"Voice of the Century" Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Dies at 86
And its branches rustled
Winterreise (Winter Journey), Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle for voice and piano, is one of the most iconic German art songs or lieder, influencing vocal technique not only within its genre but in German classical music in general. Only the greatest of vocal artists undertake to perform it in its entirety, given the intellectual and physical stamina required.
Enlarge image Fischer-Dieskau at his home in Berlin in May 2011. (© picture alliance / dpa) The great German baritone singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded Schubert’s Winterreise not once or twice, but a full eight times, over the course of four decades, with some of his generation’s most celebrated musical talents accompanying on piano, from Gerald Moore (1955, 1963, 1972), to Daniel Barenboim (1980). His impeccable technique and deep baritone voice—and his prolific recordings—earned him a reputation as the master interpreter of Schubert lieder.
Classical music lovers around the world remembered Fischer-Dieskau, one of the great singers of the 20th century, with the news he had died May 18 near Munich, just before his 87th birthday.
One of the most recorded singers of all time, Fischer-Dieskau performed extensively on the most famous German opera stages in Berlin, Munich and around Europe for decades, from the early 1950s through his retirement from singing in 1992. Though well-known in the United States, he rarely performed outside of Europe.
Known first and foremost for his mastery of the German art song, Fischer-Dieskau also took on numerous roles in opera, not only in his native German, but in French, Italian, and English. His ability to perform in diverse musical styles made him a legend of the vocal arts.
Enlarge image Fischer-Dieskau performing the Verdi opera "Macbeth" with American singer Grace Bumbry in Salzburg in summer 1964. (© picture alliance / dpa) Daniel Barenboim, musical director of the Berlin State Opera, described his first encounter with Fischer-Dieskau in a personal tribute in the Guardian:
“When I was ten years old, I witnessed his first, or maybe second, recital in Vienna. I had never experienced anything like it and was completely mesmerized. It was the first time I heard a piano and voice recital; the intimacy and sincerity of the performance just blew me away,” he wrote.
Fischer-Dieskau was a “revolutionary performer,” Barenboim said, because he sang both German lieder and opera—something that had not been done before.
Born in Berlin in 1925, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau studied one semester at the top conservatory in the city before being drafted into the army and sent to the Russian front in World War II. His success entertaining the troops as a prisoner of war in Italy delayed his return to Germany after the war.
He resumed his studies, but before long was singing professionally, including a recording of Winterreise for the American radio station in Berlin in 1948. From there his career took off, and Fischer-Dieskau was enchanting audiences around the world, whether in person or via his hundreds of recordings.
For Barenboim, Fischer-Dieskau’s greatest achievement was his demonstration of the unity of text and music, and his ability to illuminate meanings through this harmony. As Barenboim wrote:
“He set the benchmark in enunciation, and he emphasised key words through changing the sound of the note on which the word was sung. Thus, he not only clarified the sense of the word, but he let every syllable and every note sound together and thereby created a unity of harmony and colours unlike anyone else. For the word ‘death,’ for example, he didn't only use a different colour when pronouncing it (because he knew it was an extraordinary word), no, he also knew which colour to use for the note on which ‘death’ was sung. He created a new dimension of the comprehensibility and understandability of the text.”