One hundred years ago today, June 24, 1908, German composer Hugo Distler was born.
I find Distler's unique voice particularly compelling. John Lienhard from the University of Houston describes it this way:
He brought the declamatory joy of baroque composers like Heinrich Schütz to the foursquare old melodies of the German Reformation. His music was quirky but beautiful, tonal yet chromatic. He made the old melodies dance with delight. It is a sound utterly unlike any other. Once you hear it, you don't forget it.
Engines of our Inenuity No. 1584: Hugo Distler
But beneath his technique lies something more profound. Distler had a sincere liturgical sensibility that permeates his works' structure and influences their direction.
In particular, I am thinking of Distler's Totentanz (Dance of Death) a performance piece for narrators and choir.
The visceral liturgical movement in this work points to Distler's grasp of things beyond.
And as a young man, the beyond was never very far away. The Nazis came to power when Distler was 25 and at 34 he took his own life. It was an oppressive time, and the tension of Lutheran religious life and Nazi allegiance was impossible to bear. Four months after Distler's death, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
And so this beautiful, introverted voice collapsed on itself, leaving us precious few glimpses of God's beauty through the window of his soul.
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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