(Schubert: Death and the Maiden)
If you really wanted to take in the scope of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s achievement, you would have to resort to hyperbole long before you did it justice. When you hear the epoch-making Schubert, Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Schumann, and Wolf lieder and compare them to any other singer of the early stereo era, you realize that this is the greatest lieder singer of his generation. When you hear his Verdi, Mozart, and Wagner – you may first bristle at the diction or the wrongness of the timbre, but then you hear the intelligence and thought he puts into each word and you realize that to rely on brains in such well-known operatic repertoire for which so many empty-headed singers coast on beautiful sounds makes him also the bravest singer of his time. And then you hear all the unfamiliar new composers he championed: Britten, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Berg, Barber, Henze, Hartmann, Krenek, Lutoslawski, Reger, Matthus, Zillig, Von Einem, Reimann, and Busoni – and you then realize he was also the most responsible singer of his day. It’s only then that you begin to realize that DFD was something above a mere generational figure – he was a once-in-a-lifetime gift to vocal music who can neither be replaced nor equalled.
(Bach: Ich habe genug)
I remember once that Professor Berard played us recordings from a couple songs of Schubert’s Die Schoene Mullerin cycle: one was of Sanford Sylvan, the other DFD. The tempos were virtually the same, but after the unaffected naturalness of a fine American singer, the professor put Fischer-Dieskau on, and every note, every word, even every vowel seemed to have its own interpretation. It seemed so mannered, so over-controlled that it was almost funny. Yet that too was a part of Fischer-Dieskau’s greatness – in the Age of Rock when anyone when anyone with a fine natural voice can be considered a great singer, Fischer-Dieskau might seem utterly mannered. But in the 1950’s and 60’s, when singers were recording thousands of unfamiliar lieder as though they were issued from a factory, DFD put the same incredible interpretive mind to the service of all that music he sung and compelled his listeners to listen all the more closely to the meaning of every song he recorded. No singer of the recorded era has ever made music mean more.
(Schubert: Du Bist der Ruh - stunning)
It couldn’t have been done without that voice – that voice! It wasn’t huge, at least it wasn’t until DFD completely overwhelmed my speakers with a passage of stentorian, Hotterian power. The range was baritone, but it had all the sharp overtones of a tenor and all the resonance of a bass. It had the kind of breath control that seemed to sing without a noticeable breath for minutes on end, and it seemed to achieve infinite dynamic gradations with no noticeable strain. In its way, it was as much a miracle as Pavarotti or Boris Christoff. What did he have to do to make it work like that? Is there a single singer today who can do with their voice what Fischer-Dieskau did with his?
(Richard Strauss: Morgen - just as beautiful)
And then there’s his influence. It’s thanks to DFD that the lieder recital itself still exists. Even in the age of the single and the album, it’s still possible in the world’s capitals for a great singer and a piano to sell out a big concert hall – just try and tell me that’s not utterly improbable; or that it couldn’t have been done without a truly great singer to remind music lovers what could still be achieved in the recital hall. Thanks to DFD, great classical singing is still not confined to the opera house. And just look at how many great baritones we have today: Terfel, Goerne, Hampson, Hrovotovsky, Leiferkus, Keenlyside, Finley, Gilfrey, and Quasthoff until recently– just to name those I can think of in the first 30 seconds. Today’s world doesn’t have many great Mezzos, or Tenors, or Basses, but Baritones it seems to have in infinite supply. Fischer Dieskau initiated a golden age for Baritones, all of whom are as influenced by him as they are different – each trying to carve their own individual path as distinct from DFD’s shadow as possible. No baritone (maybe Hampson…) dares over-interpret in Fischer-Dieskau’s manner anymore – in an age when music is more instinctive than intellectual, I suppose that’s appropriate, but I still can’t help thinking that something terrible’s been lost. It’s not appropriate to beat up today’s singers with yesterday’s, but one can’t help looking at it that way.
(Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen)
So many of today’s opera singers sing on instinct, with barely a thought in their heads as to how they interpret. This might be forgivable if the average opera star’s technique were anywhere near the technical prowess of earlier eras. But so many of today’s opera singers have neither the technique nor the brains it takes to sing well – no wonder opera’s no longer popular with the public. Instead of singers acting with their voices as opera singers have been required to do for hundreds of years, opera in today’s world is controlled by theater directors who ostensibly do the singers’ interpretations for them. But why add the naturalism of the theater world when opera is already at the disadvantage of taking place in a universe where people sing rather than speak? Why add the spectacle of the movies when the opera stage is limited by how many times a set can change? Classical singing is what it is, and will lose to the other arts every time people try to make it more like another art. What opera and lieder has to offer the public is singers who, after years of constant toil, can draw the audience into a meaningful and unique synthesis of music, theater, and literature in which music always takes precedence – a synthesis that’s seems utterly pathetic when theater is given the biggest spotlight.
(Schumann: Ich Grolle Nicht)
Since his retirement, Fischer-Dieskau’s stock has fallen precipitously. To many singers today, he seems like a warning about the dangers of over-intellectualizing and over-interpretation. But no artist as great as DFD can remain forgot for long. Music lovers, true music lovers, will rediscover him. What remains unique about Fischer-Dieskau is not the amazing technique – it’s the aspirations to which he made that technique serve. No singer, not even Callas or Schwarzkopf, wanted music to mean more than DFD did. And thanks to him, many people love Schubert, and Wolf, and Schumann, and Brahms, and hundreds of other composers, more than they would have had they never heard him.
(Brahms: O Tod, wie bitter bist du)
(Brahms: O Tod, wie bitter bist du)