“I am unable to imagine my own death,” wrote Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, “since from the beginning I adjusted to the idea of a dubious reincarnation.”
In his memoirs, the legendary baritone confessed to the youthful fantasy, no doubt shared by many artists, of living on through his recordings, picturing his voice embodied in the discs as they fluttered out into the world like swallows “coming to roost” in the collections of music lovers around the world.
He was not so far off the mark. This past week many collectors reached for their own prized swallows to commemorate one of the century’s most extraordinary singers. Fischer-Dieskau died at his home in Bavaria on May 18 at 86, and the tributes have been pouring in. Tenor Ian Bostridge called him “a titanic figure and a mirror of his age.” Baritone Thomas Hampson tweeted that “a hero has passed.” Conductor Daniel Barenboim likened him to cellist Pablo Casals, as a performer who had a revolutionary impact on the field, in this case by showing that a singer does not have to choose between the opera stage and the recital hall.
Indeed, Fischer-Dieskau possessed an astounding musical range, and his career, spanning over four decades, included much-heralded performances in operas by Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Berg, and Henze as well as oratorios and concert works from Bach to Britten. But the summit of his achievement came in the genre of art songs: those small canvases that, as he showed, can so often contain multitudes, or speak with an unmatched intimacy. He seemed to perform art songs in every conceivable language, but his artistry was deepest in his own native German, in the lieder of composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, and Strauss.
Personally, I was too young to hear him perform live, but, like so many others listeners, I discovered that core art song repertoire through his early recordings, partnered by Gerald Moore on piano. Surely also like so many others, the first disc I turned to upon hearing news of his passing was Fischer-Dieskau’s “Winterreise” from 1963. Here one finds this singer’s art — and Schubert’s — laid bare: the tone at once burnished and sweet, the remarkable control of nuance and shading, the distillation of meaning to its essence, and most globally, the ability to align and charge the myriad elements of a song in a way that creates its own magnetic field.
The intellect behind Fischer-Dieskau’s artistry is unmistakable in the recordings themselves, but it also shines through his published writing on the lieder he spent his lifetime interpreting. In his book “Schubert’s Songs,” he describes “Der Leiermann” — the chilling conclusion of the composer’s “Winterreise” song cycle — as “the last station on the journey of sorrow,” and he goes on to pose the question of whether this music is almost too intimate for public performance. No, he concludes, but the cycle does require a completely unsparing approach from its performer: “If these songs only please, or stir us or frighten us, then we are a long, long way from fully understanding Schubert’s personal statement.” Of the singers of our time, has anyone understood Schubert’s statement more fully?
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin in 1925, and his life appears in retrospect inseparable from the sweep of German history and culture. When he strolled down Berlin’s wide Unter Den Linden boulevard, he could nod to one of his ancestors, General C.W. von Dieskau, an artillery general in the army, depicted in the famous Christian Rauch statue of Frederick the Great on horseback. Bach wrote his “Peasant Cantata” for another ancestor. And Fischer-Dieskau’s father was a passionate amateur musician and school principal, who organized concerts during World War I that attracted the musical luminaries of the day, including the soprano Pauline de Ahna and her husband, Richard Strauss.
That connection to the sweep of German history extended through its darkest chapters. Fischer-Dieskau’s first “Winterreise” performance, in Berlin in 1943, was interrupted by an air raid, and he was later drafted into the German Army. He tended horses in Russia, lost a brother at the hands of the Nazis, and was captured by the Americans in Italy. After the war, his musical career came rapidly into its own.
His recordings of the 1950s and 1960s brought the lieder repertoire to thousands of listeners, at the same time as they set new, vertiginously high standards for art-song performance. It’s rare to find in a single artist the ability to both popularize a genre and raise its standards. For me, discovering those recordings in my early explorations of art song was a revelation, offering a first glimpse of singing in which poetic text and musical line were so fully and completely integrated.
In his book on Schumann’s lieder, Fischer-Dieskau in fact quotes the composer’s remark that “the poetry should be to the singer as a bride in the arms of her groom — free, happy, and complete. Only then will the song realize a divine quality.” To understand what this really means, one need look no further than Fischer-Dieskau’s performances of Schumann’s “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” or “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” from the “Dictherliebe.” Here is the sound of poetry, in this case by Heinrich Heine, “free, happy, and complete.”
And here, too, is precisely the wonder of a Fischer-Dieskau performance: the sense of poetry and music aligning in real time. At its best, his artistry recapitulates something of the original creative act, the moment when a composer releases a poem from its two-dimensional existence on the plane of words alone. His recordings are also living proof that scholarly erudition and artistic integrity can live hand in hand with the kind of heated dramatic intensity that delivers a song straight to the gut.
In recent days, I keep finding my way back to one of his recordings of Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh.” This sublime setting of a Rückert poem exudes an air of uncommon peacefulness, momentarily dispersed by an enormous crescendo in its final refrain, followed in a repetition by a surprise diminuendo that somehow draws the music precipitously inward. “Schubert is not singing to an audience out over the prompter’s box,” Fischer-Dieskau wrote of this particular diminuendo, “he is singing rather to the inner soul.” As Schubert’s executor in chief, he understood this, too.