the silent nature that confronts man with the fundamental imperfection of his own speaking; that man will only surpass himself if he is able to overcome these imperfections: “Muss ich nicht meines Mitleidens spotten? Meines Spottes spotten?” (Must I not mock my pity? Mock my mockery?) After the disclosure “O Meer! O Abend! Ihr seid schlimme Lehrmeister! Ihr lehrt den Menschen aufhören Mensch zu sein” (O sea, O evening! You are bad teachers! You teach man to cease to be man.) the seven-note motive sounds again softly in the high strings, however, now with five additional notes; thus it has become the first line of the Gregorian hymn Ave maris stella. But the wanderer pays no attention to this ‘transcendental language’. While he wonders: “Soll er sich euch hingeben? Soll er werden, wie ihr es jetzt seid, bleich, glänzend, stumm, ungeheuer, über sich selber ruhend? Über sich selber erhaben?” (Is he to surrender to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, brilliant, mute, immense, reposing calmly upon himself? Exalted above himself?), the enticing melody to “Das Meer liegt bleich und glänzend da” sounds. This is followed by another 41 measures by the orchestra: introduced by the opening melody to “Hier ist das Meer, hier können wir der Stadt vergessen”, the sea manifests itself for the last time with an enormous crescendo. Then the complete melody of the Ave maris stella is played in the highest registers of the orchestra, with which the composer, as a Christian, introduces his personal view on the deliverance from imperfection. The work concludes in the radiant key of E major.
Performances and revision
At the premiere by the baritone Gerard Zalsman and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg on 20 May 1906, the work was enthusiastically received and reviewed; in general it was considered a new pinnacle in Diepenbrock’s oeuvre. (For the programme notes by the composer, see BD V:651-652.) The premiere was unusual as Im grossen Schweigen was played both before and after the interval. A year later, on 30 May 1907, the work was performed again by the same musicians.
In 1911 (between 1 May and 8 July) Diepenbrock thoroughly revised the composition. As the various orchestral intermezzos were cut back drastically, the work was reduced to 324 measures; the orchestration was also thinned out and a few melodic phrases that were very low for the voice, were rewritten as well. For this reason the voice’s opening passage, originally in E major, was also transposed up a whole tone. Although this alteration changed the original tonal concept of the work based on the key of E major, this adaptation created a direct link to the key of F-sharp in which the orchestral depiction of the sea had just been played. Thus, this connection was abbreviated by 13 measures. In the intermezzo following the first vocal phrase, 39 measures were replaced by 14. As a result, the ‘waves’ motive does not appear in this section. A similar cut of 42 measures followed after the line “ja, ich bemitleide dich um deiner Bosheit willen!”, whereby the entire first part of the instrumental development was deleted. After the final words “Über sich selber erhaben” the 41 measures in which nature manifests itself for the last time were discarded; now the final words are immediately followed by the complete melody of the Ave maris stella. Finally, Diepenbrock expanded the conclusion in E major by eight measures.
In a letter to Johanna Jongkindt of 27 July 1910 we can already read that Diepenbrock considered the composition
too long and too heavy and dark. (BD VI:353) When he went through the revised score with Gerard Zalsman in October 1911, the work even seemed
very antipathetic to him. (BD VII:270) This was certainly prompted by the fact that through composing Marsyas (RC 101) and Die Nacht (The Night, RC 106) his orchestration had clearly changed under the influence of modern French music, which he himself considered a big improvement. However, the reason for shortening the orchestral intermezzos so drastically also had to do with the fact that Diepenbrock wanted to make the work more accessible and more practical for a future performance.
Even after the revision the composer remained critical about the work. In November 1917 he requested the Concertgebouw Orchestra to cancel a performance of the second version with the excellent Wagner singer Richard van Helvoirt Pel that had already been scheduled:
I am no longer satisfied with it. (BD IX:298) Although Diepenbrock revised the score once more in two stages in 1918 (19-28 January and 16-19 May), Im grossen Schweigen was not performed again for decades. It was not until 13 January 1952 that the baritone Laurens Bogtman and the conductor Eduard Flipse performed the work with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, using a provisional edition of Diepenbrock’s final version published by the Alphons Diepenbrock Fund in 1947. A definitive edition appeared in 1974.
However, the fact that the work was well received by a broad audience in 1906 and that both the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Kaim Orchestra in Munich (conducted by Jan Ingenhoven) played it without any technical problems, should be enough reason to perform the first version of 1906 again (with a few revisions in the orchestration made by the composer after the first performance). It would clarify the original concept of the work and enrich our comprehension of the composer during that period.
Jaap van Benthem & Ton Braas