Born in Nuremberg, Hugo Distler (1908-1942) attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied piano, conducting, composition, and organ. He served as an organist in Lübeck, and was professor of church music in Stuttgart. A profoundly religious man, Distler found himself caught in the crossfire during the escalation of World War II; he was only 25 when Hitler came to power.
Driven by devotion that was far too progressive for the German traditionalism of his day, Distler composed, quite simply, the wrong music at the wrong time. Distler's music, replete with spiritual fervor that was not tolerated by the Nazis, was eventually labeled as "degenerate art." As a conscientious objector who was under the constant threat of conscription into the German army, Distler grew increasingly disillusioned and depressed.
In November of 1942, the pressure became too much for the composer to bear. While his wife and children were out for a walk, Hugo Distler put his head in a gas oven, committing suicide at age 34. Distler's tragic life ended with an ironic footnote: on the following day, the letter arrived that would have exempted him from military service.
Although he composed in a hostile climate, Hugo Distler was a prolific and pioneering choral and organ composer. Primarily known for his vocal works, his style is more or less defined by the Singbewegung ‘singing movement’, a movement that advocated a return to historical styles. For Distler, this meant a focus on pre-Bach vocal music, and in particular that of Heinrich Schütz. The very title of his Geistliche Chormusik op. 12 is a direct allusion to Schütz’s Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648 – the most significant collection of motets before those of J.S. Bach.
Today’s motet, Wachet auf, comes from this collection. Similar to the opening chorus of Bach BWV 140 –Wachet auf, Distler essentially composes a choral fantasia on the familiar hymn tune by Philip Nicolai. The chorale tune is at times obvious and straightforward, as in the first entrance by the basses, while at times disguised by inversion, rhythmic variation and hidden entrances. Amidst this complexity, syncopated iterations of the text alertly dance around the theme.
© Ryan Turner; introduction adapted from Eric Banks