In Celebration of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
In honor of the 84th Birthday of the great German baritone
May 28, 2009
Thank you, Karen L, for sharing this endearing Tribute.
Visit Karen’s FiDiTanzer528 to Celebrate his Art in Song!
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and András Schiff perform
“Die schöne Müllerin” at Feldkirch, Austria
There are some singers and instrumentalists who master their craft with such consummate ease and brilliance that they are celebrated as virtuosi. Then there are musicians who lead us into the heart of a work of art. Their voice or instrument becomes secondary; it is no longer a means to an end, but serves to convey the truths hidden behind the notes. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau unquestionably belongs to this latter category.
– Roger Clement for Unitel
Fischer-Dieskau made a greater impression on the history of singing in the 20th century than any other performer. From his first recitals and recordings of Lieder in the 1950s, with pianists such as Jörg Demus and Gerald Moore, through to his last, visionary Schubert Winterreise cycles with Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel, Fischer-Dieskau brought German Romantic song back to the forefront of European musical consciousness.
– Hilary Finch, London Times
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.
– J. B. Steane, Singers of the Century
‘Music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul. Together, they have the power to lend intellectual form to what is sensed and felt, to transmute both into a language that no other art can express. The magic power that dwells in music and poetry has the ability ceaselessly to transform us.’
– Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
He was born Albert Dietrich Fischer on 28 May 1925 in the Zehlendorf suburb of Berlin.
His father, Dr Albert Fischer, was a classical scholar with an unusual variety of interests, an educational reformer who founded three secondary schools in Berlin. Dr Fischer was also an amateur musician and composer, whose own musical ambitions had been frustrated by his father, a Protestant clergyman and author of a well-known book on hymnology.
Dr Fischer’s first wife had died in 1917. His second marriage to Theodora (Dora) Klingelhöffer, a teacher twenty years his junior, produced three sons: Klaus, born in 1921, Martin in 1923, and Dietrich (Dieter) in 1925.
Klaus, who displayed considerable musical talent early on, later became a composer and was founder and conductor of the Hugo Distler Choir in Berlin. Martin was born both mentally and physically disabled.
Dr Fischer was already sixty years old when his son Dietrich was born. He died in 1937 when Dietrich was only twelve years old. In 1934 Dr. Fischer had legally changed the family name by adding his mother’s maiden name to his own. His mother was a member of the von Dieskau family, prominent throughout Prussian military history. Thus the new family name of Fischer-Dieskau was born.
Childhood and Early Influences
As mentioned previously, DFD’s brother Martin was born mentally and physically challenged.
“All those years I shared a room with Martin, I came to feel his suffering. His nature which, because of his inadequate body, was expressed over and over in a glance, a sigh… and his immobility affected me as well.”
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations
When he was five he was given a puppet theater, which provided a rich background for his imagination. He would put on plays and voice all the parts himself for an audience of a few school friends, often only his brother Martin.
“I was won over to poetry at an early age. 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.” – DFD
Tall and spindly like all the Fischer-Dieskaus, with a rather thoughtful, but not sad, childish expression and a rounded face, which became like his father’s only in later years. Imaginative, with an inclination to self-doubt, he made himself a world of his own; a fantasy world of constructive dreaming that did produce quite definite results: a profound knowledge of literature and music. It is not surprising if this private world clashed with the world outside.
Hans A. Neunzig, DFD: A Biography
Like most young Germans, Fischer-Dieskau had to join the Hitler Youth.
“To a ten-year-old, participating, wearing a uniform, developing his talents meant everything. But disenchantment with the new form of daily life set in almost at once. My temperament rejected the ‘outings’; the brawls that ended in bloody noses and worse.”
At the age of sixteen he began his studies with Georg A. Walter, a tenor particularly known for his Bach singing. He would soon begin his studies at the Berlin Academy under Professor Hermann Weissenborn, from whom he would learn the principles that would lay the foundation for his later technical mastery and also his attitude to his art. However, his studies would be interrupted after only one semester.
1943, Age 18
In October, 1943 he received his conscription notice calling him to serve in the Wehrmacht. Professor Weissenborn tried his best to keep him from the army even going so far as to write a letter to the authorities, but it did no good. The war was coming to its end and everyone had to serve.
It was during this time that Fischer-Dieskau was to meet his future wife, Irmgard Poppen, a student of the cello who was also studying at the Berlin Academy. Their happiness, however, would have to wait, as it was soon time for him to leave for his period of training. He was assigned to the veterinary unit and found himself looking after the horses. It was not long before he was posted to the Russian front. It was the winter of 1943-44.
“When the conscription notice came in the mail, the curtain that had concealed the things of this life was torn apart. How was I, an unworldly dreamer, to endure in the world thus revealed? Human experience taught us that there was no return from this state of mind to more easy-going spheres.”
