There was great indignation at the German Empire’s violation of the neutrality of Belgium in August 1914, despite all King Albert I’s diplomatic attempts to avert calamity. The courage and perseverance with which the Belgian army, under the command of the king (1875-1934), fought back against the invasion in order to stop the advance of the enemy troops towards France, earned wide respect.
Around Christmas 1914 the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a special book entitled King Albert’s Book. A tribute to the Belgian King and the People from representative men and women throughout the world. The proceeds were to go towards a fund for the relief of Belgian refugees in Great Britain. The more than 200 contributors included not only government leaders and politicians from all over the world, but also several famous painters such as Claude Monet and John Collier. It also contained compositions especially written for the occasion, such as the Berceuse héroïque (Heroic Berceuse) by Claude Debussy.
When at the beginning of March 1916 the Concertgebouw invited Diepenbrock to conduct a concert with works of his own on 9 April, the composer wanted to include the orchestral version of Debussy’s musical homage to the Belgian king. However, because of the war it was not possible to get the score and orchestral parts, published by Durand & Cie in Paris, to Amsterdam in time. So at the end of March Diepenbrock decided to orchestrate the work himself based on the version of the score in the King Albert’s Book. He decided to use an ensemble with a relatively large number of brass instruments: besides two oboes and two bassoons, the score calls for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, tam-tam, two harps and strings.
Debussy’s piece sounds everything but heroic; instead its tone is more elegiac. Only after ten measures with a shuffling movement in the lower registers, a melancholic melody appears which turns into major after six measures. Then a trumpet call can be heard, followed by an echo of it – like an answer from a distant army camp. The groping tread resumes and clearly and markedly a motive with a punctuated rhythm emerges. When it starts again, this time softly, it turns out to be the beginning of the Belgian national anthem, the Brabançonne. Debussy has notated fièrement there. The opening motive is repeated twice, after which the melody of m. 11 returns. Then the movement changes to minims. The trumpet call and its distant answer sound again. In the last four measures wisps of fog seem to hide the deserted landscape.
The management of the Concertgebouw found out that the Berceuse héroïque contained a quote from the Belgian national anthem. At a board meeting on 3 April a majority objected to performing the piece. Henk de Booy and Charles Boissevain were sent to persuade Diepenbrock to give up his idea in order to “prevent demonstrations”. (BD IX:86) When others also pressurised Diepenbrock, he relented, but only after the management of the Concertgebouw had agreed to prevent Mengelberg from performing Wagner’s Kaisermarsch (Imperial March), as it quotes the national anthem of the German Empire, Heil dir im Siegenkranz (Hail to Thee in Victor’s Crown).
The premiere of Debussy’s work, in the orchestration by his Dutch admirer, took place soon after the armistice: on 14 November 1918. Preceding three of his own works, Diepenbrock conducted the overture Les voitures versées (The Overturned Vehicles) by François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834), the suite Pelléas et Mélisande by Gabriel Fauré, and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and Berceuse héroïque by Debussy. The performance of the latter work may have been intended as an In Memoriam for the master who had died on 25 March 1918.