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Listen Up: Remembering Fischer Dieskau

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A Voice from Ruins

An appraisal of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau passed away this year, there were few superlatives raining down on him in obituaries that hadn’t already been used during his lifetime. He was one of three or four giants in classical music who were able to shape the cultural landscape — and he was the last one. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau need not have been your favorite singer in order to acknowledge his greatness and importance.

Like Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, Fischer-Dieskau arrived right at the time when recording technology allowed for the easier-than-ever dissemination of music, when competition was limited, and when classical music still defined mainstream culture, even for those who didn’t much care for it. With some four hundred records to his name, Fischer-Dieskau became one of the most recorded singers of all time. In Germany he is called Der Jahrhundertsänger — literally that’s “singer of the century,” or “hundred-year singer,” although neither translation does justice to the air of veneration the term connotes. His complete recordings of Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wolf, Beethoven and Brahms and copious doses of other, less well-known Lieder composers were the record collector’s natural (and often sole) choice. There are few classical-music listeners above the age of thirty-five for whom Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations of this repertoire didn’t leave the emotional footprint of first exposure.

The quantity and, at its best, quality, intelligence and matter-of-course-ness of his Lieder singing made German art songs known, even popular, in non-German-speaking countries. American critics, marveling at the quality of his Lied interpretations, were more reserved in their Fischer- Dieskaumania than their German and English colleagues, but not by much. Harold C. Schonberg called him “the most protean singer alive today,” saying he was “acknowledged to be the greatest of contemporary lieder singers [who] has triumphed in opera . . . from Handel to Henze [and] a stalwart in oratorio work.” Donal Henahan referred to Fischer-Dieskau as “that paragon of 20th-century singers.”

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