Artist Profile: Hugo Distler

A quiz: This Germanic composer, who died at the young age of 34 of mysterious and dubious causes, was a musical prodigy who showed early genius. His innovative compositions are enjoyed worldwide.

Who could this be? If you thought of Mozart, give yourself some credit for knowing music history. But it’s not Mozart, although this particular composer’s life does parallel Mozart’s in some ways (Mozart, by the way, died when he was 36, not 34).

No, the man from the first paragraph was a 20th-century composer named Hugo Distler. He is considered to be one of the century’s greatest liturgical composers, yet he is not very well known today. Distler’s great promise as a musical figure ended in tragedy as the Nazi menace grew.

Distler was born in Nuremberg on June 24, 1908. Like many German children he was brought up on a rich diet of music and the arts, learning the piano at an early age. He was a teenager in the Weimar Republic era, when the full history of German culture was the predominant subject of public education. As Distler studied piano, organ and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory, the Nazis were just beginning to mass and spread out from Bavaria, corrupting the nationalist vision of the Weimar government into a racist toxin.

As German’s finest scientific and artistic minds, from Hindemith to Einstein, were driven out of the country, Distler was young and unknown enough to fly under the Nazi radar. He was placed in charge of the chamber music department at Lubeck Conservatory, an ideal position to explore his new ideas of religious music. He also served as organist in the Church of St. Jacobi in Lubeck, trying out some new material in that venue. In 1933 he married Waltraut Thienhaus and, naively, joined the Nazi Party as many younger Germans who were hopeful for positive change had done.

Above: Distler’s organ piece “Christe, Du Lamm Gottes” (“Christ, You Are the Lamb of God”), performed by Ronald Ijmker at Oude St. Helenachurch in Aalten, Holland.

Distler had a unique vision to change the face of liturgical music in the 20th century, using some modern techniques while retaining the austerity and humility of traditional choral forms. In the spirit of the Biblical “new song”, he sought to develop a modern style for church music that would be accessible to those who did not appreciate the older hymns and monophony. His concepts were best realized in his most popular choral piece, “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied” (Let the People Sing a New Song). As heard in the recent performance below, Distler magnificently balanced spiritual peacefulness with a modern ear.

Above: Distler’s “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied” (Let the People Sing a New Song), performed in April 2009 by the Grand View University Choir, Des Moines, Iowa.

Distler often set new words to existing folk songs and Reformation tunes, making a bright new creation out of conventional materials. He used simple pentatonic scales in polyphonic structures (melody and one or more harmonies moving together) and colored his tunes with melismas, sliding streams of vocal inflections similar to those used by contemporary R&B singers like Mariah Carey. His first wide acknowledgment as a promising composer came at the 1935 Musiktage in Kassel, where some of his works were debuted to strong acclaim.

Above: Distler’s “Totentanz” (Dance of Death), performed in 1992 by the Kammerchor Munsterland.

As happened with many German visionaries, Distler and his art were soon labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazi Party. The Brown Shirts not only sought to eliminate the voice of the church in Germany, but also to suppress any and all forms of art that departed from the respected, traditional styles of the Fatherland. As a contemporary liturgical composer, Distler thus became a target on both counts. He was not only oppressed personally, but suffered as his friends and family members were either killed, deported or forced into the Nazi military ranks. Desperate to avoid his own conscription into the army, recognizing the true evils of Nazism as they were, Distler committed suicide on November 1, 1942, by blowing out the pilot light of his gas oven and suffocating himself.

Today Distler is known for a collection of twenty-one existing works, including some multi-part choral pieces, organ partitas, piano duos and an adventurous string quartet. His music, and the story of his life, have continued to endure and inspire the German people and the world. In 1992 he finally received some overdue recognition from the German government, when a 100-pfennig postage stamp was issued in Distler’s honor. His works continue to be performed and recorded around the globe, though not always in his beloved churches.

Here are links to our prior artist profiles:

Debora Iyall
David Carranza, Jr.
Albrecht Durer
Rev. Howard Finster
Sam Maloof
Thomas Blackshear
Dr. He Qi
Sandra Bowden
Laura Kramer (Psalm 23 Jewelry)
Chris Schlarb John Newton
Vincent van Gogh

1 comment:

C. Michael Bailey said...


This is an excellent introduction to Distler. I have enjoyed his church music for years (and he shares a birthday with my late brother). I will keep an eye on your excellent site.