On the last page of the manuscript of the piano score of his Rey van edelingen (Choral Song of the Noblemen) for mixed choir and orchestra, Diepenbrock notated the place and date where it had been created: Nieuwer-Amstel, 3-30 September 1895. After their marriage on 8 August 1895, Alphons and Elisabeth Diepenbrock-de Jong van Beek en Donk had moved there to the Parkweg (which later became the Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam). Since Diepenbrock had received an honorary discharge from his position as a teacher of Latin and Greek in ’s-Hertogenbosch on 1 October 1894, he could focus on composing.
In June 1895 Bernard Zweers had indicated that he wanted to ask Director J.C. Tadema of De Erven F. Bohn in Haarlem to publish Diepenbrock’s choral songs from Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. Encouraged by this, Diepenbrock started composing the Rey van edelingen after he returned from his honeymoon. He completed the work that same month. In November he entered into negotiations with Tadema and half a year later, on 13 May 1896, the Vier Reizangen uit Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (Four Choral Songs from Gijsbrecht van Aemstel) appeared in print. According to the date in autograph A-13(2), Diepenbrock orchestrated his last choral song between 18 October 1895 and 24 August 1896. The entirely revised score A-14(2) was completed on 24 May 1897.
With its 14 five-line strophes, the Rey van edelingen is the longest choral song from Vondel’s tragedy. Thus, Diepenbrock’s composition has a proportionate duration of around 10 minutes. While the young women in the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden (Choral Song of the Amsterdam Virgins, RC 31) chiefly express their joy over the liberation of the city, the pious noblemen focus on their joy over the birth of Jesus. In multiple images, Vondel emphasises the humble circumstances under which the Creator of heaven and earth came onto this world. At the same time, he gives the message that the Christian morals (“the pure laws”), proclaimed by simple fishermen, will break the power of the Roman Empire. As the poet says in the penultimate strophe, it is about inner, spiritual nobility:
De hemel heeft het kleen verkoren.
Al wie door ootmoed wordt herboren,
Die is van ’t hemelsche geslacht.
Heaven has chosen the humble.
Everyone who is reborn through humility,
Is of heavenly descent.
The last strophe, an (unanswered) prayer in which God is asked to prevent King Herod’s murder of the innocent children, is a dramaturgical reference to the disaster that is to take place in the following acts through deceit and double-dealing.
The second strophe also opens with the main theme. Its character is strongly determined by the upward major sixth a1– f-sharp2 and by its repeated return to the top note. The strophe concludes with a short instrumental development of the theme, ending with a modulation and a change of metre to 6/4. The melodies of the following section are simpler; in some places the choir even sings in unison, e.g. on the energetic words “Hier voert de neergedaalde God / De trotsche wereld om met spot” (Here God who has come down from heaven exposes / The proud world to mockery). Introducing strophe 7 with an orchestral rendition of the main theme, Diepenbrock returns to the mood he started off in. The text of the ninth strophe,
Augustus rijk verliest zijn eer, / De Roomsche scepter reikt niet veer
The empire of August loses its honour, / The Roman sceptre does not reach far),
inspired Diepenbrock to create a contrast in sound; here he uses just tenors and basses, split into four parts, in a powerful setting. At the beginning of the next strophe the main theme reappears and continues to play a role right until the end.
To perform this piece with its many harmonic changes and modulations in tune, requires a very accomplished choir and conductor. Huge demands are also made on the singers as far as diction and technique are concerned. In this light, it is not surprising that the composer was disappointed with the premiere in the Concert Hall of the Sociëteit “Vereeniging” in Haarlem by the city’s Toonkunst Choir, conducted by Willem Robert (1848-1914), on 27 April 1898. He partly blamed himself for the result. Like with the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden and the Rey van clarissen (Choral Song of the Poor Clares, RC 30), he therefore revised the original score. In November 1900 he notated revisions in the 1897 copy for a performance by the Toonkunst Choir of Leiden, conducted by Daniël de Lange (1841-1918), on 6 December; in August 1901 he made a completely new neat copy.
George Rijken (1863-1948) used this score for a performance he gave with his Mixed Choir and the Utrecht City Orchestra in the Rotterdam Doelen on 19 November 1901. At this concert the newly orchestrated version of the Rey van Amsterdamsche maegden was also presented. Despite the careful preparations with the orchestra (after leading a rehearsal Diepenbrock was excited – see RC 31) and the use of a quartet of soloists (Alida Oldenboom, Lucie Coenen, Johan Rogmans and Johannes Messchaert) for two passages of the Rey van edelingen, this performance was also a let-down. Diepenbrock gave Charles Smulders an analysis of what had gone wrong:
The choir sang correctly and clearly, but without any poetry. Despite all his enthusiasm, the conductor turned out not to understand the true nature of the work after all. Added to that an orchestra (the one from Utrecht), technically more than adequate, but without any understanding of melodic expression, used to “playing down” everything in the same obliging manner. […] Naturally there was no higher cooperation between choir and orchestra, causing much of the orchestra to be lost. (BD III:333-334)
Nevertheless, the critic of the newspaper NRC, W.N.F. Sibmacher Zijnen, praised the work:
How everybody was captivated by the victory song of the Amsterdam Virgins, which was sung so robustly and freshly, and the choral song of the Noblemen, how broadly and magnificently did it flow, rich with expression, full of sentiment, so we were overcome by emotion over the delightfulness of the music in Vondel’s words and the language of the sound and rhythm in Diepenbrock’s music. (BD III:618)