Unlike Most well-known classical singers, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who turns eighty on May 28, retired unexpectedly and unobtrusively. Twelve years ago, without making the customary “farewell tour,” the German baritone simply issued a statement declaring that he would no longer sing in public—and kept his word. The performances he had previously contracted for, including what would have been his last American recitals, were canceled, and at the same time he stopped making recordings.1 As a result, his reputation, especially in this country, is now in something of an eclipse. He is by no means forgotten, but he is no longer much talked about, either.
To listeners with long memories, such a thing will hardly seem possible. Not only was Fischer-Dieskau one of the most admired singers of the 20th century, he was also one of the most controversial. For every critic who praised the acute intelligence of his art-song interpretations, another found them fussy. Some thought his soft singing exquisitely sensitive, others limp and croony.
Whatever one may think of Fischer-Dieskau, there is no shortage of evidence on which to base an opinion—virtually any opinion—of his artistry. He is thought to have made more recordings than any other classical musician, and he certainly recorded a wider-ranging repertoire than any singer who has ever lived. To take only a few examples chosen at random, he left behind performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Verdi's Otello, Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Fauré's La Bonne Chanson, Barber's Dover Beach, Stravinsky's Abraham and Isaac (in Hebrew!), Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony, and all the songs of Schubert suitable for performance by a male voice.
It goes without saying that no one could possibly have sung so many different kinds of music equally well. For all his gifts as a linguist, it was only in Austro-German music that Fischer-Dieskau sounded at home, just as he was far more comfortable as a recitalist than on the opera stage. Fascinating though his ventures into other idioms may have been, there can be no doubt that he will be remembered chiefly as an interpreter of German lieder, and in particular of the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, and Wolf, which he sang throughout his long career.
But how will he be remembered? At one extreme of critical opinion is the English vocal connoisseur John B. Steane:
I have never heard Fischer-Dieskau sing without being able to learn something from it. With learning comes feeling. There is no dichotomy here. Intellect and emotion are fused; that is the distinctive mark of the civilized European culture which Fischer-Dieskau throughout his long career has represented so well.
At the other is the late Samuel Lipman, here commenting on Fischer-Dieskau's renderings of Hugo Wolf:
The effect of all [his] artfulness is an overwrought absorption in the material. Everything seems to verge on the hysterical. . . . [T]he hysteria and instability Fischer-Dieskau thus communicates is not all, or even the best part, of what Hugo Wolf's art is about.2
Are these views mutually exclusive—and if so, which one is correct? Or could it be that the truth about Fischer-Dieskau's complex art lies somewhere in between?
Born in Berlin in 1925, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau served in the Wehrmacht in World War II, was captured by the Americans in Italy in 1945, and returned to Germany two years later to make his professional debut. The great English accompanist Gerald Moore was told on a 1951 visit to Cologne that the young man, as yet unknown outside Germany, was “already the world's finest lieder singer.” Six months later, he was recording Schubert songs with Moore for EMI, having just made his Salzburg Festival debut with Wilhelm Furtwängler on the podium. World-wide fame followed shortly thereafter.
No classical singer is a prodigy, but Fischer-Dieskau was for all intents and purposes fully formed when he launched his international career at the age of twenty-six. He was also exceptionally self-confident, as his memories of his first recording session indicate:
Walter Legge, as supervisor of the recording, wanted to follow his usual habit of involving himself in shaping my understanding (of some Hugo Wolf lieder and Schubert's Schöne Müllerin). Estimating the situation subjectively, I thought I should stick with my own ideas, and he soon fell silent. He never forgave me.
Legge, a notorious meddler, was then one of the most powerful men in the classical recording industry, as well as the husband of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with whom Fischer-Dieskau would appear frequently. That a still-obscure German baritone should have refused to kowtow to him is little short of astonishing. Yet Fischer-Dieskau continued to record for EMI, for the very good reason that he was every bit as gifted as he thought he was. “He had only to sing one phrase,” Gerald Moore recalled, “before I knew I was in the presence of a master.”
