Meeting with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
By STEPHEN MOSS
Sunday 2 April 2000
DIETRICH Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest
singers of the 20th century, will be 75 in May, but he
would rather not think about it. "I don't want too much attention," he says. "Seventy-five is a stupid
His record company, Deutsche Grammophon, disagrees
and is releasing a 21-CD set of his
recordings, and on Sunday he makes his belated debut at London's Wigmore Hall, discussing his
career with Sir John Tooley at an event to raise funds for young musicians. Fischer-Dieskau retired in
1992 after a remarkable 50-year career in lieder and opera, but his recorded legacy - he is perhaps
the most recorded artist in the world - has ensured that his musicianship lives on. The new DG
compilation includes some previously unreleased material, including a recording of Schubert's Die
Schone Mullerin made with Jorg Demus in 1968.
Fischer-Dieskau's house is in a leafy suburb
of West Berlin. He has lived here since 1949 and it fits
him perfectly: large but not lavish, exuding serenity. He is charming and courteous, serving tea in
delicate china cups and apologising for his English (which is very good). He wants no fuss over his
birthday - just as, when he retired, he preferred not to have a gala farewell ("far too sad and final") -
yet he is by no means self-effacing: he knows the extent of his achievement. He seems to have
complete recall of his career - he sang Winterreise about 120 times in public and appears to remember
every icy journey.
"I never sang it exactly the same way
twice," he says. "I was always glad to find some new
There is so much life in it, so much essence. The songs are full of colours and possibilities: you circle
around them and approach the centre, but you never reach it. Schubert provides the perfect union of
text and music."
How did he manage to stay at the top for half
a century? "I knew how to treat my voice and had a
very good understanding of it," he says. He now teaches singing and says that is the first lesson for
young singers - protect the voice and develop it at the right pace. "The danger for young musicians is
that they can become part of the commercial machine. Very often the natural development of a talent is
hindered by that."
Fischer-Dieskau always sang parts when he
felt ready rather than when others wanted him to (in his
20s he had the confidence to say no to the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who wanted him
to sing Sachs in Meistersinger). He says that for many years he had no baritone rivals in Germany and
thus did not suffer the competitive hothousing that can damage singers. Two other factors conditioned
his career: the aftermath of the second world war and the post-war boom in recorded music. The
latter made him an international star, able to reach a wider audience than any singer previously. And
the former made him, as a German who had fought in the war and been a teenage POW in Italy, a
symbol of reconciliation. When the soloists were chosen for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's War
Requiem at the rebuilt Coventry cathedral in 1962, he was the natural choice to represent his nation.
"It was not easy in the beginning,"
he says. "But it got better every year. I was the symbol
old-fashioned culture because the songs I sang came from former times and meant a great deal to the
older people in the audience."
As a lieder singer he built a close relationship
with the accompanist Gerald Moore -"a marvellous
pianist and the most unpretentious person I have ever met" - that lasted for 25 years and produced
recordings that still dominate the repertoire. Later, he sang with Daniel Barenboim, with whom he
toured Israel, the first visit to that country by a German-speaking soloist. He also sang at the opening
of both the Munich Opera House and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, emphasising his place in post-war
Germany's economic and cultural re-emergence. He sang for the final time at a New Year's Eve
concert in Munich, suddenly deciding on the rightness of ending with an aria from his beloved Falstaff -
"all the world is an illusion".
He still sees his singing career as part of
his present, not his past. "I quite often listen to my recordings,
especially to those which were recorded live," he says. "The live recordings bring back the atmosphere
to me, so that I can even see the room in which the recital took place and remember the audience
filling the hall."
Those audiences adored him - the reason he
never sang at the Wigmore Hall was that it was too small
for his legion of London fans - yet he did not seek devotion. "Adoration can be a hindrance and get in
the way of a performance. It is enough if they want to listen to the music. That means a lot. Members
of the audience come as single persons, from different backgrounds, with different thoughts and
moods. My objective was to transform them into a whole."
Fischer-Dieskau has only one regret - that
he did not begin conducting earlier. He has developed a
career as a conductor but evidently feels that, had he begun sooner and combined singing with
conducting, he might have reached the first rank and been considered for music-director posts. "You
are put into a drawer which you can't get yourself out of," he says. "It is very difficult." But what a