Today, the brief moment of a musical genius. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
As I listened to a piece by
German composer Hugo Distler yesterday, it struck
me how remarkable his music was. Distler wrote
primarily for chorus and organ, and, if you know
his work, you're aware of an utterly distinctive
was born in Nuremberg in 1908. His high-school
years were those of the Weimar Republic and the
intense flowering of high German culture that
followed WW-I. He studied music at Leipzig
Conservatory. The sound of hobnail boots was being
heard in the streets of Bavaria, but the sound
still seemed far away.
Just a few years later, Hitler came to power, and
the great minds of that period began scattering out
of Germany -- people like Albert Einstein, Theodore
von Kármán, Paul Tillich, and Bruno
Walter. Goebbels named composer Paul Hindemith a
cultural Bolshevist and a spiritual non-Aryan in
1934. Hindemith wound up at Yale, Einstein at
Princeton, and von Kármán at Cal
But Distler was only 25 when Hitler took over --
the newest musical talent of his age. He'd just
been made head of the chamber music department at
Lübeck Conservatory, and he was still too
young to be a target. Yet he was driven by
spiritual imperatives that cast a whole new light
on traditional church music.
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.
But it was a sound heard in the wrong place at the
wrong time. A trip I took in 1978 reminds me of
what Distler faced. A Polish colleague, driving me
down the valley from Silesia to Krakow, stopped to
show me Auschwitz. What a chamber of horrors! A
sign on one wall explained how the exterminations
were scheduled. Jews were allowed to starve for
months as they waited their turn in the gas
chambers. But clergy were rushed to the head of the
line. They were considered too dangerous to keep
Suppressing the established German church was dicey
business for the Nazis. But suppress it they would.
Distler represented religious intensity the Nazis
couldn't tolerate. They told him he was
trouble and his music was degenerate. He
would be taken from his church post and shipped off
to the Wehrmacht! Conscientious objection was
treason punishable by death, and Distler could
never support the war. So, disillusioned and
depressed, he put his head in his own gas oven and
ended his life at the age of 34.
He lived not even as long as Mozart, and he worked
in a far more hostile climate. His brilliance was a
side road that never properly joined the mainstream
of twentieth-century musical evolution. Music would
not sound the same today if it had. I'll never
forget my sense of pure surprise the first time I
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Neumann, K. L., Distler, Hugo. The New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Stanley Sadie,
ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980,
Vol. 5, pp. 497-499.
Gay, P., Weimar Culture: The Outsider as
Insider. New York: Harper Torchbooks,
Palmer, L., Hugo Distler and His Church
Music. St. Louis: Conordia Pub. House, 1967.
More information is available if you search the Web
for Hugo Distler, although most of it is in German.
I am grateful to a number of UH colleagues for
their help: David Ashley White, Music Department;
Edward Lukasek, Library; and Sara Fishman, History
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.