The revival of Protestant church music after the First World War marked the renewal of pieces available for direct use in services and represented a search for a new scale of values. Admired in church music circles but persecuted by the Nazis for his 'degenerate' music, Hugo Distler was one of its foremost cultivators, imbuing his choral music with pre-Classical forms to create a distinctive style that would be accessible to the 'common' man.
The tender Weihnachtsgeschichte Op.10, composed in 1933, is one of Distler's many works adhering this criteria and which narrates the traditional Christmas story according to the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew. Right from the start, in the first of two motets which frame the piece, the composer conjures up complex modal harmonies that evoke ancient, dark images, and throughout the composition (written for four soloists and four-part a cappella chorus) he recalls the musical language of the great Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, drawing on his use of word-painting and imitative counterpoint but all the time embellishing the work with new techniques such as syncopated rhythm and harmonic dissonance. The free recitative style of the soloists is particularly affecting – here the note heads without heads encourage the use of natural speech rhythms, reflecting once again the influence of Schütz through his frequent close matching of music to intonation.
Distler's life came to a tragic end when, in the face of ever increasing persecution in Berlin and the constant threat of recruitment into the military service, he committed suicide in 1942. Multiple repeated phrases in Weihnachtsgeschichte such as 'Zu Bethlehem im jüdischen Lande' (‘To Bethlehem in the Jewish countries’) are testament to the composer's resolve to stand true to his faith, despite the persecution that it ultimately aroused. This recording, featuring a stellar solo cast ably supported by the Thomanerchor Leipzig – one of the most respected choirs in the Europe – can only increase our appreciation for a composer whose work represents an important chapter in sacred music history.
- Hugo Distler was one of the most important composers of choral music in the first half of the 20th century. A Protestant, he mainly used his native language German. His music reaches back to the great German polyphonists like Schütz, imbuing it with polymodal and polyrythmical elements, creating a unique, introverted, ascetic but deeply felt language, which touches the heart. His personal troubles and the repression of his music by the Nazis who though it ‘degenerate’, led to his suicide in 1942, a tragic end of a highly talented composer and human being.
- Excellent performance by the world famous Thomanerchor Leipzig and superb German soloists.
- Booklet contains German and English notes on the music.
- Sung texts available on www.brilliantclassics.com.