His wife, the soprano Julia Varady, confirmed his death to the German press agency DPA.
He was also a formidable industry, making hundreds of recordings that pretty much set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. His output included the many hundreds of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice, the songs and song cycles of Schumann and Brahms, and those of later composers like Mahler, Shostakovich and Hugo Wolf. He won two Grammy Awards, in 1971 for Schubert lieder, and in 1973 for Brahms’s “Schöne Magelone.”
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau (pronounced FEE-shur-DEES-cow) had sufficient power for the concert hall and for substantial roles in his parallel career as a star of European opera houses. But he was essentially a lyrical, introspective singer whose effect on listeners was not to nail them to their seat backs, but rather to draw them into the very heart of song.
The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had a flawless sense of rhythm and “one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive.” Onstage he projected a masculine sensitivity informed by a cultivated upbringing and by dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his feeble brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.
His performances eluded easy description. Where reviewers could get the essence of a Pavarotti appearance in a phrase (the glories of a true Italian tenor!), a Fischer-Dieskau recital was akin to a magic show, with seamless shifts in dynamics and infinite shadings of coloration and character.
He had the good luck to age well, too. In 1988, at 62, he sang an all-Schumann program at Carnegie Hall, where people overflowed onto the stage to hear him. Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, noted that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice had begun to harden in some difficult passages — but also that he was tall and lean and handsomer than ever, and had lost none of his commanding presence. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau described in his memoir “Reverberations” (1989) how his affinity for lieder had been formed in childhood. “I was won over to poetry at an early age,” he wrote. “I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading.”
He discerned, he said, that “music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul.”
Albert Dietrich Fischer was born in Berlin on May 28, 1925, the youngest of three sons of Albert Fischer, a classical scholar and secondary school principal with relatively liberal ideas about education reform, and his young second wife, Theodora Klingelhoffer, a schoolteacher. (In 1934 Dr. Fischer added the hyphenated “Dieskau” to the family name; his mother had been a von Dieskau, descended from the Kammerherr von Dieskau, for whom J. S. Bach wrote the “Peasant Cantata.”)
“Poems by Morgenstern,” one entry read. “It is a good idea to learn them by heart, to have something to fall back on.”
“Lots of cold, lots of slush and even more storms,” read another. “Every day horses die for lack of food.”
It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”
And then his mother’s apartment in Lichterfelde was bombed. Granted home leave to help her, he found that all that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart. But as early as his second day home, he and his mother began seeking out “theater, concerts, a lot of other music — defying the irrational world.”
Prisoner and Music Star
Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy, along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on May 5, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be a musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.
Still, he was only 22 when he returned for further study at the Berlin Conservatory. He didn’t stay long. Called to substitute for an indisposed baritone in Brahms’s “German Requiem,” he became famous practically overnight. As he said, “I passed my final exam in the concert hall.”
Because of his youth, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had been in no position to make his own choices in the 1930s and ’40s, so he didn’t encounter the questions about Nazi ties that hung over many a prominent German artist after the war. (The soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, his frequent musical collaborator, repeatedly denied that she had joined the Nazi Party until confronted with evidence in 1983. “It was akin to joining a union,” she said in an explanatory letter to The Times, “and exactly for the same reason: to have a job.”)
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947. Success followed success, with lieder performances in Britain and other European countries, beginning in 1949. He first toured the United States in 1955, choosing for his New York debut to sing Schubert’s demanding “Winterreise” cycle without intermission.
He had made his opera debut in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (later renamed the Deutsche Oper), where he was hired as principal lyric baritone. He also sang regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and appeared frequently in the opera houses of Vienna, Covent Garden, Salzburg and Bayreuth.
Recording Operatic Roles
Versatility was not the least of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s assets. He tackled everything from Papageno in “The Magic Flute” — who knew that a goofy bird catcher could have immaculate diction? — to heavier parts like Wotan in “Das Rheingold” and Wolfram in “Tannhäuser.” He recorded more than three dozen operatic roles, Italian as well as German, along with oratorios, Bach cantatas and works of many modern composers, including Benjamin Britten, whose “War Requiem” he sang at its premiere in 1962.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was married in 1949 to his sweetheart from his student days, the cellist Irmgard Poppen. They had three sons: Matthias, who became a stage designer; Martin, a conductor; and Manuel, a cellist. Ms. Poppen did not live to see them grow: she died of complications after Manuel’s birth in 1963. For her husband it was a profound, disorienting loss.
He was married again, to the actress Ruth Leuwerik, from 1965 to 1967, and again, to Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher, from 1968 to 1975.
His fourth marriage, to Ms. Varady, the Hungarian soprano, in 1977, was a rewarding match. Like the many artists who studied with him more formally, Ms. Varady found him to be a kindly, constructive and totally unsparing mentor.
Master of Many Trades
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s insistence on getting things right comes through vividly in scenes of him at rehearsal or conducting master class. In a widely circulated video at the time, showing him coaching a young Christine Schäfer, Ms. Schäfer is singing beautifully, or so it would seem to your average mortal, yet the smiling maestro interrupts time and again to suggest something better. And it isn’t merely that he is invariably correct; it’s also that when he rises to sing just a few illustrative notes, the studio is instantly a stage, and he illuminates it with what seems to be an inner light.
