Hugo Distler

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Hugo Distler
Hugo Distler.jpg
The composer in 1941
Born(1908-06-24)24 June 1908
Died1 November 1942(1942-11-01) (aged 34)
Berlin, Nazi Germany
Education Leipzig Conservatory
  • Organist
  • Choral conductor
  • Composer
  • Academic teacher

Hugo Distler (24 June 1908 – 1 November 1942) [1] was a German organist, choral conductor, teacher and composer.


Life and career

Born in Nuremberg, Distler attended the Leipzig Conservatory from 1927 to 1931, first as a conducting student with piano as his secondary subject, but changing later, on the advice of his teacher, to composition and organ. He studied there with Martienssen (piano), Günther Ramin (organ) and Grabner (harmony). [1]

He became the organist at St. Jacobi in Lübeck in 1931. In 1933 he married Waltraut Thienhaus. That same year he joined the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party), reluctantly, as his continued employment depended on his doing so. In October 1933 Distler was appointed head of the chamber music department at the Lübeck Conservatory, and at about the same time he began teaching at the Spandauer Kirchenmusikschule (Spandau school of church music). [2]

In 1937 Distler was appointed as a lecturer at the Württemberg Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart, where he also directed its two choirs. In 1940 he moved to Berlin to teach and conduct at the Hochschule für Musik there, and in 1942 he was named the conductor of the State and Cathedral Choir. [1]

Hugo Distler's grave near Berlin Grabkreuz Hugo Distler.jpg
Hugo Distler's grave near Berlin

He became increasingly depressed due to the deaths of friends, aerial attacks, job pressures, and the constant threat of conscription into the German Army, causing him to commit suicide in Berlin at the age of 34. [3] However, his suicide was probably not a direct result of antagonistic government pressure; "rather, it appears that he saw the futility of attempting to serve both God and Nazis, and came to terms with his own conscience unequivocally." [4] He is buried in the Stahnsdorf cemetery  [ de ].


Distler enjoyed his first success in 1935 at the official Kassel Music Days (Kasseler Musiktage). He achieved his greatest public success in 1939 at the German Choral Music Festival in Graz, when the Stuttgart Hochschule choir gave the première of sections from the Mörike-Chorliederbuch; the event was regarded as the climax of the festival, but the dissemination of the work took place only after the war. His Mörike-Chorliederbuch is now recognized as "the most important German secular a cappella collection of the 20th century." [2]

He composed chamber pieces, works for solo piano and two concertos (one for harpsichord in 1935 and 1936 and one for piano in 1937), but he is known mostly for his sacred choral music and as a champion of Neo-Baroque music. His works are a re-invention of old forms and genres, rich with word painting, based on the music of Heinrich Schütz and other early composers. [2]

His music is polyphonic and frequently melismatic, often based on the pentatonic scale. His works remain "tonally anchored", while at the same time they "reveal an innovative harmonic sense". [1] Because of these characteristics, his music was stigmatized by some Nazis as "degenerate art".

He is now recognized as "one of the most significant German composers of his generation". [1] He is often associated with other German neo-Baroque choral composers, including Johann Nepomuk David, Ernst Pepping and Wolfgang Fortner. [5] One of Distler's most prominent students, who carried on many of his rhythmic and harmonic innovations, was Jan Bender. Distler's style was spread by choirs in Germany and abroad during the years after World War II, stimulating and influencing other later composers. [2]

The composer on a German stamp of 1992 Allemagne timbre HugoDistler 1992obl.jpg
The composer on a German stamp of 1992

In 1953 a choir in Berlin was named for the composer, the Hugo-Distler-Chor, an ensemble that is still active today. [6] In 1992 a German stamp was designed honouring him. Distler's style and importance spread to the United States through the influence of organists including Larry Palmer, [7] who wrote the first important book on the composer in the English language, and subsequently by organist and composer Justin Rubin, [8] who performed the entire cycle of Distler's keyboard works in New York City in 1995.


Compositions and discography

Works without opus number


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Slonimsky & Kuhn, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, v. 2, p. 889
  2. 1 2 3 4 Klaus L. Neumann, "Hugo Distler," Grove online
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 371
  4. Strimple, Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, p. 39
  5. Strimple, p. 36
  6. Hugo-Distler-Chor Berlin
  7. Palmer, Larry (1967). Hugo Distler and His Church Music. Concordia Pub. House.,
  8. Rubin, Justin. "Justin Henry Rubin: Sample Organ Concert Programs and Recordings".

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Further reading