Hugo DistlerAmong composers whose fortunes were foreshortened by war, few have a more tragic tale to tell than that of German composer Hugo Distler. Born in Nuremburg but based in Lübeck, Distler was steeped in the North German, Lutheran tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach, yet became absorbed in the music of older traditions and those of his time –- in early Distler pieces one can hear traces of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Busoni. He reached musical maturity early and arrived at a heady combination sometimes referred to as “neo-Baroque,” as opposed to neo-classical, which drew upon the clean and balanced music of the late 18th century as model. A dedicated church musician and teacher, most of Distler’s music is either for chorus or for organ; another instrument to which he was devoted was the harpsichord, which had few adherents in the 1930s, and his Harpsichord Concerto was the only large scale instrumental work Distler produced that he also heard.

Distler Harpsichord ConcertoIn much of Hugo Distler’s music, one can hear in his seeming obsession with repetitive figures and painstaking development of small ideas a tendency towards high holy minimalism in a specific sense and European postmodernism in a general one; neither style would emerge until more than 30 years after he died. Among his detractors were Germany’s National Socialists, who labeled Distler a degenerate artist based on the premiere of his Harpsichord Concerto and blocked the publication of its third movement. Like most Germans in the 1930s, Distler had joined the Nazi party in 1933; he had won his publishing contract with Bärenreiter in 1935 owing to successes at that year’s Kassel Music Days. However, within one year both Distler and Bärenreiter were already feeling the heat from above. Over time, the Nazi hierarchy began to view Distler less as a key cultural component within the Third Reich and more as an able-bodied Party member who ought to be able to take up arms and join the Wermacht, an option that the gentle and deeply religious composer couldn’t stomach. By 1941, Distler was composing his last known music, teaching in Berlin and while still under contract, his works were no longer being published. On November 1, 1942, the 34-year-old Distler took his own life rather than to answer his inevitable conscription, not wanting to follow in the footsteps of an elder brother already fallen in the cause.

Distler Organ WorksGiven his sorry circumstances and brave stand against forces that would have made him a faceless agent of the Nazi regime one might expect lionization of Distler’s work in the immediate post-war period, but this was not to be. Bärenreiter took on a limited republication of some compositions in the 1950s and garnered a small amount of interest, but Distler’s chromatically altered, poly-pandiatonic music landed like a thud in an era when most European art music was caught up in a kind of analogy to quantum mechanics. While over time, Distler's music gained some ground among sacred musicians, he did not join the canon of Western music as a whole. The year 2008 brought the observance of Distler’s centenary and witnessed the premiere recordings of his works for piano and the Schauspielmusik zu “Ritter Blaubart,” orchestral music for a puppet play long thought lost, but discovered in a locked cabinet in 1999; it had never been performed. Most recordings of Distler are fostered in some way by his publisher; they seldom feature sympathetic and dedicated performers and are usually done on the cheap. While the obstacle of his adherence to tonality has been bridged, there are other objections to Distler being raised from second-tier to first-tier status; the idea that his music is technically accomplished but impenetrable, like Max Reger, or the notion, common in Germany, that Distler is only celebrated as he was so badly treated, and that any recognition of his work ties into “German guilt” about the Second World War. Distler’s music is the best refutation for either charge, and those able to connect with good recordings of it will discover his intoxicating mixture is unique, blending old and new into a texture that is unquestionably modern and forward-looking for its time, never mundane and always to some degree challenging -– much as the best 21st century music has been thus far.

Anne Galovitch plays CPE Bach and othersBernd Stegmann, Berliner Vokalensemble -
Distler: Führwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit Op. 12/9 (1941)

Anne Galovitch, harpsichord; Jos van Immerseel, Anima Eterna - Harpsichord Concerto, Op. 14 (1936)

Stefan Malzew, Neubrandenberger Philharmonie -
Distler: Schauspielmusik zu “Ritter Blaubart” (1940)

Arturo Sachetti - Distler: Chorale Partita on "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, Op. 8/1 (1932)