Distler’s Kleine Adventsmusik

Feast of St Ambrose
2017.12.07 · 12.00
St David’s Episcopal Church


It’s a pleasure to be leading the St David’s Singers and instrumentalists in Distler’s Kleine Adventsmusik – all the more so on the Feast of St Ambrose, author of the hymn (‘Veni redemptor gentium’) upon which much of the work is based. Distler was very fond of this hymn, later basing his best-known organ work, the Partita on ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, upon it, and borrowing at least one motivic idea from this 1931 work in the organ variations. Distler’s music is often interesting, intricate, magical even, also perhaps a bit intellectual, and cool in more than one sense of the word – but parts of this work remind us that sheer beauty was also part of the composer’s genius.

Program notes

The composer, choral conductor, organist, and teacher Hugo Distler (1908–1942) was one of the most original and important voices in twentieth-century German church and choral music. Like many composers of his day who were reacting against the thick textures and massive scale of late- and post-Romantic music, Distler derived many aspects of texture, counterpoint, and even the genres in which he wrote from late Renaissance and early Baroque models, while some aspects of his rhythm, figuration, and melodic materials are reminiscent of medieval and certain vernacular musics.

Though some of his music is quite complex, Distler also had an interest in writing music of more modest demands with built-in flexibility, some of it for domestic use and some for church services or sacred concerts. His Kleine Adventsmusik (Little Advent Music), composed in 1931 when he was fresh out of the Leipzig Conservatory, falls into this latter category, having been written for a small choir with several options for instrumentation, and intended for an Advent concert series in the church in the North German city of Lübeck where he was serving as organist.

The work is based on the hymn ‘Savior of the nations, come’, one of the oldest Western Christian hymns of all (today it is usually considered an Advent hymn, but in medieval books it was usually assigned, perhaps more appropriately, to Christmas Eve). The original text, ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, is fairly securely attributed to St Ambrose,* Bishop of Milan at the end of the fourth century, and it was one of the first hymns that Luther translated (‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, 1523 [54]; this was not the only vernacular translation). The chant melody now associated with the Latin text [55] is first attested in a German manuscript from around 1120 and inspired not only Luther’s adaptation for his German version of this text, but also some other hymn-tunes such as ‘Erhalt uns, Herr’ [132]. Countless choral and organ arrangements have been made of it, including Distler’s largest organ work, a partita on the hymn.

In both that and the present work Distler built the overall structure of the piece, as well as the structures of some individual movements, around the fact that the first and last phrases of the hymn-tune are the same. Thus the Kleine Adventsmusik is bookended by an instrumental sonata, and the first and last sung verses furthermore share a musical setting. The second and sixth verses, though not the same, have similarly meditative and mysterious moods, while the third and fifth are similarly lively. The fourth verse, at the center of the work, is itself rounded in form, with an instrumental piece framing the choral section.

Distler’s setting uses the first, fourth, seventh, and last of Luther’s eight stanzas along with texts from other sources. The editor of the English-language edition, however, has made some replacements, muddying the relationship between the narration and the sung text:

¶   Distler’s Verse II has been replaced with a translation of Luther’s sixth stanza. A rough paraphrase of the text Distler set as Verse II clarifies the sequence of thought following the narration concerning the Forerunner, John the Baptizer:

     What the host of seers of old
had in prophecy foretold,
wished and longed for all their days,
is fulfilled with glorious blaze.

¶   Distler’s Verse V (Luther’s fourth stanza) has been replaced with a translation of Luther’s fifth. The text Distler set, translated below, not only flows better from the narration of the Magnificat but also contains a most important image:

     Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

The whole stanza (as well as the next, ‘Forth from the Father...’) is based upon a Christological interpretation of Ps 19.5–6:

     In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again...

The sun is Christ; the Hebrew word translated ‘chamber’ is chuppah, which is still familiar as the word for the canopy at a wedding, but which also means ‘chamber, [inner] room’, and indeed ‘nuptial chamber’. The Greek and Latin thalamus which translates this word, and which is found in similar passages in Ambrose’s text as well as the originals of several other hymns and antiphons for Advent, Christmas, Candlemas, and the Dedication of a Church, means these things and indeed any intimate and enclosed space, such as ‘ark’, ‘shrine, temple’, ‘cell’, ‘womb’, and ‘tomb’. Thus the Church’s traditional imagery, iconography, and architecture teach us to see many things – including the womb of the Blessed Virgin and the tomb in which Our Lord was laid to rest (from both of which He ‘burst forth’); the Church (often called an ark) and the hearts (which have chambers and lie in chests) of her members, which St Paul says are the very temple or shrine of God; the church building in which is found a font (often called both tomb and womb) and a shrine or tabernacle containing the sacramental Presence of Christ (traditionally set under a canopy exactly like a chuppah) – as thalami where Christ is present, from which He proceeds or to which He returns. All these, then, are gateways to, or outposts of, that perfect enclosure, Paradise (which means ‘a [royal] enclosed park or garden’), the place of intimate union with the divine. This is what we celebrate and look for in this Advent season, indeed until the wedding of Christ the King to His Bride, the Church, is completed at His final Advent.

*   Aurelius Ambrosius, born at Trier, was the son of the praetorian prefect of Gaul and received an education in literature, law, and rhetoric at Rome. In the early 370s he himself was consular prefect in northern Italy, where he became involved in the episcopal election at Milan, which was contested between Arians and orthodox Christians. His efforts to quell a riot led to a call to become the bishop of that diocese – which at first he refused, not least because, although he had been brought up in a Christian household, he had never been baptized. His efforts to flee and hide failed, and so on 7 December (now kept as his feast day) 373 he was baptized and within a week ordained presbyter and then bishop.

Taking up his see and the study of theology, Ambrose adopted a simple lifestyle, donating his money and land to the poor. As bishop of Italy’s second city, he continued to be involved in political-theological battles in Church and state throughout his life. His renowned preaching helped convert, among others, St Augustine of Hippo, and thus had a profound impact. Even more powerful, though, were the hymns which Augustine described lovingly in his Confessions. Ambrose was in fact one of the first to introduce hymnody as we know it, using it to combat the songs which the Arians used to popularize their views and to rally his flock when they were under persecution. St Benedict later adopted Ambrose’s type of hymnody – four-line strophes of iambic tetrameter – as a part of the Daily Office (Liturgy of the Hours), and thus it spread throughout the Western Church.