Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Biography

Photo by Cecil Beaton  
Family Background 
Education 
Career 
Awards and Memberships 
Family 

Family Background:

Albert Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was born on May 28, 1925 in Berlin. He was the youngest of three sons from his father's second marriage. His father, Albert (1865-1937), a classical scholar, was a secondary school principal, and his mother, Dora (1884-1966) was a teacher. Fischer-Dieskau's family background was rooted in what might be called the 'professional' middle class of teachers, doctors, architects, and clergymen; however, his father's mother was a member of the von Dieskau family, one of whose ancestors was that Kammerherr von Dieskau for whom J.S. Bach wrote his 'Peasant Cantata' in 1742.

'Edith Schmidt (nee Fischer), later a close confidante of her cousin Dietrich, who was younger by some years, was certainly right when she wrote to him: "Your father lived in a wonderful world; he represented a generation that still had so much strength, which we of 1914 no longer possessed." There follows a passage that throws a revealing light on the son, so much more insecure because of the times and his own cast of mind: "for, in addition, as a real Fischer, he kept his own private life inside him, into which not even those closest to him could ever enter." Thus, Fischer-Dieskau's energy and his tendency to introversion are part of his parental inheritance. How much the singer has drawn on both traits is marked, for taciturnity can also indicate a wish to be private, something that was first notable in his singing, in music-making generally, then later in his painting and his writings.' (Hans A. Neunzig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: A Biography).

DFD and his mother

Education:

Fischer-Dieskau's musical interests and talent made themselves evident early in his life, but he was no child prodigy. He learned to play the piano from his mother and continued piano study throughout his school years. He sang already as a child and began formal voice lessons at sixteen with Professor Georg A. Walter. Fischer-Dieskau had just completed his secondary school studies and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1943. He was captured in Italy in 1945 and spent two years as a American prisoner of war. During this time he continued his musical studies on his own and took advantage of every opportunity to perform. After returning to Germany in 1947, he studied briefly with Professor Hermann Weissenborn at the Berlin Conservatory before beginning his professional career. Fischer-Dieskau once said: "I passed my final exam in the concert hall".

Celebration for Goethe 1949

Career:

Fischer-Dieskau's professional career as a singer began in 1947 in Badenweiler when he sang in Brahms' 'German Requiem' without any rehearsal as a last-minute substitute for an indisposed singer.

He gave his first lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947 and followed it soon afterward with a highly successful first concert at Berlin's Titania-Palast. In the fall of 1948 he was engaged as principal lyric baritone at the Municipal Opera (Städtische Oper) in Berlin, making his debut as Posa in Verdi's 'Don Carlos' under Ferenc Fricsay. Subsequently, Fischer-Dieskau made guest appearances at the opera houses in Vienna and Munich. After 1949 he added concert tours in England, Holland, Switzerland, France, and Italy. He made regular opera appearances in Bayreuth between 1954 and 1961, and in Salzburg from 1956

Le Nozze di Figaro

until the early 1970's (he made his Salzburg concert debut in 1951 with Mahler's 'Songs of a Wayfarer' under Wilhelm Furtwängler).He garnered great critical acclaim for his detailed, insightful, and imaginative interpretations and for the almost infinite variety of colors and shadings of which his voice was capable.

As an opera singer, Fischer-Dieskau centered his activity at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He also made guest appearances at the Vienna State Opera, at Covent Garden in London, at the Hamburg State Opera, at the great opera festivals in Bayreuth and Salzburg, in Japan, and at the King's Theater in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival. His first concert tour in the United States took place in 1954, and he gave his first lieder recital at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1964.

