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CD115   Distler/David/Baumann: 20th Century German Sacred Music



20th Century German Sacred Music

Rockefeller Chapel Choir
University of Chicago
Randi Von Ellefson, director

  • Notes by Randi Von Ellefson
  • Complete texts and translations
  • 61'06" total playing time

CD115      $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


Max Baumann
Pater Noster
Hugo Distler

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Opus 12, No.1)
O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf (Opus 21, Pt.2, No.3)
Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming (from The Christmas Story)
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Opus 6, Pt.2, No.9)
Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit (Opus 12, No.9)

Johann Nepomuk David

Deutsche Messe (Opus 42)
Victimæ paschali Laudes (Opus 35, No.1)
Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist (unnumbered)
Veni Creator Spiritus (1957, unnumbered)

Listen Listen:

Es ist das Heil uns kommen her by Hugo Distler


The choir, which numbers 37 voices on this recording, does make it a very nice, smooth, and well-focused sound, with admirable vocal technique, even in the most demanding passages of Distler. The first two motets certainly test their accuracy of pitch, and the Chapel Choir response is impeccable. Ellefson...ideally paces each work. He has an instinctive feeling for the music, and enjoys a group of singers who are able to work within the large dynamic required by much of the music.
  --David Denton, Fanfare, July/August 2000

20th Century German Sacred Music

Twentieth-century German church music is an amalgam of traditional melody and musical style merged with new harmonic language that yields fresh musical and textural expression. The roots of this church music tradition go back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Luther loved music, enjoyed playing the lute, and he was also a fine tenor. He asked that a new hymnal be produced for the Evangelical Church in which many well-known chants were transformed into congregational hymns known as chorales. The congregational chorale not only transferred significant musical reponsibility in the liturgy to the congregation, but it also infused the believer with complex theological insights. Ever since Luther's time, German composers of sacred music have drawn on these melodies for musical inspiration and substance. The congregations in the Lutheran Church knew the chorales, clearly associated them with particular seasons in the church year, and often knew many of the stanzas from memory. The more complicated chorale music could now infer a powerful theological message by quoting particular chorale melodies in the body of the motet.

German church musicians became leading composers and were recognized for their genius in sacred as well as secular arenas. They continually adopted secular styles and incorporated current musical trends into their compositions. The strong influence of French, and, particularly, Italian music infused German church music in the 17th and 18th centuries with new energy and musical virtuosity while maintaing a strong bond with the chorale. Mendelssohn brought his genius to bear on 19th-century style. All musicians owe him a debt of gratitude for his rediscovery of Bach's music and for serving as one of the first to carefully examine that music that had been produced in the church during previous eras. Bruckner created choral compostions that reflected his intense religious mysticism and use of rich harmonic language while setting time-honored liturgical texts.

This recording presents choral music by three distinguished twentieth-century composers who are steeped in the German choral tradition described above. Their thorough knowledge of and experience with musical counterpoint and harmonic rules of the 18th and 19th centuries begins to merge and mingle with 20th-century idioms, including jazz.

Johann Nepomuk David (1895-1977) began his musical career in 1905 as a chorister at the Augustinian Monastery of St. Florian, where Bruckner had worked. Medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony flourished at St. Florian enabling the young David to acquaint himself with the greatest composers of counterpoint and with many Gregorian chant melodies.

His motets Victimae paschali laudes, Veni creator spiritus and Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist reveal the genius of David as he works the chant and chorale melodies into the intricate texture of his compositions. Victimae paschali laudes is divided into two sections. The first uses the entire Easter sequence as the cantus firmus. The second is based on the German chorale counterpoint of Victimae paschali, namely, Christ ist erstanden.

Veni creator employs the great chant for Pentecost as its compositional material. The motet begins and ends by recalling its monastic roots through the use of open fourths and fifths. The middle section employs one of David's trademark compositional devices - the layering of voices moving in triplets. The juxtaposition of the triplets and duplets tremendously increases the energy of the motet.

