Lydische nacht (Lydian Night), Diepenbrock’s last symphonic song on a poem by his ex-pupil Balthazar Verhagen (1881-1950), is unique in his oeuvre: it is the only work not written for the theatre that combines spoken voice and music (melodrama). Verhagen was also the lyricist of the comedy Marsyas, of De betooverde bron (Marsyas, or The Enchanted Spring, RC 101), for which Diepenbrock had written incidental music in 1909-1910. In both cases the composer, who was also a classical scholar, adapted the text extensively.
Although Verhagen had already published the pastoral poem Lydische nacht, situated in Greek antiquity, in 1911, the text was drastically changed during the composition process. In June 1913 Diepenbrock wrote to Verhagen that he wanted the first seven strophes to be declaimed, after which the declamation would switch to singing. (BD VIII:180) In his letter Diepenbrock also mentioned that he would like to omit a number of verses and that he was not satisfied with several text passages. This led to a long written discussion over the following weeks between the two of them, with subsequent changes to the text.
In July 1913 the composer told the lyricist (BD VIII:191) that he has indeed introduced the singing voice on the text:
Of all secrets!
As the above fragment, which disrupts the regular metric pattern of alexandrines, does not occur in Verhagen’s original poem, it is likely that these verses were suggested by Diepenbrock. The lyrical evocation of Artemis (as goddess of the moon) by the shepherd is the obvious place for the composer to introduce the singing voice. Despite the fact that it was initially his intention to let the speaking voice return later on (BD VIII:191), he decided that the entire second half should be sung, even when the text changes back from direct speech to indirect speech. For the listener the transition from melodrama to singing is totally unexpected. Therefore, according to Eduard Reeser,
it makes a strange suggestive impression, as he wrote in programme notes in 1949.1
According to Diepenbrock, Lydische nacht is about the contrast between
the cold majesty of the moon and the overwhelming emotions of the shepherd who, in the silent night, feels the turmoil of his own Sehnsucht rising. (BD VIII:191) A number of themes are used to musically depict this idea, the main ones being that of the shepherd (see mm. 63-65 and 68-70) and that of Artemis.
This monumental theme is always presented broadly (maestoso) and at its first entry there is a remarkable alternation between 4/4 and 5/4 metre. The soft accompaniment, with flageolet tones in the solo violin combined with flute, piccolo, harp and trombones, determines the atmosphere.
In a long intermezzo after the thirteenth verse, ending on the words “onder den greep der godheid, die geen mildheid kent” (under the influence of the deity, who knows no mercy), the climax of the piece is reached, building up to più mosso agitato poco, after which the theme of Artemis returns at full strength, now maestoso, appassionato.
Diepenbrock spent a lot of time and energy on the orchestration of Lydische nacht. Although at the end of July 1913 he wrote to a friend that he had already orchestrated part of the work (BD VIII:201), he did not complete the score until November. The main reason Diepenbrock repeatedly set aside the composition was his doubts about the quality of the text (
really just doggerel verses, Elisabeth Diepenbrock wrote in her diary). (BD VIII:218) But when at the end of August the baritone Gerard Zalsman sang through the work with him and was enthusiastic about it, Diepenbrock also became convinced of its musical quality. (ibid.)
In this symphonic song Diepenbrock aimed for a new, more transparent sound. Referring to Hector Berlioz whom he admired, he wrote:
Unlike Marsyas and the Gysbrecht, it is orchestrated lightly, but following the same principle of individualiser et dématérialiser l’instrumentation (individualising and dematerialising the orchestration). (BD VIII:181-182)
Although this new palette mainly reveals Diepenbrock’s French orientation – in particular the influence of Claude Debussy, whose Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) he had studied – there are also reminiscences to Gustav Mahler. When he heard Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) for the first time at the Dutch premiere by the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 24 April 1913, Diepenbrock was very impressed by the work. (BD VIII:158) The woodwind passages in Lydische nacht (with flutes, oboes, oboe d’amore, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet and bassoons), especially those in the penultimate verse illustrating the words “voog’len zilv’ren morgenzang” (“birds’ silver morning song”) between performance marks 60 and 61, can be associated with the birdsong in the final movement of Mahler’s composition. Actually, Diepenbrock’s partiality for the oboe d’amore was not new; he also prescribed the instrument in the symphonic song Die Nacht (The Night, RC 106) from 1911 and the Muziek bij Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (Music for Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, RC 108) from 1912.
Response to the premiere
Diepenbrock himself conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the premiere of Lydische nacht on 22 January 1914. At the repeat three days later, he combined the work with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which he had conducted several times before. A number of critics disapproved of the melodrama in Lydische nacht. For example, the critic of the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad stated after the second performance:
The melodrama or declamation is rarely satisfactory. There was also some negative criticism on Gerard Zalsman’s contribution as a soloist. Various authors preferred his singing to his declamation. However, the reactions to the orchestration of Lydische nacht were mostly positive. After the second performance Diepenbrock’s new way of orchestrating prompted Matthijs Vermeulen to write an extensive and nuanced review:
Diepenbrock is moving further and further away from his first style. One cannot only tell this from the gradual change of the orchestral palette, which slowly blended into a mixture of shadowy tones, over which the bright light shimmers wonderfully, not only from the change of mood, which starting with Marsyas, was set aglow by the sun that felt pleasant and gratifying, indeed not only from the new perspective, which focuses on this Mediterranean charm, but the sentiment is expressed differently as well. One can hear the natural tone, and no longer observed through a temperament; a different vibrato sounds in the Lydische Nacht, deeper, more profound, more fluid and more magical, because it is intoned in a more naive and more purely human way […]. (BD VIII:661-662)
1 Programme book of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of 27 November 1949.