Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, died on May 18th, aged 86
May 26th 2012 | from the print edition
AS HE rubbed the horses down in the bitter cold and slush of the Eastern Front in 1943, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, then 18, sang songs into their ears. Brahms’s “Four Serious Songs”, perhaps, or a Bach cantata, both of which he had been learning before he was ordered to put on a Wehrmacht uniform. He himself never said what they were. But fans of the century’s best baritone suspected, indeed hoped, that they were from Schubert’s great, sad “Winterreise”, the Lieder cycle he made his own. He had sung it for the first time in public shortly before he left Berlin, interrupting it when the RAF strafed the street and the audience dived for the cellar, then resuming at the song called “Rückblick”, “A Backward Glance”. As he led the feeble horses out into the snowy Russian waste, humming and dreaming of the love and music left behind, he was the very figure of Schubert’s desolate winter traveller.
He took the horses to a pond where they could break up the thick ice and drink. This, too, seemed a portent. For him song meant movement, refreshment, life, awakening, often in the face of stodgy teaching and “doughy”, “dusty” orchestras. The qualities he most praised in singing were flexibility, naturalness and transparency, by which he meant that the interpreter should disappear within the work. For all this, as well as his cheerfulness and his love of soft, swift mezza voce singing, his name was linked irresistibly with Schubert’s pure, rushing mountain streams.
Ei Bächlein, liebes Bächlein…
Mein rauschender Freund!
He saw himself as an explorer, possessed by a restless, youthful curiosity to find out where music came from and where it led. Each one of his distinguished accompanists—none longer-serving than Gerald Moore, an Englishman, seen at work with him above—taught him something about a piece and made him see it with new eyes. If it challenged him, so much the better. He patiently teased out Tippett and Henze, Hindemith and Reimann, despite believing that, ever since Schönberg, music had merely been dancing round in convulsive spasms. He had a go at singing almost everything, even if it hurt.
On the concert stage he stood tall and still, arms hanging loose from his broad shoulders, “wearing his tone like a crown” as he put it, apparently so relaxed that only his chubbily handsome face was working. In fact he was at a pitch of nervous tension, so immersed in the song that each performance would change in step with how fast his heart was beating. Opera, at first, seemed a less natural fit for him, but he worked at his acting until he became famous for Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger”, the count in “The Marriage of Figaro”, even Verdi’s rollicking Falstaff—despite his feeling that, as a Prussian, he was not cut out for comedy, and his refusal to wear Papageno’s silly feathers in “The Magic Flute”.
Vocally his range was huge, from the calm command of Bach’s bass arias to the lightness of Hugo Wolf’s mezzo-soprano songs. Some critics complained that he overdid the emotion, wringing out every last ounce of meaning. He would counter that Lieder in particular, though they might seem mere miniature settings of mediocre lyric poems, contained a whole cosmos of experience; and that he became a different person, with a different life to breathe out in music, with every song he sang.
His repertoire was intensely German, and his favourite singing place—despite his wanderings across the world—remained Berlin, where he was born. But the Germanness was important. After 1948 this ex-prisoner-of-war represented to battered Europe the better sides of Germany: its poetry, its landscape, the beauty of the language and, above all, its music. His immaculately rounded voice, singing of love and loss, administered the balm that post-war audiences needed. For that reason, too, Benjamin Britten asked him to sing the role of the baritone soldier in his “War Requiem” in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962, ending with Wilfred Owen’s words, “Let us sleep now…”
Under the piano
He was shy and unforthcoming to strangers, slipping away after performances to eat his favourite semolina in his hotel room alone. He often felt uncertain about roles. What he never doubted was that music was meant to be his life, ever since he had listened, curled up under the piano like a small burrowing animal, to the eerie vibrations of his father striking the keys. His four marriages and three sons meant much to him, he conceded; but music meant more. It was his love and his life, the gift he had been given, the rock he clung to and the compulsion he laboured under, as his beloved Schubert had done. His book-length study of the Lieder concluded that the world was a mere shadow to the composer. It was the same to him.
In later life he took up painting, mostly of woods around his Munich house. This gave him the chance, he said, to prove he could create from scratch as well as recreate. But interpretation possessed him even after he retired. To bring songs alive for new ears; to break the ice, and find fresh water; to revive again and again the joy of spring, the gleam of green and even the figure of Schubert’s hurdy-gurdy man, playing his heartbreaking tune for someone, anyone, in the snowy waste to hear.
from the print edition | Obituary