Not only was he determined to sing as he thought right, he was similarly determined to transform the institution of the art-song recital as it was then being practiced in Germany and elsewhere:
[A] kind of assorted menu [of songs] had taken over the programs. . . . I countered this trend, mainly for the pure pleasure of shaping a sequence, with lieder having a common denominator; this underlying theme demands concentration from a concert audience expecting sensationalism or distraction. The arrangement also corresponded to a performance style I intended to perfect over time. I wanted to do justice to all the essential characteristics of the form; I wanted to get close to the essence of the lied, to suppress nothing and make no concessions either to vocal limitations or popular taste.
His ideas met with initial resistance from concert promoters, but comparatively few recitalists were then active in Europe (most of the best ones having long ago fled Hitler's wrath), and the fact that Fischer-Dieskau was able to sell out concert halls with unabashedly serious single-composer programs made it possible for him to do as he liked. Though his opera career was mainly confined to Germany, for the next half-century he appeared in recital throughout Europe, as well as in New York and a few other American cities.
For the most part, though, Fischer-Dieskau's reputation was based on his records. Like Schwarzkopf, the soprano Maria Callas, the conductor Herbert von Karajan, and the pianist Dinu Lipatti, all of whom became famous after World War II (and all of whom, not coincidentally, were produced by Legge), he saw the record album as an expressive end in itself, and so poured vast amounts of energy into recording large chunks of his huge repertoire.
Even in the earliest of these performances, Fischer-Dieskau's salient characteristics as singer and interpreter are immediately apparent. The first thing one notices is the natural beauty of the voice itself, a quintessentially German lyric baritone, fine-grained and smooth-surfaced. It was, though, neither warm-toned nor especially large in size, and the upper register, lacking the heft and bite that singers call “metal,” hardened under pressure. As if to compensate, he cultivated a widely varied dynamic range, and his soft, delicate mezza-voce singing, into which he mixed a larger-than-usual amount of falsetto, would become something of a trademark.3
In much the same way, Fischer-Dieskau managed to convert his lack of vocal warmth into an asset. The essential quality of his voice was dignified, even noble—one might almost call it philosophical—making him the ideal exponent of such works as Brahms's Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”). But he could also sing with an intensity bordering on the expressionistic, thereby giving him access to the emotional extremes of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and the songs of Hugo Wolf. At the same time, he was unforgettable in such purely lyrical songs as Schumann's “Mondnacht” and Strauss's “Morgen!” He was far less effective in comic songs and operatic roles, in which, like many Germans, he tended to be unsubtle to the point of grossness, just as his singing of the music of Verdi and other Italian composers was stiff and overemphatic.
No less characteristic was his detailed approach to interpretation, an approach that the critic Alan Blyth has called “interventionist” and that had little to do with the way older singers had performed lieder and other art songs. It can be heard in any of Fischer-Dieskau's recordings of “Gute Nacht,” the first song of Winterreise, the 1827 song cycle in which Schubert set a sequence of two dozen poems by Wilhelm Müller that tell the story of the aftermath of a failed love affair.4
To hear how drastically the singer departs from received tradition, one need only compare his version of this deceptively simple-sounding song with the one recorded in 1927 by the much-admired German tenor Richard Tauber.5 Like Fischer-Dieskau, Tauber sings “Gute Nacht” vividly and with much rubato, loosening Schubert's strictly notated rhythms to give the simple melodic line a speech-like quality. But he never alters his basic timbre in response to Müller's text, and his delivery is straightforward, much as if he were singing a ballad—one with whose emotional content he is fully engaged but from which he nonetheless remains detached, as if he were telling a story.
Fischer-Dieskau, by contrast, approaches “Gute Nacht” less as a storyteller than as an actor performing a monologue written in the first person (as the text of Winterreise is indeed written). Individual phrases—even individual words—are subtly stressed and colored so as to underline their meaning. The effect is almost kaleidoscopic in the variety of its nuance, and a listener accustomed to Tauber's simpler style could be forgiven for finding it oversophisticated, even mannered.
