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Distler, conflicted Nazi party member, strove for musical purity

On Saturday, Canto Armonico will perform selections from Hugo Distler’s “Mörike-Chorliederbuch,” a cappella choral settings of texts by the 19th-century poet Eduard Mörike. The work’s 1939 premiere was a high point of Distler’s career. A composer, organist, and conductor, Distler rapidly became a leading figure in German sacred music in the 1930s. But the rise of the Nazis brought eventually intolerable pressures. Distler encountered official opposition to his sacred subject matter. (The secular “Mörike-Chorliederbuch” was composed after Hitler Youth members repeatedly sabotaged Distler’s rehearsals of sacred choral music.) The war separated him from his family. He was threatened with conscription. Finally, in 1942, Distler, 34 years old, pushed his bed into his kitchen, turned on the oven’s gas, lay down, and died.

Distler actually had joined the Nazi Party in 1933, drawn to the Nazis’ strong nationalistic streak. He was already aligned with the Renewal Movement, a campaign to reform Protestant music and liturgy, removing Romantic excess, restoring the directness and clarity of early Lutheran practice. Axel Werner Kühl, the pastor of Lübeck’s St. Jacobikirche, where Distler was organist, was prominent in the movement; Distler’s music for the church epitomized Renewal principles — rhythmically energetic, harmonically sophisticated, but heavily indebted to older composers: Bach and (particularly for Distler) Heinrich Schütz.


However, almost immediately, the Nazis began attempts to infiltrate and appropriate the Lutheran Church. It prompted the 1934 Barmen Declaration of Faith and the advent of the Confessional Church, a group of dissident Lutherans. Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and future martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer were all members. So was Kühl, who, as a result, was removed from his Lübeck position in 1937. Distler moved on to posts in Stuttgart and Berlin, encountering increasing interference all the while.

And yet, despite obvious moral and aesthetic conflicts, Distler never left the Nazi Party, even becoming a regional examiner for the Reichsmusikkammer, tasked with keeping German musical life free of non-Aryan, “degenerate” influences. Perhaps Distler wanted to give like-minded musicians a sympathetic ear in the bureaucracy. Perhaps — like others — he convinced himself that, within the system, he could protect German culture against the vagaries of politics.


In the end, the effort to maintain his religious and nationalistic ideals in the face of the Nazis’ malevolence and corruption was too much. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent condolences to Distler’s widow. “I did not know your husband personally,” he wrote. “But I loved his music very much.”

Matthew Guerrieri

Canto Armonico and guest conductor Debra Lenssen perform music of Hugo Distler, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Byrd Saturday at 8 p.m. at First Lutheran Church in Boston; tickets $15-$30; www.cantoarmonico

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at