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Hugo Distler, Chorale Variations on "Lo, How a Rose," op. 10

a light shining in the darkness

Despite a tragically foreshortened career, Hugo Distler (1908-1942) ranks among the leading figures of German sacred music in the first half of the last century. An illegitimate child raised by grandparents, the intensely devout Distler came of age in the free-wheeling interwar years of the Weimar Republic. Many commentators have depicted Distler as a victim hounded by disapproving officials of the Third Reich, though he was entrusted with and accepted prominent positions even as his private revulsion grew. Eventually Distler responded to the pressures of his situation by taking his life at the age of 34.  “It appears,” writes Nick Strimple in his survey of 20th-century choral music, “that he saw the futility of attempting to serve both God and Nazis, and came to terms with his own conscience unequivocally.”

Distler rejected the luxuriant subjectivity and lavish rhetoric of late Romanticism, championing in its place a revival of choral music inspired aesthetically by Renaissance and early Baroque masters and theologically by Reformation ideals. In a way, Distler’s choral and organ works take the populist notion of Gebrauchsmusik that emerged in the 1920s — music meant to be part of life rather than art for art’s sake — and adapt it to the spiritual realm. Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story, op. 10), composed in 1933 during his tenure as organist at the Church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck, marries his revival of earlier forms with music intended for worship, though the clarity of its sound world belies the technical challenges the score poses for the singers. – from program notes by Thomas May