B0258. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – A Biography. Hans A. Neunzig. Portland, OR, Amadeus Press, 1998. 312pp. Index; Chronology; CD Discography; Photos; DJ.mm, 1989. 376pp. Index; Photos; DJ. Hardbound. Final copy! - 9781574670356
“This book celebrates the art and life of the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from his debut recital in 1947 to his retirement almost five decades later. Born in 1925 into an upper middle-class, intellectual Berlin family that prized patriotism, culture, literature,and music, he first made his name as a lieder singer, but recordings and operatic engagements soon followed. His repertoire was enormous, ranging from Bach cantatas to many premieres of contemporary works. This biography documents the scope of Fischer-Dieskau's unceasing performing and recording activity; it enumerates his operatic roles, describing his musical, literary, and historical preparation for becoming the character he impersonated. It also discusses the singer's vocal and musical working methods, often quoting his own words from his books and letters, notably his famously controversial views on the relationship of words and music, and the tension between his inquiring intellect and his emotional musical response.
Dominated by a sense of artistic responsibility, Fischer-Dieskau worked obsessively in pursuit of perfection, gaining stimulation and renewal by frequent changes of accompanists. To satisfy his constant need for more self-expression, he took up writing, conducting, painting, and teaching. Inevitably, his personal relationships and private life were subordinated to the relentless demands of his life onstage. In his memoirs, Fischer-Dieskau confesses: ‘I worshipped my profession and my career; I was under the spell of opera and my recitals’.
Of his four marriages, the first ended in tragedy when his beloved young wife died in childbirth; the next two ended in divorce; and the last one, to soprano Julia Varady--with whom he has often appeared in opera and concert--has given both lasting happiness. Not surprisingly, his three sons inherited his artistic gifts and courageously followed in his footsteps as stage designer, conductor, and cellist. By their own account, they grew up mostly without their father, who himself recalls isolated moments of shared activity.
….despite Neunzig's adulation, his portrait of a great artist cannot conceal that total dedication to a successful career can lead to total self-absorption; indeed the singer himself was aware of the danger of avoiding reality and rejecting life's day-to-day affairs. This includes not only the familiar controversy about the separation of art and politics but the special problems of living in Germany after the rise of Nazism. Though Neunzig clearly states his own opposition to the regime, Fischer-Dieskau's views are expressed mostly in assertions of kinship with idealistic operatic characters, and complaints about the discomforts and deprivations of life in the army, POW camps, and postwar Berlin, for which anyone who survived the war on the other side hardly feels much sympathy. A single paragraph recounts the 13-year-old's shock at finding a Jewish shop smashed, and another the elimination by the Nazis of a handicapped older brother; the reader is left to infer the singer's political attitude.
The book…includes a chronology of Fischer-Dieskau's life, lists of his books and innumerable CDs, and many excellent photographs, on and off stage.
“Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was by virtual acclamation one of the world’s great singers, from the 1940s to his official retirement in 1992, and an influential teacher and orchestra conductor for many years thereafter. He was also a formidable industry, making hundreds of recordings that pretty much set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. But he was essentially a lyrical, introspective singer whose effect on listeners was not to nail them to their seat backs, but rather to draw them into the very heart of song.
The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had a flawless sense of rhythm and ‘one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive’. Onstage he projected a masculine sensitivity informed by a cultivated upbringing and by dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his feeble brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.
He had the good luck to age well, too. In 1988, at 62, he sang an all-Schumann program at Carnegie Hall, where people overflowed onto the stage to hear him. Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, noted that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice had begun to harden in some difficult passages — but also that he was tall and lean and handsomer than ever, and had lost none of his commanding presence. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau described in his memoir REVERBERATIONS (1989) how his affinity for lieder had been formed in childhood. ‘I was won over to poetry at an early age’, he wrote. ‘I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading’. He discerned, he said, that ‘music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul’.
Before adolescence Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group where, he recalled years later, he was appalled by the officiousness as well as by the brutality. His father died when he was 12. And he had just finished secondary school and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his ‘attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings’.
Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy, along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on 5 May, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be a musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.
Because of his youth, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had been in no position to make his own choices in the 1930s and ’40s, so he didn’t encounter the questions about Nazi ties that hung over many a prominent German artist after the war.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947. Success followed success, with lieder performances in Britain and other European countries, beginning in 1949. He first toured the United States in 1955, choosing for his New York début to sing Schubert’s demanding WINTERREISE cycle without intermission.
He had made his opera début in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi’s DON CARLOS at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (later renamed the Deutsche Oper), where he was hired as principal lyric baritone. He also sang regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and appeared frequently in the opera houses of Vienna, Covent Garden, Salzburg and Bayreuth.
Versatility was not the least of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s assets. He tackled everything from Papageno in THE MAGIC FLUTE to heavier parts like Wotan in DAS RHEINGOLD and Wolfram in TANNHÄUSER. He recorded more than three dozen operatic rôles, Italian as well as German, along with oratorios, Bach cantatas and works of many modern composers, including Benjamin Britten, whose WAR REQUIEM he sang at its premiere in 1962.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s insistence on getting things right comes through vividly in scenes of him at rehearsal or conducting master class. In a widely circulated video at the time, showing him coaching a young Christine Schäfer, Ms. Schäfer is singing beautifully, or so it would seem to your average mortal, yet the smiling maestro interrupts time and again to suggest something better. And it isn’t merely that he is invariably correct; it’s also that when he rises to sing just a few illustrative notes, the studio is instantly a stage, and he illuminates it with what seems to be an inner light.
Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis: ‘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….Having used a few superlatives and described the program, there is nothing else to do but write ‘finis,’ go home, and thank one’s stars for having had the good luck to be present’.”
- Daniel Lewis, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18 May, 2012