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Obituary, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

When news of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s death broke on Friday afternoon we felt that we couldn’t let his passing go unmarked without paying tribute. Born in 1925, the great German baritone’s name has been a byword for the art of lieder singing for over five decades, synonymous with expressive eloquence, textual sensitivity and sheer communicative genius. His vocal technique, too, was impeccable, but always so wholly deployed in service of music and text that it almost escapes notice.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Some of Fischer-Dieskau’s earliest song ‘recitals’ were given in his early twenties, not in a recital hall but in a Prisoner of War camp in Italy, where he cheered his compatriots and others with Schubert. He began his singing career in earnest soon after his release, giving his first professional recital in Leipzig in 1947 and was signed by the Berlin Opera the following year, a house which remained his ‘base’ throughout his 30-year operatic career.

His meteoric rise as a lieder singer really began in the early 50s, when he set down his first, legendary studio recordings with Gerald Moore for EMI: this first Schöne Müllerin has simply never been bettered (and arguably never been equalled) for its clarity and consistently compelling narrative arc. Fischer-Dieskau would revisit the three great Schubert cycles at various points throughout his long career, in the studio as well as on the platform, and each subsequent account testifies to his ever-evolving interpretations – this is a singer who never allowed anything to stagnate, and even after his retirement twenty years ago he demonstrated his sense of continuing discovery in his celebrated recorded masterclasses.

Though it is with the German song repertoire that he is indelibly associated, Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretative gifts registered with almost equal power on the operatic stage. Peerless in the great Mozart roles of Almaviva, Papageno and Don Giovanni and the more lyrical Strauss parts, his astute vocal judgements and musical good sense also led to successful forays into heavier repertoire such as Verdi’s Macbeth, Rigoletto and Falstaff (he had an equal capacity for both comedy and pathos) and the great Wagner roles – Hans Sachs, the Dutchman and even Wotan are preserved on disc, with the lieder singer’s gift for word painting unearthing nuances that often go unnoticed in the larger-scale interpretations which are more usual in these roles.

Contemporary music, too, played a large part in his career and he inspired new works from composers including Pfitzner, Henze and Barber and of course Benjamin Britten. As a friend commented on hearing the sad news, it says much that Britten chose Fischer-Dieskau as the German representative in the premiere of his War Requiem, a work which was designed to bring together the very best of both England and Germany.

Fischer-Dieskau’s legacy will surely be a lasting one, not only in terms of the hugely diverse range of recordings which he leaves behind but also in the profound respect and affection which he inspired in later generations of musicians. As I sat down to write these words on Friday afternoon, it was touching (and not a little incongruous) to see my social networking feeds flooding with tributes, fond memories and simple gratitude from young music lovers and singers who learned their craft from this ‘German master’, a man who had retired well before many of them had even started their training. Many credited his performances with awakening their interest in the art of song, or their love of the German language; many more cherish his interpretations for representing a standard of perfection which they could at least aspire towards, if never reach.

Perhaps the most apposite of Fischer-Dieskau’s roles, then, turned out to be that of Hans Sachs, the eloquently inspirational songsmith and teacher at the heart of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. (Though the part is usually cast with far more stentorian voices than Fischer-Dieskau’s big lyric, he recorded the role with great success for Deutsche Grammophon in 1976.) Like Wagner’s cobbler-poet, Fischer-Dieskau instilled younger generations with the utmost respect for the German song tradition and ensured its survival, whilst at the same time encouraging them to revitalise it and to make it their own. A true Mastersinger indeed.

You can browse all Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s currently available recordings here, or below you’ll find one particularly good-value set from EMI containing a wide range of his greatest recordings and including the legendary Schubert song cycle recordings with Gerald Moore.