By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
It could not have been otherwise. In keeping with his unmistakable style, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died on May 18, on the same day as his championed Gustav Mahler. In May, as in Schumann Dichterliebe’s In the Marvelous Month of May, the song with which that baritone opened up an undreamed-of universe with a simplicity and magnificence as welcoming as it was dazzling.
It was thanks to his soothing, honeyed voice of rare beauty, his clearest pronunciation and a new approach that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the most significant singer of the century, according to Leonard Bernstein – opened a path for entire generations as an enthusiastic bearer of the torch of the Lied, not allowing that flame to go out after the horrors of World War II.
Fischer-Dieskau was the builder of the pivotal bridge between the old and the new guard. It was he who rescued the essential beauty of a world that had crumbled before his eyes. Still a teenager, the handsome Berliner debuted in the middle of the war with Winter Journey, Schubert’s essential cycle. His father was scholar Albert Fischer and his mother a von Dieskau descended from the family for whom J.S.Bach wrote the Peasant Cantata. His disabled brother was institutionalized and left starved to death by the Nazis, and he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, and spent two years in Italy as a prisoner of war, all before coming back to Berlin to become the musical symbol of Germany’s rebirth.
Fischer-Dieskau was the link between his idolized Hans Hotter and Wilhelm Furtwängler (his last book, Jupiter and I, was about his encounters with the legendary conductor) and his beloved Sviatoslav Richter and Leonard Bernstein. His influence extends into the present in the mark he left on Thomas Hampson, Christian Gerhaher, Bryn Terfel, Thomas Quasthoff, Matthias Görne, Dietrich Henschel, Andreas Schmidt and many more.
Thanks to his ministry of song, the poems of Goethe, Rückert, Heine and Schiller shone once more in the music of Schumann, Beethoven, Wolf, Brahms, Loewe, Mahler, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Hindemith and others. From Shostakovich to Hahn, from Barber to Reinmann, he did not leave one corner unexplored. He was the most recorded artist in the history of discography, his fans calling it “Diskaugraphy.” His recording of the complete songs by Schubert – around 600 – with British pianist Gerald Moore provides an idea of his immense legacy, which encompasses multiple genres and styles and over 3,000 songs.
His achievements are so many and so well known that it is unnecessary to enumerate them – or his impressive list of colleagues that includes Horowitz, Menuhin, Barenboim and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who called him “a born god who has it all.” Among his notable traiss were encyclopedic knowledge, monumental intellect, superb musicality, powerful intelligence and ardent pacifism, which found expression in the famous War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, which brought victors and vanquished together at Coventry Cathedral in 1962 in a most mournful and hopeful “never again.”
We are left with the gratitude of all: fans, music lovers and colleagues like American baritone Thomas Hampson, who said that listening to Fischer-Dieskau singing “changed my life.” I have an unforgettable memory of a recital of Schubert songs based on Goethe poems that Fischer-Dieskau performed in a Berlin still divided by the infamous wall, in a hall packed with a mesmerized young audience that sat in sepulchral silence devotedly absorbing every inflection and color of the still magnificent voice of the maestro, then 63. When he sang “Atlas,” he was indeed carrying the whole world of song on his shoulders.
As he stands exactly between song and opera, the Tannhäuser’s Evening Star Song, a consummate example of both genres together will be forever linked to him. From Mozart’s Papageno and Don Giovanni; to Wagner’s Wolfram, Telramund, and Gunther; to Rigoletto, Scarpia, Iago and Macbeth; and to spine-tingling Wozzeck, Mathis der Maler, King Lear, Doktor Faust; and the solitary, universal character who said farewell in Das Lied von der Erde, a piece as emblematic of him today as his other defining Mahler, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Bach’s Ich habe genug, Beethoven’s To the distant beloved and, above all, Winterreise ‘s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” which asks, “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?“.
For half a century he was a tireless singer, conductor, narrator, actor, teacher, writer, painter and essayist – all in all, a maestro. A titan, hero and 20th century role model, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died ten days short of his 87th birthday, in the company of his fourth wife, the great soprano Julia Várady, at his home on Lake Starnberg, in Bavaria. He is survived by his three sons: conductor Martin, music director Mathias and cellist Manuel, born of his first marriage to cellist Irmgard Poppen, who died after childbirth labor in 1963.
Fischer-Dieskau – or Fidi, as his fans nicknamed him – was a true “Mensch,” a peaceful phoenix who helped build a better world. He made, bestowed and bequeathed beauty. He was a patriarch with the face of a wise cat. Witty and lovable, he coined phrases like “A singer has only two positions. He’s either lying down, sleeping, or standing up, singing” and “We singers die two deaths: the death of the voice, then the death of the body.”
And it’s not a sign of disrespect, but the highest compliment, to say that if Frank Sinatra was “the Voice” of popular song, Fischer-Dieskau was – and will be – “the Voice” of art song. His immense and inimitable Liederkreis (song cycle) has closed. This Atlas of song rests in peace.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s selected recordings:
- Bach – Cantatas – Karl Richter, d.
- Berg - Wozzeck - Karl Böhm, d.
- Brahms & Beethoven Lieder – Jorg Demus, p.
- Brahms - Deutsche Volkslieder - Schwarzkopf, Moore
- Brahms - Die schöne Magelone - S. Richter
- Britten – War Requiem – Benjamin Britten, d.
- Mahler – Lieder – Karl Böhm/Rafael Kubelik, d.
- Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde – Leonard Bernstein, d.
- Mahler - Des Knaben Wunderhorn - Schwarzkopf, Szell,d.
- Mendelssohn & Loewe – Lieder – Moore, Sawallisch, p.
- Schumann – Liederkreis, Dichterliebe, etc – Christoph Eschenbach, p.
- Schubert –Winterreise, Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang– Moore
- Schubert – Goethe Lieder – Jorg Demus, p.
- Strauss, R. – Lieder – Wolfgang Sawallisch, p.
- Verdi – Rigoletto – Rafael Kubelik, d.
- Wolf – Mörike Lieder – Sviatoslav Richter, p.
- Wolf – Italianisches & Spanisches Liederbuch – Gerald Moore, p.
- Lieder (Berlioz, Cornelius, Krenek, Reger, Dessau, etc) – A. Reinmann, p.
- An die Musik (de Mozart a Wagner, etc) – Miscelaneous