The third motet by David on this recording is Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist, another of the chorales sung for Pentecost. The original chorale stanzas all end with a Kyrie and therefore falls into the category of a "leisen" chorale. David uses the German text Kyrieleis as a device to unify the beginning and ending of the motet. Throughout this piece, David uses the compositional principles of counterpoint, canon, and imitation to their fullest expressive levels.

David bases his monumental Deutsche Messe ("German Mass") on the same chorale melodies as Martin Luther's setting. The music contains some of David's distinctive musical language but expands the harmonic vocablulary that reflects Germany's fascination with jazz. While listening to the Heilig, one wonders if David is writing an homage to Kurt Weill whose music helped to bring the American jazz sound to a receptive German audience. It is interesting that David composed a Mass which is distinctly Evangelical in origin even though he was a devout Roman Catholic. When the Deutsche Messe was given its 1952 premiere in Leipzig, David was Professor of Composition at the Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart. Perhaps this primarily Protestant location of the premiere explains his interest in re-setting Luther's sixteenth-century musical model for the Mass.

Hugo Distler (1908-1942) contributed much to church music in his very brief life. Many of his vocal compositions have become staples in the choral repertoire and are familiar to American audiences. Distler began his formal musical studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1927. He left in 1930 in the midst of uncertain economic conditions and accepted a position at the Jakobi Kirche (St. James Church) in Lübeck. After achieving much notoriety for his choral and organ music as well as his famous Abendmusik (evening music) concerts, he began to suffer increasing pressure from the Nazis to be inducted into their service. In a somewhat desperate attempt to avoid further contact with Hitler's army and to forestall his induction, he accepted a position in 1937 at the Stuttgart Conservatory. After a brief tenure in Stuttgart, Distler made one more and, as it turned out, final professional move to Berlin where he served as Professor at the Conservatory of Music. After receiving yet another letter to serve in the military under the Nazis, Distler took his own life on November 1, 1942 (All Saints' Day).

The choral music on this recording represents several aspects of Distler's compositional style. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied and rwahr, er trug unsere Kranheit are vocally demanding compositions from Opus 12, Geistliche Chormusik. The motets based on familiar chorales, Es ist das heil uns kommen her (Op. 6/ 2, #2) and O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf (Op. 21/2, #3) are not widely known works but are nevertheless musically accessible compositions. The only piece sung in English translation on this recording is the hauntingly beautiful setting of "Lo, how a Rose e'er Blooming" from Opus 10, The Christmas Story.

Singet dem Herrn portrays Distler's love of rhythm and shifting meters in a manner that surpasses many other of his choral pieces. From the opening rhythm melisma on the word singet (sing) to the vocal madrigalesque treatment on the word trompeten (trumpets), one can clearly experience Distler's interest in highlighting certain words for dramatic effect. The sectional nature of the motet demands careful vocal control, thoughtful tempo relationships, and dynamic planning to allow the motet to blossom naturally without leaving the chorus members completely exhausted.

Fürwahr, er trug musically represents the human struggle to understand the sacrifice of Christ. The word fürwahr (truly) is repeated over and over again in all the voice parts as if Distler was wrestling with the concept of God truly taking our sickness (sinfulness) upon himself. The middle section is a fugue on the text "But for our iniquity he was wounded." It is written to be performed as closely to speech rhythm as possible, and the listener will hear the word zerschlagen (battered) set in a powerful, accented manner. The motet ends with a gentle-sounding but musically complex setting of the chorale Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (A little Lamb goes forth and bears the guilt of the world).

Max Baumann (b. 1917) studied with Hugo Distler at the Conservatory of Music in Berlin. He has written much sacred vocal music. His Pater Noster is an arresting setting of the Lord's Prayer that uses controlled thickening textures which begin softly and build to dramatic fortes. A particularly effective section is the quasi-parlando setting of the text Et ne nos inducas in tentationem (and lead us not into temptation). The piece ends with a strong Amen section that wavers between major and minor tonalities. --Randi Von Ellefson