Fischer-Dieskau's commitment to contemporary music led to his participation in first performances of works by many composers, including Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, Hans Werner Henze, Ernst Krenek, Witold Lutoslawski, Siegfried Matthus, Winfried Zillig, Gottfried von Einem, and Aribert Reimann. As 'the world's greatest Lieder singer' (Time Magazine), he regularly sold out concert halls all over the world until his retirement at the end of 1992. The precisely articulated accuracy of his performances, in which text and music were presented as equal partners, established enduring standards. The current widespread interest in German Romantic art song is mainly due to his efforts. Perhaps most admired as a singer of Schubert lieder, Fischer-Dieskau had, according to critic Joachim Kaiser, only one really serious competitor-- himself, as over the decades he set new standards, explored new territories, and expressed unsuspected feelings and emotions.

Fischer-Dieskau und Hartmut Höll

Fischer-Dieskau ended his more than 45 years of concert activity at the beginning of 1993. He made his unannounced farewell to public performance with his participation in a gala concert at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich on December 31, 1992. Since that time he has kept himself fully occupied as a teacher, conductor, reciter, and author.

'Many of us have spent half our lives with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. We would know a lot less without him, and we would have experienced a lot less. No-- we would have lived a lot less.' (Ivan Nagel, Homage to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau).

'I think I can also say that I have never heard Fischer-Dieskau sing without being able to learn something from it. With learning comes feeling. There is no dichotomy here. Intellect and emotion are fused; that is the distinctive mark of the civilised European culture which Fischer-Dieskau throughout his long career has represented so well.' (J.B.Steane, Singers of the Century).

'Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some, musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it. It is difficult therefore to write a long notice about Fischer-Dieskau. Having used a few superlatives and described the programme, there is nothing else to do but write 'finis', go home, and thank one's stars for having had the luck to be present.' (John Amis, The Scotsman).

Awards, Recording Prizes, and Memberships (Selected):

Awards and Honors

      • Dr. h. c. der Universität Oxford
      • Dr. h. c. der Musik der Universität Paris-Sorbonne
      • Dr. h. c. der Musik der Yale University, USA
      • Dr. h. c. der Universität Heidelberg
      • Kunstpreis der Stadt Berlin (1950)
      • Goldener Orpheus der Stadt Mantua (1955)
      • Bundesverdienstkreuz 1. Klasse (1958)
      • Bayerischer Kammersänger (1959)
      • Mozart-Medaille, Wien (1962)
      • Berliner Kammersänger (1963)
      • Naras Award, USA (1972)
      • Großes Verdienstkreuz des Bundesverdienstordens (1974)
      • Léonie-Sonning-Musikpreis, Kopenhagen (1975)
      • Rückert-Preis der Stadt Schweinfurt (1979)
      • Preis des Präsidenten der Akademie Charles Gros, Paris (1980)
      • Ernst-von-Siemens-Preis (1980)
      • Pour le mérite Deutschland (1984)
      • Bayerischer Maximiliansorden für Wissenschaft und Kunst (1984)
      • Stern zum Großen Bundesverdienstkreuz (1986)
      • Schumann-Preis der Stadt Zwickau (1987)
      • Hindemith-Preis
      • Goldene Medaille der Royal Philharmonic Society, London (1988)
      • Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (1990)
      • Prix de la critique, Paris (1991)
      • Ernst-Reuter-Plakette, Berlin (1993)
      • Life achievement, London (1994) ("The Grammophone")
      • Wilhelm-Pitz-Preis, Bayreuth (1994)
      • Ehrensenator der Hochschule der Künste Berlin (1995)
      • Commandeur des Arts et Lettres
      • Plakette der Freien Akademie der Künste Hamburg (1996)
      • Grosser Preis der Vereinigung der internationalen Musikkritiker Paris (1997)

DFD smoking!

