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 perhaps the most significant period of organ composition in the 20th century, with major works written by such composers as Hindemith, Distler, Alain and Messiaen.

Although Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had caused such a sensation in 1913, his words on tradition and renewal are worthy of consideration: ‘A real tradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present. (...) Far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. (...) Tradition ensures the continuity of 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 in a re-examination of the technique and structure of Baroque music. A comparable development in organ building (The Organ Reform of Rupp and Schweitzer, and later the Organ Movement), heralded a new period of organ composition: Hugo Distler (1908-1942) was convinced that a new and vigorous way forward could only be found through the study of early organs and the music written for them, as he elucidated in the prefaces to his two organ partitas in 1933 and 1935.

Much of the organ music of Distler and his school (including Pepping, Micheelsen and Reda), anchored in the Lutheran chorale tradition, has unfortunately already become neglected 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 bad imitations of Baroque organ pieces which do not bear comparison with even third-rate composers of the period.

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