Diepenbrock called the humoristic vocal quartet Den uil (The Owl), which he composed in the summer of 1902, “a joke”, written especially for Gerard Zalsman’s ensemble of soloists. (BD V:330) It was written almost at the same time as Christus is opgestanden (Christ Has Risen, RC 57), which because of its religious text can be considered its counterpart. Already before completion, Diepenbrock tried to get the Tilburg music dealer M.J.H. Kessels to publish these two compositions together with the Vijftiende-eeuwsch bruyloftslied (Fifteenth-Century Wedding Song, RC 10). The edition never materialised as Kessels rejected the author’s demand of a hundred guilder fee. (BD III:433) Four years later S.L. van Looy published a collection of Vier Vierstemmige Liederen (Four Four-Part Songs), which besides Den uil, Christus is opgestanden and the Bruyloftslied also included the Rey van burchtsaeten (Choral Song of the Burghers, RC 28). In this collection Diepenbrock strived for both variation –
as each of the 4 pieces represents a different type of a cappella style – and unity, as the texts are
all of a very early date. (BD V:41)
The Flemish folksong Den uil die op den peerboom zat (The Owl Who Sat in the Pear Tree) has been transmitted in various versions. The story goes that an owl drops off on a branch and tumbles down, breaks its paws and is taken to a doctor to undergo a bloodletting. The bird does not survive. It is carried to a cemetery for a solemn funeral. Then the last strophe reports: “De koster met zijn droeve stem, / Die zong van: Domine requiem.” (The verger in a sad voice, / He sang: Domine requiem.) This is again followed by the nonsensical refrain: “Van simmedondijne, / Van farilonla, / Den Uil viva!”
Diepenbrock derived his version of the text from the collection Leven, lieven, zingen (Live, Love, Sing) by G. Antheunis, who had versified a follow-up to the “Volkslied, uit den mond van het volk” (Folksong Voiced by the People). The transmitted text by Antheunis omits a piquant detail from the original tale. The owl is said to have looked up, where he glimpsed the female parts (violet) of a cat sitting above him. In his sleep, he dreamt about this and fell out of the tree. He had to pay for this vice with his death.1
The seven stanzas have been set as a strophic song with variations. The fourth strophe, “Zij brachten hem naar den doktoor” (They took him to the doctor), starts as a fugue and the strophes 5-7, relating the pitiful end, are in a minor key. The song ends, as it began, in a major key, after which the composer concludes with a virtuoso “amen”, parodying the final formulas of the Credos and Glorias “from a certain type of Mass”. (BD V:330) With the transparent voice-leading of Den uil, the exaggerated madrigalisms and the bombastic finale Diepenbrock satirises the light-footed and light-hearted music from the past.
The musical theme on which the piece is built, is a major key variant of the melody of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I Had Much Affliction, BWV 21). Antoon Averkamp already mentioned this resemblance in his review of the Vier Liederen in the weekly news magazine De Amsterdammer of January 1907:
The first, “Den Uil” is a lovely and refreshing sample of humour. It is an old Flemish folksong, which Diepenbrock has set to a melody, which – although it bears a strong resemblance to the main theme of one of the cantatas by Bach – is perfectly suited to express the changing moods of the poem. Indeed, the song has delightful streaks of humour and is highly entertaining thanks to the excellent voice-leading. (BD V:687)
Diepenbrock’s close friend W.G. Hondius van den Broek also mentioned this in a letter of 1 April 1908, after hearing the cantata in question in Utrecht. He wrote that
the motive hunter in me noticed that herein B.[ach] had made use of the ‘den Uyl’ theme. (BD V:517)
After the premiere by the Zalsman Quartet in the Grand Hôtel in Flushing on 24 June 1903, Den uil was performed many times during Diepenbrock’s lifetime, even in Belgium (for example in the Antwerp Zoo on 20 March 1912) and generally to great success. However, the reviews show that each time it was a problem to do equal justice to the humoristic and artistic qualities of the work. It was picked up by several publishers, which will certainly have contributed to Den uil being included in the repertory of many amateur choirs.
1 According to the rendition of the text by A. de Kock in Volkskunde: tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche folklore 10 (Ghent: Hoste 1897), 171.