Opera's sublime master of technique captured heart of a song




28-5-1925 18-5-2012

DIETRICH Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose beautiful voice and mastery of technique made him the 20th century's pre-eminent interpreter of art songs, has died at his home in Bavaria. He was 86.

Fischer-Dieskau was by wide acclamation one of the world's great singers from the 1940s to his official retirement in 1992, and an influential teacher and orchestra conductor for many years thereafter.

He was also a formidable industry: he made hundreds of recordings that set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. His output included many hundreds of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice, the songs and song cycles of Schumann and Brahms, and those of later composers such as Mahler, Shostakovich and Hugo Wolf.

Fischer-Dieskau won two Grammy Awards, in 1971 for Schubert lieder and in 1973 for Brahms' Schoene Magelone.

The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said 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 dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.

He was born in Berlin, the youngest of three sons of Albert Fischer, a classical scholar and secondary school principal, and his second wife, Theodora Klingelhoffer, a schoolteacher. (In 1934, 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.)

A shy, private child who nonetheless liked to entertain, he put on puppet shows in which he voiced all the parts, sometimes for an audience of one: his physically and mentally disabled brother, Martin, with whom he shared a room.

Before adolescence, Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group. His father died when he was 12, and he had just finished secondary school and a term at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front.

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."

Fischer-Dieskau was on the Italian front when he was captured and imprisoned by the Americans on May 5, 1945. Soon he was sent around to entertain other PoWs from the back of a truck. He was 22 when he returned for further study at the conservatory, but was soon called as a substitute for a baritone in Brahms' German Requiem. He became famous almost overnight, saying: "I passed my final exam in the concert hall."

Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in 1947, and made his opera debut in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi's Don Carlos at Berlin's Staedtische 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, Salzburg, Covent Garden and Bayreuth.

Lieder performances in Britain and other European countries began in 1949, and he first toured the United States in 1955. He published a book of memoirs, Nachklang, in 1987, translated into English as Echoes of a Lifetime.

He is survived by his fourth wife, the soprano Julia Varady, whom he married in 1977, and three sons by his first wife, the cellist Irmgard Poppen, who died in 1963.

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