Distler, Hugo


Distler, Hugo

Konzertstück (Concert Piece) for piano and orchestra (Piano Reduction for 2 pianos, 2 copies)

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Distler, Hugo

Konzertstück (Concert Piece) for piano and orchestra (Piano Reduction for 2 pianos, 2 copies)


Preface to the full score:

When we listen to a Mozart piano concerto, it is apparent that he employs a comparable underlying musical vocabulary as that used in his masses, violin sonatas, as well as his operas and so forth. Just south of where Hugo Distler (1908-1942) was working on his Konzertstück für Klavier und Orchester in 1937 (without opus number), Anton Webern had completed his own Konzert (Op. 24) just a few years earlier. Similar to Mozart, Webern applies his own musical principles and stylistic premises to this composition and as a result its aesthetic direction does not differ significantly from the cantatas, lieder, or other smaller instrumental works that surround it chronologically. Why is it, then, when we consider Distler, does he approach larger instrumental forces as something so very different in nature than his other work? To be precise, why did he choose to articulate himself in such a significantly different way in the Konzertstück than the works he had gained prominence and appreciation for during his lifetime, namely his choral and organ compositions?

Largely abandoned by his parents and only hesitantly accepted into conservatory training, the Nüremburg-born Distler did not embrace a living composer as his model but rather an entire tradition: the roots of the North German musical heritage. Latching on to the cultural underpinnings that guided the fledgling orgelbewegung (a reform movement that looked back towards the tonal clarity of the late 16th and early 17th centuries over the gigantism of the Romantic ideal) while at the Leipzig Conservatory, Distler began to evolve a remarkable stylistic synthesis between the contrapuntal and formal designs of Scheidt, Schütz and other early Baroque German masters with his own distinct harmonic language that allowed for a broader range of consonance. Although at times chromatic (but to be clear here, this chromaticism was applied in a Baroque fashion, rather than in a Modernist one), his early mature works already displayed a unique manner of addressing a decidedly modal shaded tonal palette. Perhaps even more engaging was his singular development of a rhythmic counterpoint that sought to break down the authority of a common bar line between individual parts, and ultimately unlocked for this young composer an avenue towards metrical freedom not known since the late Renaissance.

An earnestly religious man, Distler found inspiration in the chorales and liturgical sources of the Lutheran tradition during this formative stage in his life. In terms of how he felt music was to function as a part of life was that it had to be both communicative and sophisticated, as well as learned and subtle, but in the end at the service of the community, not unlike the masters he revered. Finding compositional success in his liturgical music for both organ and choir while at his first major post in Lübeck, Distler nonetheless wrestled with ongoing attempts at also being a secular composer of concert music; it is here that the often contradictory nature of his output is on display particularly in the three concerto-type pieces that were composed between 1930 and 1937.

As opposed to the Konzertstück, both the Kammerkonzert für Cembalo und elf Soloinstrumente (which was laboriously written over the course three years and never put into a final form, 1930-32) and the Konzert für Cembalo und Streichorchester (Op. 14, 1935-36) are multi-movement compositions. Immediately one is struck upon first listening that although there exist rhythmic ideas and fragments of melodic cells that are shared with his religious works (although both less intricately developed with the same level of refinement as in his church music) the aesthetic objective of these pieces are decidedly different. The degree of dissonance allowed into this concert literature, the less modally-aligned tonal foundation, the rate and disjunct types of modulations, and the simply longer duration of individual movements makes it appear that Distler is making a conscious effort to contrast the genres that he is cultivating while preserving idiosyncratic traits within these pieces that would still clearly identify them as ‘Distler-ian’.

This dichotomy between Distler’s sacred and secular output stems back to his first published works, such as the Sonate für zwei Klaviere (Op. 1), but with a less forthright blending of ideas from his contemporary sacred compositions. It is a compelling notion that he specifically endeavored to cultivate a stylistic distinction between what he would compose for the church and what he would create for outside the church. With the exception of the final variations movement (based on Scheidt’s “Ei du feiner Reiter”) of the Konzert für Cembalo, which is the closest he comes to matching the style of his liturgical music (two variations sound as if they come right out of his Partita: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Op.8 no.1 from 1932), he continues this division through his final completed ensemble instrumental work from 1939, his Streichquartett (Op. 20, no.1).

