Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)



Document Type



Hugo Distler (1908-1942) has been described as the most important composer of Protestant Church music in Germany in the early twentieth century—a remarkable epithet given that he was a professional church musician and composer for only about twelve years before his life was abruptly ended with his suicide in 1942. Though he is more well-known in Germany, in the United States public perception of Distler is often limited to two basic “facts:” (1) he is a neo-Baroque composer whose works emulate Heinrich Schütz, and (2) his suicide was an act of resistance against the hated National Socialist regime. This study follows the premise that this may not be an accurate distillation of Hugo Distler’s life and musical style, and Totentanz, opus 12 no. 2 is the primary lens through which this postulation is examined. English-language scholarship on Distler is relatively scant, so German sources are consulted and translations are provided for relevant excerpts, some of which are made available for the first time in English. In addition, a thorough examination of musical, cultural, political, and religious movements during Distler’s life is undertaken in order to fully contextualize Totentanz and allow for informed speculation in some cases. Evidence to support these speculations is presented in the form of letters, articles, testimonies, and perhaps most importantly, musical examples. Historian Frederic Spotts has said, “Half the world believes what the other half invents.” This study attempts to neither invent nor blindly accept the inventions of others, but rather to re-examine the life and music of a complicated but eminently gifted composer who deserves to be more clearly understood.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Dickson, John

Included in

Music Commons