To be sure, Fischer-Dieskau is singing “Gute Nacht,” not reciting it. His interpretation is as deeply rooted in Schubert's music as it is in Müller's words. Even so, it could hardly be more different from that of Tauber. I am tempted to compare their two styles to those of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby:
Sinatra's emotional candor stands in stark contrast to the impenetrable reserve of Crosby, who once famously told the lyricist Johnny Burke not to write songs for him that contained the phrase “I love you.” Unlike Sinatra, he was never a confessional artist, and the intensity he brought to his early recordings of ballads like “Stardust” was musical rather than dramatic. (To put it another way, he sang songs, not monologues.)6
Fischer-Dieskau's style was never more widely admired, both by critics and by the public at large, than in the 60's, when his voice was in its prime. But starting in the early 70's, his upper register began to harden still further, and he refused to restrict his repertoire to songs that fell within the shrinking compass of his vocal capacities. Instead, he re-recorded his repertoire with new accompanists, apparently in the belief that fresh interpretative insights would compensate for an increasingly frayed-sounding instrument.
In fact, the opposite was true: Fischer-Dieskau's later recordings are without exception inferior in quality to the ones he made in the 50's and 60's. In concert, his undiminished intensity and compelling physical presence continued to make an indelible impression, but in front of the microphone he became a blustery, hectoring caricature of himself when young.7
Like all artists of distinction, Fischer-Dieskau deserves to be judged in the end by his best work, not his worst. Yet even at his best he was an unusual artist, and thus by definition not to everyone's liking. It is easy to see, for instance, what the critic Greg Sandow had in mind when he complained that “I wish he'd just let the music speak for itself.” Instead, Fischer-Dieskau spoke for it, always perceptively, often beautifully—but at times distractingly. In addition, he was, like Sinatra, a supremely confessional artist, and those who find this quality unsympathetic have typically responded to his emotionalism with a combination of distaste and something not unlike embarrassment.
What, then, are we to make of Fischer-Dieskau today? My own experience is, I think, worth recounting in this connection. Like so many music lovers of my generation (I was born in 1956), it was through his recordings that I discovered the beauties of German lieder, and for a long time I thought there was no other way to sing them. Not until later did I become acquainted with the work of such singers of the 78 era as Tauber, Karl Erb, Hans Hotter, Gerhard Hüsch, Herbert Janssen, Alexander Kipnis, Lotte Lehmann, John McCormack, Charles Panzéra, Heinrich Schlusnus, Aksel Schiøtz, and Elisabeth Schumann, all of whom exemplified in their differing ways the older tradition eloquently epitomized by Samuel Lipman:
The best of the older performances give an impression of simplicity combined with grandeur, of sensitivity to each poem's mood combined with a clear, unforced, and restrained projection of the individual words.
Even in Fischer-Dieskau's day there were singers, most notably the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and the tenor Peter Schreier, who offered alternatives to his “interventionist” style. In our own time, the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (neither of whom, as it happens, is German) have opted for a more plain-spoken interpretative path that I now find highly congenial.
Yet I also find myself returning again and again to Fischer-Dieskau, perhaps not with the innocent pleasure of youth but with what I hope is an enhanced appreciation of his special virtues. What I did not realize in the 70's—and what many critics, then and now, have failed to see—was that his style is not a “solution” to the “problem” of lieder interpretation. It is, rather, the deeply personal, deeply considered approach of a remarkable artist, not to be imitated or held up as a universal standard but simply to be savored for its own sake.
Sometimes it works, sometimes not, and at all times there continue to be other approaches that are no less valid. Musical interpretation, after all, is not an exact science. Yet surely there has never been a more interesting singer than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—nor, on his best days, a greater one.
Fischer-Dieskau on CD: An Introduction
Most of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's recordings are out of print, but a substantial number of the best ones are currently available on CD, including these ten:
1951-58: The freshness and bloom of Fischer-Dieskau's youthful voice can be heard in his first recording of Schubert's Schwanengesang, D. 957, made in London with Gerald Moore. It is coupled on CD with his earliest recordings (also with Moore) of four popular Schubert songs, “Erlkönig,” “Nacht und Träume,” “Ständchen,” and “Du bist die Ruh'” (EMI CMS 7 63559).
