Hugo Distler


Born: June 24, 1908 Died: November 1, 1942
Persecuted because of his beliefs and his innovative music, Hugo Distler's life is a study in perseverance and faith. Born the illegitimate child of seamstress Helene Distler and a Stuttgart manufacturer, Distler was taken in by his grandparents after his mother married and left for America. Distler was allowed to study piano and music theory while attending the local Gymnasium, and in 1927, he entered the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied theory and piano. Later, at the Institute for Church Music, he studied organ with Günther Ramin, organist of the famous Thomaskirche. In 1931, he took the position of organist and cantor at Jakobkirche (Church of St. James) in Lübeck. This was the beginning of 11 years of inspired composition. He was married in Lübeck in 1933 and participated in the Lübeck Singing and Playing Circle. His collection of 52 two- and three-part choral pieces for each Sunday of the year, entitled Der Jahrkreis, Op. 5, was published in 1933. Distler demonstrates a refreshing originality in the settings of these traditional religious and folk tunes from the Reformation and the seventeenth century. In 1934, Distler premiered his unusual composition Totentanz (Dance of Death) for a cappella chorus and speakers, which was inspired by the Totentanz fresco at the St. Mary's Church. In 1935, he wrote his popular Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, Op. 10 (The Christmas Story), an inspired and tender piece for four-part a cappella chorus and four soloists. Its rich and complex modal harmonies evoke ancient, archaic images. There are seven variations on the traditional song Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen (A Rose Did Spring Up From a Tender Root) that separate sections of the work. The chorus aids the narration at several points, notably on the multiply repeated (for emphasis) line "Zu Bethlehem im jüdischen Lande" (To Bethlehem in the Jewish countries). Distler was sticking his neck out simply to remind his audience that Jesus was a Jew. Criticism from the Nazis was gradually mounting for Distler's exclusive composition of religious music and his membership in the Lutheran Confessional Church, which publicly opposed the state's anti-Christian and anti-Semitic policies and actions that were supported by the fanatical, so-called German Christians' Faith Movement. In 1937, Distler was appointed a lecturer at the Württemburg Musikhochschule in Stuttgart and became leader of the Esslinger Singakademie. Distler lived his most successful years at Vaihingen in Stuttgart between 1937 and 1940. His Mörike Chorliederbuch was premiered in Graz by the Stuttgart Hochschule Choir. In autumn 1940, Distler was hired as a professor at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik, and in 1942 he took over the direction of the Berlin state and church choirs. Meanwhile, his music had been declared "entartete Kunst" (degenerate art) by the Nazi state. On account of air raids, his family was evacuated to Ahlbeck on the Ostsee and he remained alone in Berlin. Because of physical and psychological exhaustion, Distler ended his life by inhaling gas. Today, Distler is recognized as the foremost representative of contemporary church music.

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