In the literary magazine De Nieuwe Gids of January 1893 Alphons Diepenbrock published a review of Le Latin mystique van Remy de Gourmont, which he had written on 13 December 1892.1 In response, Frans Erens wrote a critical article in the February edition,2 that included the Latin poem O Jesu ego amo te. The fact that Diepenbrock set this hymn to music within a month of its publication, is characteristic of the eagerness with which he absorbed religious poetry. Nevertheless, for the text of his Canticum Diepenbrock drew on a different, still unknown source.
The poem is attributed to Franciscus Xaverius (1506-1552), cofounder of the Order of the Jesuits. As a missionary, he paved the way for the spread of Christianity in India, Japan and China. However, its origin is shrouded in mystery. Possibly the text is an adaptation of the Spanish sonnet No me mueve, mi Dios para quererte. But Franciscus Xaverius, who came from Navarra, could also be the author of the original Spanish poem, as suggested in the Geistlicher Blumenstrauss (Sacred Bouquet of Flowers) published by Melchior von Diepenbrock.3 In that case, the Latin version could be a translation of a German adaptation of No me mueve. Theresa van Avila (1515-1582) is also mentioned as a possible author of this sonnet.4
The text consists of four quatrains and one quintrain (strophe 4). The melody of the first quatrain reappears with more or less variation in the second, fourth and last strophe. This gives the composition the character of a hymn. Remarkably, in the intervening third strophe both the text and the music of the first two and a half lines are repeated. The expansive melody of this section, in which the first person speaks of the “innumeros dolores, sudores et angores et mortem” (innumerable pains, fears, cold and death) which Christ has undergone for us all, is in contrast with rest of the work.
In a letter of a later date to Charles Smulders, Diepenbrock compared the text of Clair de lune (Moonlight, RC 43) with that of the Canticum. He wrote that this poem requires “une certaine monotonie par laquelle se traduit une langueur, ou bien une passion ardente et profonde mais contenue” (a certain monotony, through which a desire, or rather an ardent and deep – yet continuous – passion is conveyed). (BD III:81) Diepenbrock looked to achieve this through a simple melody with cornerstones on the tonic and dominant, as customary in Gregorian chant.
Diepenbrock composed O Jesu ego amo te, which was completed on 13 March 1893, with the voice of Aaltje Reddingius (1868-1949) in mind and dedicated the work to her. He must have heard her sing in the Amsterdamsch a Cappela Choir of Daniël de Lange, of which she had been a member since 1891. In July 1893 she married the classicist and painter Michiel Noordewier (1868-1942) who was one of Diepenbrock’s acquaintances.
Five years later, on 30 April 1898, the Canticum received its first performance at a concert in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius and Anton Tierie. They also premiered six more songs by Diepenbrock (see RC 20, 23, 37, 40, 41 and 42).
Diepenbrock wrote on the autograph A-41(3) “Cantiones mysticae (III.)”, thus indicating the religious-mystical relationship between this Canticum and the earlier Ave Maria (RC 23) and Jesu dulcis memoria (RC 24). Unlike the two other works, O Jesu ego amo te most likely started off with piano accompaniment. The version with organ accompaniment dates from 1916, when Diepenbrock rewrote the composition for a concert in the New Lutheran Church or Koepelkerk in Amsterdam by Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius and Anton Tierie on 19 November 1916. In the organ part the four-part structure is carried through more consistently and several rhythmically repeated chords are replaced by sustained notes.
On 16 May 1920, when Leonie Molkenboer, a daughter of his friend Theo Molkenboer, who was a painter, graphic designer and designer (1871-1920), entered the Benedictine Order, having given up her ambitions of becoming a singer, Diepenbrock presented her with a copy of the Canticum. However, this manuscript, described by Reeser in MHD (1933), has been lost.
1 Alphons Diepenbrock, ‘Remy de Gourmont: Le Latin Mystique’, in De Nieuwe Gids 8/2 (January, 1893), 263-274. See VG, 46-54.
2 Frans Erens, ‘Le Latin Mystique’, in De Nieuwe Gids 8/3 (February, 1893), 422-424.
3 Melchior von Diepenbrock, Geistlicher Blumenstrauss aus christlichen Dichter-Gärten, den Freunden heiliger Poesie (Sulzbach: Geidel 1862), 226.
4 John Julian (ed.), A Dictionary of Hymnology Vol. I, A to O, (Dover: New York 1957 = reprint of 1907 2nd edition), 921ff.