Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 1925-2012

By Brian McCreath

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: the name practically defines the art of singing lieder. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Fischer-Dieskau sang opera and was one of the most respected teachers of his time. But as a singer of art songs by Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf, his performances and recordings were simply in a category all their own.

Fischer-Dieskau died on Friday morning, May 18, just 10 days shy of his 87th birthday. Born in Berlin in 1925, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1943 and was captured by Allied forces in 1945. Following the war, he returned to the study of music and embarked on a remarkable career.

He was one of those rare musicians who transcended the formal techniques of performance to utterly and absolutely inhabit the music he sang. While that phenomenon can lead to incredible performances on the opera stage, it is art song, or lieder, with its lack of contextual scenery, broad narrative, and supporting production, that is arguably the greatest challenge for a singer. In this arena, Fischer-Dieskau had no peer, demonstrating an ability, through tone color and physical expression, to shift voices and characters in an instant.

Here is one example of his work. Franz Schubert's heartbreaking Erlkönig depends on the singer's ability to communicate the gravity of the narrator, the concern and protectiveness of the father of a young boy, that young boy's terror at his visions, and the evil seductiveness of the Erl-king.


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