Recording Prizes

      • Grand Prix du Disque, Paris. Erstmalig 1955, danach fast jedes Jahr
      • Electrola Ehrenring (1970)
      • Goldenes Grammophon der Polydor International (1975)
      • Edison Preis Amsterdam, erstmals 1961, dann mehrfach
      • Prix Mondial Montreux, mehrfach
      • Großer Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, mehrfach
      • Grammy USA, mehrfach
      • Zehn Preise für die Gesamtausgabe der Schubert-Lieder für Männerstimme (1969-1971)

as Sachs

Memberships

      • Akademie der Künste Berlin
      • Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, München
      • Internationaler Musikrat, Deutsche Sektion
      • Royal Academy of Music London (Ehrenmitglied)
      • Königlich-Schwedische Akademie Stockholm (Ehrenmitglied)
      • Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft (Ehrenmitglied)
      • Internationale Schubert-Gesellschaft (Präsident)
      • Internationale Schumann-Gesellschaft (Ehrenmitglied)
      • Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Gesellschaft
      • Internationale Richard-Strauss-Gesellschaft
      • Accademia Santa Cecilia Rom
      • Deutsche Oper Berlin (Ehrenmitglied)
      • American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Ehrenmitglied)
      • Rudolf-Kempe-Gesellschaft London (Ehrenmitglied)

Family:

with his sons Manuel (left), Mathias (middle), Martin (right)

 Fischer-Dieskau married the cellist Irmgard Poppen in 1949. The couple had three sons: Mathias (born 1951), a stage designer; Martin (born 1954), a conductor (currently competing for the position of Music Director of the Hartford Symphony); Manuel (born 1963), a cellist (for several years a member of the now-disbanded Cherubini Quartet). Irmgard Fischer-Dieskau died in 1963 of complications following childbirth. Subsequently, Fischer-Dieskau married actress Ruth Leuwerik (1965-1967) and Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher (1968-75). He has been married to the soprano Julia Varady since 1977.

with Julia Varady in their garden

'A father can scarcely hope for more than a trusting friendship with his children. And I am glad that my sons, unlike those in Thomas Mann's family, do not need to jot down notes for future conversations in order to make sure that the flow of words is not dammed up too embarrassingly. We never lacked for things to talk about, especially when there were artistic experiences to be shared. And when we all took our places for an evening of chamber music, we always felt the greatest intimacy, such as non-musicians can only guess at. Whether Manuel is discussing questions of interpretation in the cello literature with me, or Martin, the conductor, brings into the discussion the interpretation of one or another orchestra leader, or Mathias, the stage designer, raises questions of stage space, or my own experiences on the concert stage serve as a negative or positive model, the exchange is always lively and fruitful. The success all three sons have earned makes my heart glad.' (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Reverberations).

'He has been the central encounter in my professional life. The goals I had as a young person were not yet clearly defined. I needed help, someone who would guide me, who would inspire and awaken me, who would help me to develop. My husband was always a mirror who made my strengths and weaknesses apparent to me, and even his criticism was kind and productive. He gave me a lot of encouragement and much good advice about my professional decisions and choices, but he also always criticized me and my performance as a singer. But that's good when the criticism is justified. And it doesn't have to be said in front of other people. Above all he has always complained that my German isn't yet perfect. When someone has lived in Germany as long as I have [he says], they ought to be able to speak impeccable German!' (Julia Varady, interviewed in D.Scholz, Mythos Primadonna).

'What the children recalled about this period, whether from their own memories or from the stories and surmises of other people (these are very difficult to separate when one is looking back on his own childhood) was their father's long absences. He, on the other hand, remembers quite clearly what happened when he was at home: the puppet-theater he built-- a reminiscence of his own artistic beginnings-- the first music lessons, and the first practicing on the piano together. There is no doubt at all about the extent of the father's influence on, or example to, his sons. The youngest boy, Manuel, once spoke very openly about his complete identification with his father's art, particularly when the children saw him on the stage or platform, as they often did. At these times he, who was so often far away, was very close to them.' (Hans A. Neunzig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: A Biography).

Cover "Autumn Jouney" Film by Bruno Monsaingeon

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herausgegeben von: © Monika Wolf, 1999-2013

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