At the Russian front, with another soldier, it was his duty to look after 120 horses. The story goes that he used to sing softly to the horses to calm them.
One day he received news from home, informing him of the fate of his disabled brother Martin, with whom he had shared a room while growing up and to whom he was very close.
“During this period my mother was forced to hand Martin over to an institution outside Berlin, and soon the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: They starved him to death as quickly as possible. My mother, who had organized her whole life around taking care of him, suffered infinitely more from his death than she had from his torments, while he lived.”
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations
Next, the news that the family home in Berlin had been bombed. He was granted a brief emergency leave to return home.
“Our dear, beautiful Lichterfelde apartment is completely bombed out. Of course I went there at once, since I did not know how Mother had come through the heavy attack. She was well, and the loss of all our furniture faded into the background.”
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations
During this leave he was able to spend some time with Irmel, but then all too soon he was on the troop train heading back to Russia. Then as the train neared Leipzig, it was diverted and headed to Italy instead. I guess the sense was that the war on the eastern front was a lost cause and that troops were much more needed on the Italian front where the Americans were advancing. It was late spring 1944. He had just turned nineteen.
He would spend the next year on the Italian front. He carried a little pocket score of the Brahms third symphony with him at all times, his “little treasure”, learned it by heart, always keeping it in his mind. An emotional refuge.
Having injured his foot he was sent to the field hospital behind the lines to be treated. When he and a friend were trying to make their way back to their unit, they spent the night in a barn where they were awakened by the arrival of an American army unit. He was taken prisoner.
It was May 5, 1945, a few weeks before his 20th birthday. Hitler was already dead at this point. It was just three days until the official German surrender.
Fischer-Dieskau spent the next two years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy run by the Americans. It didn’t take long for the American officers in charge of the POW camp to discover his abilities. He was appointed as a sort of cultural officer and put in charge of entertainment for the camp. He arranged evenings of lieder, recitations and piano performances employing musicians from among his fellow prisoners. Not all of the prisoners appreciated the “heavy music”, but what was important to him was being able to perform. They even let him travel from camp to camp with an accompanist to sing for the prisoners. In that time he had become almost too useful to his American captors and was thus one of the last prisoners to be released to return home.
Return Home and Career Beginnings
He was finally released in June 1947 and returned to Germany on the last hospital train from Italy. He was met at the station by his fiancée Irmgard and went to stay with her family in Freiburg. Because of the Allied occupation of Germany he was not allowed to travel home to Berlin at this time.
While staying in Freiburg, he made his official debut in the Brahms German Requiem, replacing a baritone who was indisposed, and without any rehearsal. Several singing engagements followed this debut. After some three months he was finally granted permission to return to Berlin. He resumed his studies under Prof. Weissenborn and lost no time in getting his career started.
Just before Christmas 1947 the Americans decided to reopen the radio station, which became known as RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) and Fischer-Dieskau went there and was granted an audition. He was engaged to sing Lieder and Bach cantatas, which were broadcast every Sunday.
It wasn’t long before he was invited to record Schubert’s Winterreise for the radio station. This performance was first broadcast in January 1948. He was not yet 23 years old.
A witness to one of his early recitals stated: “He began to sing and that was the curious thing: the voice, the man, the music, all became one. I had the feeling that he was developing the whole wonderful cycle out of his own being.”
There can be no doubt that Fischer-Dieskau’s experiences in war and POW camp have contributed to his development as both a man and an artist. He is a charming man, although extremely shy, and endowed with a wonderful sense of humor.
“These years in a prison-of-war camp taught him the value of friendship, the meaning of humanity and tolerance and the value of art as a means of raising one’s eyes from the ground to allow one to look up at the stars. He has striven to place his great art at the disposal of all men and women of all countries, to help, in some small way, to make good the terrible injustices of Man’s inhumanity to Man.”
Kenneth H. Whitton, DFD: Mastersinger
The recordings of Winterreise and the Bach cantatas that he had made for RIAS were continually played on the radio, and had already made his name a familiar one to the general public. His next great opportunity came with an invitation to audition at the Berlin Opera, where he was engaged to make his operatic debut as Posa in the new production of Verdi’s Don Carlos, a debut which took place on November 18, 1948.
“It matters a great deal what role one chooses for one’s debut on the stage, which in music means the whole world. Verdi’s virility and purity, represented so clearly in Posa, left an indelible trace on my future, not only creatively but as a man. I was privileged to begin my life on the stage with Verdi.”
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations
This was just the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the most remarkable careers in music of the 20th century.
Marriage and Loss
In 1949 he and Irmgard Poppen were married. Their union produced three sons, Matthias born 1951, a stage designer, Martin born 1954, a conductor, and Manuel born 1963, a cellist.
