Into the future with Distler by Stephen Taylor

by Stephen Taylor | Het ORGEL | Year 97 | (2001) | Issue 6
Stephen Taylor Into the future with Distler
Het ORGEL 97 (2001), nr. 6, 5-11 [summary]

Despite the doubtful state of organ building in the Interbellum, the 1930s was perhapsthe most significant period of organ composition in the 20th century, with major workswritten by such composers as Hindemith, Distler, Alain and Messiaen.

Although Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had caused such a sensation in1913, his words on tradition and renewal are worthy of consideration: ‘A realtradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force thatanimates and informs the present. (…) Far from implying the repetition of what has been,tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. (…) Tradition ensures the continuityof creation. (…) A renewal is fruitful only when it goes hand in hand with tradition

Among the many artistic movements of the early 20th century, neo-classicism ushered ina re-examination of the technique and structure of Baroque music. A comparable developmentin organ building (The Organ Reform of Rupp and Schweitzer, and later the OrganMovement), heralded a new period of organ composition: Hugo Distler (1908-1942) wasconvinced that a new and vigorous way forward could only be found through the study ofearly organs and the music written for them, as he elucidated in the prefaces to his twoorgan partitas in 1933 and 1935.

Much of the organ music of Distler and his school (including Pepping, Micheelsen andReda), anchored in the Lutheran chorale tradition, has unfortunately already becomeneglected and replaced by an often rather anaemic sort of ‘modern’ church music.In more traditional Dutch Calvinist circles there is even a thriving market in badimitations of Baroque organ pieces which do not bear comparison with even third-ratecomposers of the period.

The article takes a closer look at several works by Distler, Pepping and Micheelsen inthe hope that the reader will take up the gauntlet.