18 May 2012
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 86, the Twentieth Century's Unparalleled Lieder Singer, Has Died
Berlin, Germany, May 28, 1925 — Berg, Germany, May 18, 2012
It is impossible to overstate
the importance of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His shadow is a long one: it
is unlikely that any other artist will match the scope of his
accomplishments. His was a career that defined an age; his rigorous
intellect, impeccable dignity and insatiable desire for perfection made
Fischer-Dieskau an inspiration to audiences and to his fellow musicians.
He was one of the great singers of his century, an artist of perfect
technique and formidable interpretive power whose performances in opera,
concert and recital set an unmatched standard of excellence for more
than four decades. Although he was most celebrated as a lieder singer,
especially in the songs and song cycles of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms
and Wolf, Fischer-Dieskau was an intelligent and perceptive exponent of
an enormous range of music, from Handel, Haydn and Mozart to Britten,
Henze, Reimann, Einem and other twentieth-century composers. His
baritone was warm, rich and even, capable of realizing myriad subtleties
of color and volume; his projection of text in any language was
flawless; his unfailing dignity brought honor to his profession and to
his colleagues. The only controversy about Fischer-Dieskau's singing
centered on its very excellence: some critics found his work too studied
and lacking in spontaneity. But for the vast majority of his listeners,
the unfailing beauty of Fischer-Dieskau's performances was a rare and
Fischer-Dieskau's recordings number in the hundreds; it is probable
that he is the most-recorded classical singer of all time, a distinction
that he took very seriously. His recordings and his recital appearances
created an enthusiastic and loving audience for German art song in the
United States and Great Britain during the post-World War II era.
Pianist Gerald Moore, Fischer-Dieskau's longtime partner in recital and
in the recording studio, wrote in 1962 — when Fischer-Dieskau was not
yet forty — that the baritone "… comports himself with modesty; a
modesty born of the subconscious awareness of the greatness of his
capabilities, of the magnitude of the tasks that lie ahead of him, and
of the burden of responsibility growing ever heavier with his increasing
fame and lofty ideals."
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin, the son of middle-class parents
who valued culture and education. He began formal voice lessons at
sixteen and had completed one semester at Berlin Conservatory when
conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1943. Shortly before V-E Day, while
serving in Italy, Fischer-Dieskau was captured by the American army. He
spent two years as a prisoner of war before returning to Germany to
begin his professional career. He gave his first lieder recital in
Leipzig, in 1947, and made his opera debut the following year, as
Rodrigo in Don Carlo at Städtische Oper Berlin (known after
1961 as Deutsche Oper Berlin). For the next thirty-five years,
Fischer-Dieskau divided his time between lieder and concert appearances —
the true basis of his international career — and opera, which he sang
principally in Germany and Austria.
At the Berlin company, which remained Fischer-Dieskau's home theater
until he retired from the opera stage in 1983, his personal repertory
was unusually wide-ranging. In addition to Mozart assignments such as
Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva and Don Alfonso — parts that are often
favored by lieder specialists — Berlin heard him in roles by Wagner
(Wolfram, Amfortas, Hans Sachs) and Verdi (Renato, Germont, Amonasro,
Falstaff, Macbeth) as well as the title characters in twentieth-century
works such as Wozzeck, Busoni's Doktor Faust, Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and Einem's Dantons Tod.
In Munich, where Fischer-Dieskau sang regularly for more than twenty years, his roles ranged from Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten to Gianni Schicchi, Michele in Il Tabarro and the title role in Reimann's Lear, which he created in 1978. At Schwetzingen in 1961, Fischer-Dieskau created the role of Gregor in Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, an opera he also sang in Tokyo in 1966, during one of several tours to Japan he made with the Bavarian State Opera.
Among Fischer-Dieskau's many personal successes at the Vienna State Opera were Jochanaan in Salome, Falstaff with Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Onegin
with Lovro von Matačić; at the Salzburg Festival, where he made his
debut in recital in 1951, his opera conductors included Böhm, Karajan,
Sawallisch, Maazel and Keilberth. Fischer- Dieskau was a member of the
company at Bayreuth for three seasons (1954–56), singing the Herald in Lohengrin, Kothner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Amfortas and Wolfram.
Fischer-Dieskau was especially admired in Great Britain. He made his London debut in 1951, singing Delius's A Mass of Life
at Royal Albert Hall under the baton of Thomas Beecham. Beecham was so
pleased with Fischer-Dieskau's performance that he offered him a Covent
Garden debut as Hans Sachs — an opportunity that the twenty-six-year-old
baritone chose to decline. He continued to visit London for recital and
concert appearances throughout the 1950s and '60s; his highest-profile
U.K. appearance during this time was the 1962 world premiere of Benjamin
Britten's War Requiem in Coventry. Fischer-Dieskau did not
make his Covent Garden debut until 1965, when he was Mandryka to Lisa
della Casa's Arabella in a Rudolf Hartmann staging of the Strauss opera
conducted by Georg Solti. Fischer-Dieskau returned to the Royal Opera
House in 1967, for the title role in Verdi's Falstaff. In 1976, Fischer-Dieskau was Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh Festival, which welcomed him many times after his debut there, in 1952.
The baritone made his first concert and recital tour of the U.S. in
1955 and returned to North America regularly for the rest of his career,
almost always appearing to sold-out houses. Most Americans knew
Fischer-Dieskau's work as an opera singer only through his recordings.
Although Fischer-Dieskau corresponded with the Metropolitan Opera about
possible company debuts as Wolfram (1959) and Wotan in Das Rheingold
(1967), he never appeared at the Met, or with any other U.S. opera
company. He made concert opera appearances at Carnegie Hall with
American Opera Society in 1964, as Faust in Busoni's Doktor Faust, and in 1967, as Orfeo to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Euridice in the Vienna version of Gluck's opera.
Fischer-Dieskau retired from the concert and recital stage in 1992,
but he remained active as teacher, conductor and author. He is survived
by his fourth wife, soprano Julia Varady, whom he married in 1977, and
his three sons from his first marriage, to cellist Irmgard Poppen.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
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