But this happy and successful period of his life was to come to a tragic close with the death of his wife Irmgard after giving birth to their third son, Manuel, on 15 December 1963.
“In the face of death, I have become terribly aware how ill-prepared I was, how much my whole being was, and is, rooted in living…Now I must try to trace long-lost, forgotten threads back into the past. They weave a picture, however incomplete, of two lives threaded into one. I want to know how that really was so that I can carry on with my life.”
Fischer-Dieskau in a letter dated January 1964
“Fischer-Dieskau is a very self-sufficient man and artist, but I have always believed that the agonizing experience of the death of his handicapped brother in 1944, his grim war service, and the death of his young wife, were all shattering experiences which have left their mark on his poignant portrayals of human sorrow and grief on stage and concert platform. His Amfortas, Wozzeck and Lear are all characters in mental torment, wracked by personal grief; those who have seen or heard Fischer-Dieskau in these roles have been unbearably moved by their truth to life. Such truthfulness informs the even more intense and dramatic world of the Lied: in Winterreise, the Abschied from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, all depictions of the human spirit in travail.”
Kenneth H. Whitton, DFD: Mastersinger
It was a time of astounding artistic successes, in both opera and song. There were many recital tours that took him all over the world, but which, of course, also kept him away from home and his three sons for long periods of time.
His attempts at finding another life partner willing to share his world and thereby providing a mother for his children had not met with any success. The failure of these relationships cast a heavy shadow over him.
This was all to change in 1973 when he met the soprano Julia Varady during rehearsals for a performance of Puccini’s Il Tabarro in Munich. A warm friendship developed during the rehearsals and the two singers were finally married in 1977. It has proven to be a remarkable relationship that has stood the test of time.
“Can we imagine the musical landscape (and not only Germany’s) after the great caesure of 1945 without this man who is celebrating his birthday today? When he sings Lieder, the concert platform becomes an imaginary stage. No other interpreter has mastered this art as perfectly as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the singer who sings softly and intimately in our age, so afflicted by the noise of the mass media.”
“No written word can describe the quality of a voice, especially of a voice, as this is the case, which responds with unrivalled technique and discriminative colour to the singer’s inspiration, but can give a strong image of this singer’s motivation, of the depth of understanding and the poetry in his soul which give that voice impulse.
When I reflect on my years of association with this man, it is mostly our rehearsals that come to mind, for these were moments of joy and flights of imagination involving hard, deep concentration, with ideas bursting into flame. Bursts of laughter too were in evidence, for this singer behind the scenes is not the austere recitalist of the public platform. I found the man as inspiring as the artist, for the voice is part of the man.”
He is the most recorded singer in history. His discography includes over 60 opera parts, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios, and nearly 3000 lieder and songs.
Fischer-Dieskau decided to end his singing career on December 31, 1992. No big announcement, no long drawn out farewell tours. He simply stopped. However, even though he may have ended his singing career, he still continued to appear before the public as a conductor, having begun his conducting activities in the 1970’s. He has also continued teaching and lecturing and appearing as recitor in various works for spoken word with piano or orchestral accompaniment.
He is also the author of numerous scholarly books on music as well as two volumes of memoirs. His books that have been translated into English include Schubert: A Biographical Study of His Songs, Wagner and Nietzsche, Robert Schumann: The Vocal Works and his first book of memoirs, Reverberations.
In addition, Fischer-Dieskau loves to paint and has had several exhibitions of his work including oils, watercolors and sketches. He is a particularly fine portrait artist.
Elmar Budde, a music historian with an art background, said in an interview:
“Seen from a technical point of view, his portraits are distinguished by a very precise awareness of line, so that they retain the action of movement and gestures, just as if they were frozen movement…This propensity for line has perhaps really got something to do with music.”
Fischer-Dieskau’s motto is “Keep Working.” “I actually do some painting every day,” he says. Over thirty years he has painted hundreds of pictures.
“It’s another way of being creative. Performing music is more a question of serving. But painting is a dialogue from the start. You make only one stroke – and from that moment you are in discussion with your subject.” —Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Many of us have spent half our lives with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. We would know a lot lesswithout him, and we would have experienced a lot less. No – we would have lived a lot less.
From an article by Hilary Finch in the London Times:
“What else is a human life,” Fischer-Dieskau has written, “but a series of shocks, the penultimate one of which is old age, and the final one death?” I asked the great singer what inner vision had nourished him, enabled him to withstand the slings and the arrows? He now speaks with no hesitation. “Art itself. It has provided – and continues to provide – a possibility to lift oneself up to another level. Not so far from religious experience – though it is not that.
It’s difficult to talk about these things: better to write. There are wonderful things to be found on these matters in Goethe, in Nietzsche. Goethe always said that life must be like art somehow. It is for him only bearable if it is art. Otherwise it cannot be lived.”