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Remembering Opera Singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

May 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
German opera singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died Friday at age 86, was a master of the Lieder, a form of German song that he helped make popular in the 20th century. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Anne Midgette, a classical music critic for The Washington Post, about Fischer-Dieskau's legacy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, remembering world-renowned singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was a master of opera and leader in the classical German art song, a prolific performer and recording artist who became one of the leading musicians of the 20th century.

He died Friday at the age of 86.

Here’s a clip of Fischer-Dieskau singing a section of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise. The performance was recorded in 1979 with Alfred Brendel the piano.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now is Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for The Washington Post.

I could see your concentration watching that. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

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ANNE MIDGETTE, The Washington Post: It’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful song, a wonderful cycle, which, of course, he recorded eight times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eight times?

ANNE MIDGETTE: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the great musicians of the 20th century, but why? What makes him so?

ANNE MIDGETTE: Well, I put that in the obituary partly deliberately because there’s a canard that singers are not really musicians.

And Fischer-Dieskau exploded that canard, perhaps the exception that proves the rule, in that he uses his voice like an instrument. He has such supreme technical mastery of the voice. He can really do anything he wants with it. He could sing any vowel on any note and with any shade of coloring.

And one thing you can’t see from just seeing him in one clip is the way he would change his style and his approach for different music. So when he was singing French opera, he sounded French. And when he was singing Wagner, he sounded rich and profound. And that kind of mutability, an ability to immerse himself in music, is one of the — is a very hard thing to achieve.

JEFFREY BROWN: The art song, the German lieder that we just were hearing, that he so personified, explain a little bit what that is and the role it plays in the world of classical music.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Well, there is a mystique about the art song, which is almost unfortunate, because it leads newcomers to music to think that it’s very dry and abstract and serious, as the clip indeed we just saw sort of puts forward.

But it’s basically a song. The song is the most basic unit of music. The mystique has grown up because it’s great poetry — or sometimes kind of schlocky poetry set to great music by wonderful composers and it forms a real cornerstone of the vocal repertoire, particularly German art songs, because there’s a lot of it.

And Fischer-Dieskau dominated that area as no one else probably before or since. It truly became his calling card, but that’s a little unfortunate, in that it keeps us from appreciating the range of his musical ability, which did go beyond the art song.

And I don’t think I fully realized until quite recently what a formidable opera singer he was, even of Italian opera, which we don’t associate with him at all. I think Fischer-Dieskau was the voice of the German music to many people, but they — who don’t realize that he could also do Italian and French and even English.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, whether in opera or in those art songs, more recordings than any artist ever? That’s what I read. And that kind of stunned me.

ANNE MIDGETTE: I believe that’s true, although as one of my editors said, some Motown record recording artist from Detroit is going to come and say, I played. . .

ANNE MIDGETTE: . . . 1,500.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Okay. So he’s up — but he’s at least up there in the world record of. . .

ANNE MIDGETTE: He made something like 1,000 LPs.

There was an article in The New York Times in 1980, which he was still very, very active, pointing out he had recorded almost 3,000 songs, he had recorded 59 complete operas, 117 oratorios. I hope I’m getting those figures right, but I’m in the ballpark, just an incredible volume and prolific artistry. And the fact that he could approach that broad a spectrum with such focus is — it’s remarkable.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that also made him the voice for millions of people who care about this music, because of those recordings. And you said eight times recording just that Winterreise, that Schubert.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Yes. Yes.

And especially I think for American listeners, because he didn’t sing opera if at all very seldom and never at the Metropolitan Opera in America — most of his operatic work was in Europe. And so we knew him almost exclusively as a singer of these art songs, thee recitals, which were sort of a pinnacle for many music lovers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online. but for now, Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Thanks for having me.