1953: Though Fischer-Dieskau was rarely at his best in comic opera, he enjoyed singing the role of Papageno in Mozart's The Magic Flute (although he never appeared on stage in the role because he was too tall). His charming interpretation is well caught in the recording he made with Rita Streich, Ernst Haefliger, and the RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay (DGG 435 741-2, two CD's).
1958: Brahms's Four Serious Songs, Op. 121, provided the occasion for one of the most admired of Fischer-Dieskau's early recordings, a breathtaking performance accompanied by Jörg Demus, perhaps the most sympathetic of the many pianists with whom he worked (DG 463 509-2).
1961: Fischer-Dieskau's first recording of Die schöne Müllerin was made with Gerald Moore in 1951. The two men re-recorded Schubert's most popular song cycle in stereo a decade later, and the results are widely thought by admirers and detractors alike to represent the summit of the baritone's art (EMI CMS 7 66959).
1961: Fischer-Dieskau appeared in oratorio throughout his career, never to better effect than in the compellingly grave performance of Brahms's German Requiem, Op. 45, that he recorded with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Otto Klemperer, and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI CMS 7 66955).
1963: Of the many modern works premiered by Fischer-Dieskau, the only one to become popular is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66, definitively recorded by the baritone with Peter Pears, Galina Vishnevskaya, and the composer conducting the London Symphony and the Melos Ensemble. Of particular note is the harrowing confrontation between Pears and Fischer-Dieskau as the English and German soldiers of Wilfred Owen's “Strange Meeting” (Decca 414 383-2, two CD's).
1965: Fischer-Dieskau's interpretation of Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48, has been criticized for its exaggerated emotionalism, but few versions are as finely sung as the one he did with Jörg Demus (DGG 463 505-2).
1966: Over the years, Fischer-Dieskau would become closely identified with Schubert's Winterreise, which he re-recorded more often than any other song cycle. His favorite version was this one, accompanied by Demus, in which the disparate elements of his style are held in perfect balance (DGG 447 421-2).
1966: Fischer-Dieskau performed on several occasions with Leonard Bernstein, for whom he expressed admiration tinged with ambivalence. The most involving of their recorded collaborations is the high-strung version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the tenor James King and the Vienna Philharmonic. It is a performance of the widest possible extremes, never comfortable and never dull (Decca 466 381-2).
1966-67: Fischer-Dieskau's “interventionist” approach to the songs of Hugo Wolf is at its most compelling in the recording of the Spanish Song-book that he made with Schwarzkopf and Moore. Even those who find his singing too finicky will be disarmed by the simplicity of “Herr, was trägt der Boden hier” and “Nun wandre, Maria” (DGG 457 726-2, two CD's).
Most of these recordings can be downloaded in whole or in part from Apple's iTunes Music Store. All of them can be purchased online as CD's by viewing this article during the month of May on COMMENTARY's website:
1 Fischer-Dieskau continues to perform on occasion as an orchestral conductor, but he has never appeared on the podium in the U.S., nor has he succeeded in establishing himself in that capacity anywhere else in the world.
2 “Singing Wolf,” COMMENTARY, July 1981, reprinted in Lipman's The House of Music: Art in an Era of Institutions (1984).
3 This is what those who dislike Fischer-Dieskau's singing have in mind when they dismiss it as “crooning.” Unlike pop “crooners,” though, he sang even the quietest of music with full vocal support, and as anyone who heard him in concert can testify, his soft singing was audible throughout such large auditoriums as New York City's Carnegie Hall.
4 Representative recordings by Fischer-Dieskau are listed in the discography at the end of this piece.
5 Tauber's version is on Tauber Sings Lieder (Pearl GEMM CD 9370). He omits the song's second and third stanzas.
6 “Whatever Happened to Bing Crosby,” COMMENTARY, April 2001, reprinted as “Crosby Major, Crosby Minor” in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale).
7 Especially poignant are the 1985 recordings of Winterreise and Schumann's Dichterliebe with the pianist Alfred Brendel, in which the interpretative spirit is more than willing but the flesh has weakened to the point of incapability.