Hugo Distler

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Hugo Distler on a German stamp, in 1992.

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

Life and career[edit]

Born in Nuremberg, he attended 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), Ramin (organ) and Grabner (harmony).[1]

He became organist at St. Jacobi in Lübeck in 1931. In 1933 he married Waltraut Thienhaus. That same year he joined the NSDAP, 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]

He became increasingly depressed from 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]

Hugo Distler's grave marker.


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 1935-36, and one for piano in 1937), but 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] His style was spread by choirs in Germany and abroad during the years after World War II, stimulating and influencing other later composers.[2]

In 1953 a choir in Berlin was named for the composer, the Hugo-Distler-Chor, an ensemble that is still active today.[6]


  • Postulat eines neuen musikalischen Lebens- und Gestaltungsprinzips, Der Wagen (1933), 77–84
  • Neue Unterrichtswege in der Berufsausbildung des praktischen Kirchenmusikers, Lübeckische Blätter, lxxvi (1934), 147–8
  • with E. Thienhaus: Die beiden Orgeln in St Jakobi zu Lübeck (Lübeck, 1935)
  • Gedanken zum Problem der Registrierung alter, speziell Bachscher Orgelmusik, Musik und Kirche, xi (1939), 101–6
  • Funktionelle Harmonielehre (Kassel, 1941)
  • Harmonielehre früher und jetzt’, Zeitschrift für Hausmusik, x (1941), 41–6

Musical compositions[edit]

  • Opus 1 - Konzertante Sonate für 2 Klaviere
  • Opus 2 - Choralmotette "Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dich, o Herr", on Schalling's hymn
  • Opus 3 - Eine deutsche Choralmesse
  • Opus 4 - Kleine Adventsmusik
  • Opus 5 - Der Jahrkreis
  • Opus 6/I - Kleine Geistliche Abendmusik
  • Opus 6/II - Drei kleine Choralmotetten:
  • Opus 7 - Choralpassion
  • Opus 8/I - Orgelpartita "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland"
  • Opus 8/II - Orgelpartita "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme"
  • Opus 8/III - Kleine Orgelchoral-Bearbeitungen
  • Opus 9/I - Das Lied von der Glocke
  • Opus 9/II - An die Natur (Weltliche Kantate)
  • Opus 10 - Die Weihnachtsgeschichte
  • Opus 11/I - Wo Gott zum Haus nit gibt sein Gunst
  • Opus 11/II - Nun danket all und bringet Ehr
  • Opus 12 - Geistliche Chormusik:
  • Opus 13 - Liturgische Sätze über altevangelische Kyrie- und Gloriaweisen
  • Opus 14 - Konzert für Cembalo und Streichorchester
  • Opus 15a - Sonate für zwei Geigen und Klavier
  • Opus 15b - Elf kleine Klavierstücke für die Jugend
  • Opus 16 - Neues Chorliederbuch:
  • Opus 17 - Drei geistliche Konzerte für Sopran und Orgel
  • Opus 18/I - Dreissig Spielstücke für die Kleinorgel
  • Opus 18/II - Orgelsonate (Trio)
  • Opus 19 - Mörike-Chorliederbuch
  • Opus 20/I - Streichquartett a-moll
  • Opus 20/II - Konzerstück für 2 Klaviere
  • Opus 21/I - Lied am Herde (Kantate, Gedicht von Fritz Dietrich)
  • Opus 21/II - Kleine Sing- und Spielmusik


  1. ^ a b c d e Slonimsky & Kuhn, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, v. 2, p. 889
  2. ^ a b c d 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. ^


For further reading[edit]

  • Wolfgang Jennrich: Hugo Distler. Berlin 1970.
  • Ursula Herrmann: Hugo Distler. Rufer und Mahner. Berlin 1972.
  • Ursula v. Rauchhaupt: Die vokale Kirchenmusik Hugo Distlers. Eine Studie zum Thema „Musik und Gottesdienst“. Gütersloh 1963.
  • Alexander L. Suder (Hgrs.): Hugo Distler. In: Komponisten in Bayern. Band 20. Tutzing 1990.
  • Casper Honders: In der Welt habt ihr Angst. In: Dietrich Schuberth (Hrsg.): Kirchenmusik im Nationalsozialismus. Kassel 1995, S. 144-153.
  • Dirk Lemmermann: Studien zum weltlichen Vokalwerk Hugo Distlers. Analytische, ästhetische und rezeptionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Mörike-Chorliederbuches. Frankfurt am Main 1996.
  • Stefan Hanheide (Hrsg.): Hugo Distler im Dritten Reich. Osnabrück 1997.
  • Bettina Schlüter: Hugo Distler. Musikwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen in systemtheoretischer Perspektivierung. Elektronische Resource CD-ROM. Stuttgart 2000.
  • Winfried Lüdemann: Hugo Distler. Eine musikalische Biographie. Augsburg 2002.
  • Barbara Distler-Harth: Hugo Distler. Lebensweg eines Frühvollendeten. Schott Music. Mainz 2008.

External links[edit]