Friday, 15 June 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: An Appreciation

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
by James Hall

Once referred to as "(t)he most influential singer of the twentieth century" (1), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was, and will remain, one of the all-time greats of classical singing.

He was famous for his versatility, singing music which ranged across centuries of repertoire of different styles. One only need read a single sentence written by respected musicologist Alan Blyth to comprehend his impact on the classical music world:
“No singer in our time, or probably any other, has managed the range and versatility of repertory achieved by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Opera, Lieder and oratorio, in German, Italian or English, came alike to him, yet he brought to each a precision and individuality that bespoke his perceptive insights into the idiom at hand.”
At ease singing in so many languages, he also recorded in French, Russian, Hebrew and even Hungarian throughout his illustrious career, which saw him ranked second in the Classic CD “Top Singers of the Century” Critics’ Poll in 1999 (beating the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Cecilia Bartoli).
But even more than his frankly astonishing dynamism, he will forever be remembered for his remarkable work in the field of Lieder (German song), particularly with the works of Schubert, often regarded as the king of Lieder writing.
Probably the most famous of all Lieder is Schubert’s cycle Winterreise, which always held a special place in Fischer-Dieskau’s heart, and his recordings still, 50 years after they were first released, meet with widespread critical acclaim. Here is Fischer-Dieskau singing the first movement from Winterreise, recorded in 1966:

as a boy, with his mother
The son of two teachers, he was born Dietrich Fischer in May 1925; his father added the Dieskau shortly after his ninth birthday. The name came from the maternal side of his father’s family, and can be traced back to Kammerherr von Dieskau, for whom J.S. Bach wrote the piece popularly known as The Peasant’s Cantata. Little was he to know how much music would become his son’s life, and indeed how much his son would become so respected in the classical music world.
Although he played several instruments in his youth, there is no record of his being particularly impressive at any of them. Indeed, he didn’t start having singing lessons until he had turned 16.
Two short years later, in 1943, he began his studies at what was then the Berlin Conservatory. However, he had barely completed his first term before he was drafted into the German Wehrmacht as a horse-tender. At the end of the Second World War, he was captured in Italy by the Americans and spent two years in a PoW camp in the United States. Whilst there, he would sing Lieder to his homesick German colleagues.
After his release, he returned to Germany to find his family home destroyed, and relocated to the southwest town of Badenweiler, forgoing any further musical education and instead focussing on building a career.
Dieskau in the title role of Guiseppe Verdi's
opera Falstaff, 1966
In 1947, his career was given a bit of a boost when, with absolutely no rehearsal, he stood in for a singer who had been taken ill for a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. Later on in the same year, his career as a recitalist began in Leipzig. The brevity of his formal training had no detrimental effect on his career, as his recitals became increasingly well attended. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, “I passed my final exam in the concert hall", and there is no doubt that he felt his success was more valuable to him than any amount of study would have been.
An invite to the Berlin Municipal Opera’s next season followed, and by 1949, the same year that he married his first wife (the ‘cellist Irmgard Poppen, who died in 1963), he was touring most of Western Europe.
He stayed with the same Berlin-based opera company for three decades until he retired from the genre in 1978, making appearances in Vienna’s famed opera houses, the Royal Albert Hall and in front of the ever-growing crowds of New York before he had even turned 30. Here, in Act II of Richard Strauss' Arabella, Dieskau duets with Hungarian soprano Julia Varady, who later became his wife:

It was not Fischer-Dieskau’s vocal power that wowed audiences: quite the opposite in fact. His nuance, subtlety and delicate touch were unique, and that is what made his Lieder interpretations so memorable, emphatic and utterly incredible. He hit a peak when, on 2 May 1955, he performed the entirety of Wintereisse at The Town Hall, New York without an interval.
It would be impractical to list all of his achievements in one article, save to say that his recording projects encompassed music by Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Debussy, Fauré, Gluck, Haydn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Puccini, Schubert, Shostakovich, both Strausses, Verdi, Wagner, Weber, Wolf and Zemlinsky (to name but a few). He is undeniably the most recorded singer in history.
Fischer-Dieskau’s love for all things musical was always evident in his work and outside it. Even after his retirement from performing in the early 1990s, he still resolved to spend his time engaged in musical activities, as well as his other hobbies of painting and writing books. He conducted a special live recording of Brahms’ Symphony number 4 on his 85th birthday and led master classes well into his seventies, such as this one:

Dieskau in his seventies

Fischer-Dieskau, however, did not like growing old. In an interview for his 80th birthday, he said “It is not good to be 80. I did not like being 70, and I like being 80 even less. It is the start of the final episode. I wish I could ignore it.”
This unhappiness was further intensified by his fading into the background, to be replaced by newer, more fashionable classical musicians and the modern-day celebrities of the classical music scene. As “popular classical” music has come to the fore, we have seen crossover artists (also known as “popera” singers), including the likes of  Katherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church, selling albums in their millions whilst classical music sales are dwindling.
Fischer-Dieskau lamented this change, particularly the drift of focus away from the singing technique: “The next generation is not so interested in the artists of the past […] much is being lost about the good ways of making music.” And he was one of the greatest vocal technicians of any era – it has been written of him: “Overall, his technique was breathtaking; someone should build a monument to it.”[2]
Fischer-Dieskau died on 18 May 2012 at his home in Bavaria, and is buried at the Waldfriedhof Heerstraße cemetery in Berlin. Upon hearing of his death, English tenor Ian Bostridge said simply “He was a titanic figure”. It is a great sadness that his name has faded into obscurity, for to me he will always be (and I’m borrowing Ted Libbey’s accolade here) one of the supreme vocal artists of the 20th century.

There is little else to be said so I leave it to John Amis of The Scotsman, whose words close this article it far better than mine ever could:
Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some, musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it. It is difficult therefore to write a long notice about Fischer-Dieskau. Having used a few superlatives and described the programme, there is nothing else to do but write 'finis', go home, and thank one's stars for having had the luck to be present.”

But, as is only right, I leave the last word to the great man himself. Here he is singing the haunting 24th and final movement of Winterreise --- Die Leiermann. It is a performance of genius. If you are going to listen to one piece of classical singing this month, make it this one. Its beauty is indisputable.

[1] Martin Kettle, the Guardian
[2] Greg Sandow, Opera News

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