The paradoxical issues Distler seems to have struggled with come to the fore in his Konzertstück, and they are equally apparent in his own words. Distler often gave notes regarding his intentions of the performance of his keyboard works, going so far in the Dreissig Spielstücke für die Kleinorgel (Op.18 no.1) from 1938 as to the philosophical background as to their reason for being composed at all. But in the performance directions of the Konzertstück we find both ideas of adding Baroque ornamentation to the soloist’s part while implying an almost Romantic sense of expressive freedom and ample application of a resonant pedal.

The title, Konzertstück, is an interesting choice, and one he made only twice in his foreshortened career. This composition was arranged for two pianos and there exists also a two piano version of his string quartet that he re-titled Konzertstück (Op. 20, no.2) in 1940. But the present concerto remains the largest, ‘single movement’ (albeit with interconnected-sections) composition he ever wrote and was an ambitious project indeed. Departing from his earlier attempts at concerto-forms, Distler falls back into the 19th century Germanic tradition of the multi-sectioned one-movement piece while attempting to retain his own standards for music that had a sense of the organic: a seamless whole, a unified structure. Distler allows for a more capricious flow between tempi and textures as the thematic ideas develop with the interpolation of brilliant cadenza-like sections as one would observe in the Romantic works with this title. However, following this less-formalistic approach he concludes the composition with a strict fugue which functions both as the composition’s climax and coda. Nonetheless, the overall handling of tonality harkens back more to his Op. 1 Sonate than the Elf kleine Klavierstücke für die Jugend (Op.15b) which was completed just a year prior to the Konzertstück.

A growing confidence in the handling of the orchestra is something that can also be observed in the Konzertstück, something that was lacking in the Kammerkonzert (which took on a somewhat less polished ripieno approach to the ensemble) and the Konzert für Cembalo which circumvents the issue for the most part by unifying the timbre of the orchestra. One concept that remains observable again is the use of fragments and motives that are more akin to his organ pieces that almost seem to steal into this work, as if Distler could not help but put the stamp of the organist into his piano and orchestra music. The transition to the first Allegro is reminiscent of the introduction to the second movement of his Trio Sonata (Op. 18, no.2) from 1938 and much of the piano figuration can be discernible in both the Trio as well as its contemporary Dreissig Spielstücke. But absent is the placid pentatonic modality of the organ and instead the listener is faced with a more aggressive, even astringent, side of Distler. For an understanding of this other side of his personality, we must again turn to the realities of his life.

Perhaps the reason the Konzertstück has become a work lost between the cracks in Distler’s output is because it was written during a troubled transition in his life, one which would ultimately lead to his decision to end it just five years later. 1937 not only saw the composition of this most expressively challenging work but also his move to Stuttgart to a new post due to constant artistic and spiritual pressure under the Nazi regime. His arrival however gave him no respite as he still had to contend with opposition by both colleagues and the government, nearly being labeled ‘entartete’; he was to never return to a work as harmonically adventuresome as the Konzertstück. Although he would go on to write the towering Mörike-Chorliederbuch, his greatest success in the realm of secular music during his lifetime, its aesthetic framework is much more in line with the sacred pieces that did not bring his Art into as much question by the authorities (as they were) and simultaneously excised the religious question (which equally antagonized the Nazi institution). It is indeed a question as to what direction he would have taken should he have had felt at liberty to pursue the course that the Konzertstück pointed. He seems to have been embracing not only the musical past but its present, bringing together into one cohesive musical vocabulary the two divergent styles he had been cultivating since his earliest compositions and creating a link in time so he could touch on all of the German culture he so loved at once. However, in the end perhaps he felt Germany itself had abandoned him.

Justin Rubin, 2013

Deutsches Vorwort zur Partitur lesen > HERE

Score Data


Repertoire Explorer


Keyboard & Orchestra


225 x 320 mm


Piano Reduction & Solo Piano, 2 copies



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