Even better is a documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon, “Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Autumn Journey,” with archival and up-to-date footage of a master at work in his many trades.
Besides making music, he wrote about it: insightful, accessible books about the lives and music of great composers, including Schubert and Schumann. He was a widely exhibited painter, too, known especially for his portraits.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau retired from opera in 1978. He continued giving song recitals through the end of 1992 and then, on New Year’s Day 1993, announced that he would sing onstage no more.
Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:
“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.”
Mr. Amis continued, “Having used a few superlatives and described the program, there is nothing else to do but write ‘finis,’ go home, and thank one’s stars for having had the good luck to be present.”
The Voice That Made You Fall in Love With Lieder
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing at the premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: May 19, 2012
I was a serious piano student of 16 or so when I decided the time had come to discover what German lieder were all about. The first recording I bought was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin” with the pianist Gerald Moore. This was not Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s first recording of the cycle, from 1951, but the one he made 10 years later, though I knew nothing of this at the time.
I was immediately hooked. It is a tribute to Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s artistic greatness and incomparable legacy that I am just one of countless music lovers who had him as their first guide to the art of the song.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau died on Friday, just shy of his 87th birthday. The music world knew this day would come. But his death reminds me of the way I felt in 1971, when, then a student at Yale, I went to the music building for a piano lesson and saw a note posted on the door with a message of just four words: “Igor Stravinsky died today.” The death of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau feels comparably monumental.
What captivated me in that first experience of his Schubert was the seemingly effortless mix of vocal beauty and verbal directness. Even when not really following the English translation of the German poems, I hung on every word. His technique was superb. In the manner of the great musical theater performers, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau sang as if he were speaking. And there was nothing quite like his voice: a rich, warm, textured baritone. He could dip into his low range and project phrases with chesty emphasis, and soar high, sounding mellifluous and lyrical with almost tenorish colorings.
My collection of Fischer-Dieskau recordings grew steadily, not just songs of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Beethoven, Mahler and more, but also his operatic roles. Alas, my experience of his artistry comes mostly from recordings, and in this I am also not alone, at least among Americans. I heard him only in recital. But he sang opera mainly in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere in Europe, and never performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
His voice was probably light for some of the operatic roles he took on, though I remember from his recitals how penetrating and vibrant his sound was. In the theater, as critics and opera buffs consistently reported, he drew listeners in, never forcing his sound, making a virtue of subtlety.
My favorite Fischer-Dieskau opera recording — even more than his distinguished portrayal of Hans Sachs for the conductor Eugen Jochum’s classic account of Wagner’s “Meistersinger” (unrivaled for me) — is Berg’s “Wozzeck,” with Karl Böhm conducting the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, recorded in 1965. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau utterly inhabits the title role, an oppressed, delusional soldier who is forced to do menial tasks for his captain and subjected to medical experiments by a quack doctor in order to earn some money to support his common-law wife (the great Evelyn Lear) and little boy.
Yet touches of refinement and elegance in his singing lend humanity, even tragic stature, to this lowly character. While conveying the sharp contours and modernism of Berg’s atonal musical language, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau reveals the plaintive lyricism of the vocal writing.
How fitting, and a little eerie, that his death comes 12 days before the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Britten’s “War Requiem,” an enormous work for three vocal soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ and two orchestras. It was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been bombed during World War II.
Britten, a pacifist, incorporated antiwar poems by Wilfred Owen into a setting of the Latin Requiem Mass text. For the premiere performance, as a gesture of reconciliation, Britten wanted as soloists the tenor Peter Pears (an Englishman), the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian) and Mr. Fischer-Dieskau (a German), but the Soviets kept Ms. Vishnevskaya from taking part. Britten conducted this shattering work with those soloists for a 1963 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. Talk about a classic.
Though the statistics are hard to pin down, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau may be the most recorded artist in classical music history. But the stunning range of his recordings of older repertory, which include a survey of the entire catalog of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice with his faithful collaborator Gerald Moore at the piano, tended to obscure his considerable involvement with contemporary music. He performed operas, concert works and songs by, among others, Hans Werner Henze, Aribert Reimann, Gottfried von Einem and Witold Lutoslawski.
There may have been a slight downside to Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s reputation as a paragon among lieder singers, a tendency for listeners to take him for granted and search out fresher approaches. But on recording after recording he emerges as a searching and adventurous artist. When he returned to songs he had recorded years and decades earlier, to work with pianists like Sviatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel and Christoph Eschenbach, he did not simply give his old performances with new partners but threw himself into rethought interpretations.
I get such a kick from a New Yorker cartoon by William Hamilton that appeared in 1975. A Manhattan couple, obviously divorcing, are packing up things and sorting through recordings. In the caption the glowering wife says: “Just a minute! You don’t get three years of my life and the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskaus!”
How poignant that seems today. What could be more central to a person’s well-being than Fischer-Dieskau recordings?