Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: The Lieder Singer

 FD at Salzburg  
Opinions and Reactions
at the piano:.....

"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).

photo by Clive Barda

In English-speaking countries, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is known primarily as a lieder singer. Part of the reason for this is that, with the exception of a small number of guest appearances at Covent Garden and at the Edinburgh Festival, Fischer-Dieskau did not appear in opera productions in English-speaking countries. Conversely, his lieder performances, both live and recorded, were a central part of the music-listening experience of U.K. and North American music lovers from the 1950's until his retirement from public performance. Countless lieder lovers received their introduction to the art form from Fischer-Dieskau's recordings and many number his live lieder recitals among their most powerful concert experiences. And even today, many music listeners who are too young to have experienced Fischer-Dieskau during his long career are encountering the world of lieder for the first time through his recordings.

Even after his own lieder singing activity ceased, Fischer-Dieskau continued to be the model and inspiration for many young Lieder performers. To mention one notable example, the pianist Graham Johnson has said that Fischer-Dieskau was the 'godfather' of his monumental recorded Schubert Lieder Edition for Hyperion Records.

It would be difficult to describe succinctly what made Fischer-Dieskau such a powerful and effective interpreter of lieder. Some would cite his superb musicianship, others his laser-precise diction, others his musical and literary imagination, others the power of his character and personality in the service of the works he sang, and still others his willingness to explore the unknown corners of the lieder repertoire and his courage in bringing little-known works to public attention through his live and recorded performances. Whatever the reason, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is one of the giants among lieder interpreters, and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.


with Alfred Brendel 1980

Opinions and Reactions:
 'A year later I wrote in my diary: "January 1951 was important for me because it introduced me to the Viennese in a recital sung before an audience who still considered recitals a part of their daily bread."
Conditions in Germany were no longer quite as favorable. Scarcely any of the outstanding lieder singers from the prewar period were still performing (with the exception of Heinrich Schlusnus and Walter Ludwig). Even worse, a kind of assorted menu had taken over the programs that is still prevalent in many countries today. I countered this trend, mainly for the pure pleasure of shaping a sequence, with lieder having a common denominator; this underlying theme demands concentration from a concert audience expecting sensationalism or distraction. The arrangement also corresponded to a performance style I intended to perfect over time. I wanted to do justice to all the essential characteristics of the form; I wanted to get close to the essence of the lied, to suppress nothing and make no concessions either to vocal limitations or popular taste. The task I set myself was to focus on the age-old struggle between word and sound; every work resolves it in its own way, and every composer places the emphasis differently. I wanted to mirror this relationship faithfully. That my programs could communicate this purpose only with difficulty at first, and that I had to overcome the resistance of many concert producers and had to force audiences to listen, shows what a rut our thinking tends to run in; we find it difficult to free ourselves from tradition because it makes us feel as secure as if we were in the womb. And yet we too often accept unthinkingly what we are spoon-fed by the self-appointed arbiters of fashion, no matter how low the level of taste has sunk.' (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations).

 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and András Schiff perform Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin" at Feldkirch (Schubertiade) in 1991

'His conception is ever green, so that a repetition amounts to an act of composition. He would not seek to 'improve' on Schubert or Schumann, Wolf or Brahms, on the contrary, his respect for them is so profound that in rehearsal he would approach a well-loved Lied as if it were fresh to him. Plodding uniformity, mandatory bondage to the metronome, are anathema to him; rhythm, lissome and alive, is his golden rule. As every artist of authority should, he embraces a freedom that is subject to discipline of form and taste.
In short, Fischer-Dieskau believes in tempo rubato and uses it with unparalleled finesse. It follows that each bar is not mathematically the same length as its neighbour; it is subservient to the phrase which may extend over several bars: the crucial moment of this phrase is sought. It is, in other words, a high point, not necessarily significant by being the top note in the vocal line, rather it may be a subtle turn in the melody begging to be stressed, or a poignant change of harmony in the accompaniment, or again, a vital word in the lyric. Once decided upon, this high point can be projected gently and persuasively or driven home with emphasis, as occasion requires; more important still, it can be given time. Rubato, this life-force or main spring, is a most recondite affair and it is precariously balanced; mishandled, it can reduce a passage of chaste beauty into sickly sentimentality, it can distort and elegant phrase, turn nobility to vulgarity. Fischer-Dieskau wields it with such control that he gives wings to the music's urge and leaves the listener, be he never so enlightened, transported without knowing the cause.' (Gerald Moore, in the Forward to K. S. Whitton, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Mastersinger).

'The essential method of Fischer-Dieskau's interpretation of lieder is to approach the songs in the same way their composers did-- working from word to music, rather than from music to word. The distinction is everything: it's not a normal way for performing musicians to proceed . . . Though Fischer-Dieskau's name has often been linked to that of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (whom I also admire), I think of the two as almost polar opposites. Fischer-Dieskau works down from the 'large picture' and emphasizes available details of text and music to support his conception. I sense that Schwarzkopf does the opposite, pursuing minute musical suggestions in the score so indefatigably that they eventually add up to a detailed interpretation. As a result, her readings . . . often give the sense of tiptoeing through the tulips-- of delicately making the tour from one exquisite detail to the next. The result may sometimes sound very similar to Fischer-Dieskau's, but in the end, the baritone is more likely to have made a distinct point. And in any case, the journey to the solution should never be discounted.' (James M. Keller, Opera News.)

'The baritone 'accompanied' all his partners in the same sense that the members of a great string quartet accompany one another: an infinitely subtle, lightning quick, unobtrusive and probably sometimes unconscious way of responding to the partner's moment-by-moment rhythmic or coloristic impulses; a joining of two independent spontaneities into an intricately well-meshed yet still spontaneous-sounding unity.
The great lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf are simultaneously 'songs' in the ordinary sense of vocal-poetic statement with instrumental support, and musical duos in the same vein as the violin sonatas or piano trios of the same composers. If dozens-- even hundreds-- of these songs had to wait a century or more for Mr. Fischer-Dieskau to show that they held more than specialized appeal, it was in large part because of the rarity of artists simultaneously equipped to fulfill the traditionally communicative role of 'singer' and the subtle musical role implied above.' (Will Crutchfield, New York Times).

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herausgegeben von: © Monika Wolf, 1999-2017

translations and compilations: © Celia A. Sgroi, January 2004