I sat and stared at the screen, somewhat stunned to read that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the legendary German lyric baritone, passed away a few days ago, at the age of 86. The first thought was, Oh no! He was such an artist! Then the second thought was a self-reminder that all the heroes of my young years are falling by the wayside and that I'm probably not that far away from tripping into eternity myself. It's just the way things go, Fly.
If you aren't into classical music, you probably don't know who this man was; but I can say that in some big or small way, he probably affected your life. You may never have had the sublime pleasure of hearing the greatest baritone of a generation sing, but you can bet that he influenced some singer you particularly like, for he was the singer's singer.
In my first year of college as a music student in 1962, a buddy who happened to be a baritone introduced me to Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin cycle of art songs and asked if I would accompany him. I didn't even know what an “art song” was but I was up for the challenge of being an accompanist for a singer. As I began to study them, my friend gave me an LP of Fischer-Dieskau and his accompanist, Gerald Moore, singing that work, to give me an idea of tempi and interpretation. To hear the two of them was, for me, a near-spiritual experience. From that time on, I began my own collection of recordings by Fischer-Dieskau, which I treasure and still listen to very often, 50 years later.
Fischer-Dieskau seemed to have had it all. He had the pipe, the incredible good looks, and especially a dedication to his art which made him world famous and attracted legions of followers. His precision and technique were unequaled. Although he sang opera from time to time – even Wagner, which requires heroic qualities of a voice - he made his everlasting mark as a singer of German art songs. His voice had qualities to it which, if you listened to him, expressed an incredibly personal and quickly identifiable bel canto sound in its richness. My all-time favorite recording of him is of Gustav Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn (here with Brigitte Fassbaender), which he recorded with Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, the peerless German soprano.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in 1925, was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1943 and sent to the Russian front. In 1945 he was captured in Italy and spent two years as a POW in the United States. In 1947 he returned to Germany and began a singing career which lasted nearly fifty years. Although he retired in 1992, he continued in music, conducting master classes in voice all over the world, teaching and inspiring young singers everywhere.
I was never fortunate enough to see Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau live but he will always be a major influence on my music education and someone who has given me hours and hours of pure enjoyment.
In a world in which much sometimes seems to be ugly, DFD - and his fellow artists - remind us that beauty is never far from us and is always ours for the taking.