It says a lot about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s stature in classical music that his death feels like the end of an era, even though he hadn’t sung in public for two decades. For a few generations of listeners, this great German baritone, who has died at age 86, had no peers as a singer of art songs by Schubert, Schumann and many others, and as a performer of a select number of opera roles. His song repertoire was immense, and his recordings more abundant than those of any other classical singer. The arc of his career coincided with the great postwar boom in classical recording, a fact that makes his achievements doubly unlikely to be matched.
He described himself as a shy, reserved man, and in a 1995 interview said that in his early days, he was content to follow the lead of his piano accompanist or conductor. But in maturity, he became renowned not just for the finesse and beauty of his singing, but for a rare depth of understanding. At his best, he seemed to offer a moral X-ray of whatever he undertook, be it the lonely poetic odyssey of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), or the balked, barely articulate sorrows of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin, and sang his first Winterreise there at age 17, with a long unplanned intermission while singer and audience waited in a cellar for RAF bombers to finish raiding the city. He was conscripted into the German army, captured, and held for nearly two years in a camp in Italy, where he sang Schubert to fellow POWs.
His career took off soon after the war, with concert and opera premieres that announced the arrival of an important talent. In 1948, he performed Winterreise on Berlin radio, signalling the start of an unparalleled recording career.
By the early fifties, he was well-established at the Berlin State and Bavarian State Operas, his home companies for the rest of his life. He made a success of roles as diverse as Jokanaan (in Strauss’s Salome) and Verdi’s Falstaff, yet performed seldom in other theatres, and never at the Metropolitan Opera, which he thought was too big.
He had to be talked into several key opera roles, including Wozzeck and Falstaff, and when his record company asked for a complete set of Schubert lieder, Fischer-Dieskau doubted it would be saleable. But his lieder recordings spread his art to a wide public across Europe and North America, and were for many a gold-edged invitation to discover music that had formerly seemed reserved for a niche audience. He made lieder popular, in a way that would be unthinkable for a young artist working with today’s sickly classical recording industry.
Gerald Moore, the English pianist who collaborated in many of Fischer-Dieskau’s greatest song recordings, said his colleague stood ahead of other singers not because of his beautiful sound, or superb technique, or strongly musical temperament, but through his sense of rhythm. Others pointed to Fischer-Dieskau’s consummate command of vocal tone, with which he could subtly colour the feeling of a note or syllable.
He described himself as a cheerful man, but bore his share of suffering, during the war, after the death of his young first wife, and through a series of surgeries on painful sinus abscesses in the fifties. He said that he had given much to art, relatively little to his family, including his three children, one of whom (Martin) served briefly a decade ago as music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
“Music was the great love of my life,” Fischer-Dieskau said. It was a love affair we all participated in, and it continues, thanks to a large archive of recordings. Like other major performers from the great age of classical LPs, he will loom larger in reissues than many gifted singers now struggling to catch the ear of a diminished industry. His voice remains instantly recognizable through all seasons of his career, and his talent still shines new light on old songs.