German baritone Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau, considered the most prolifically
recorded male concert singer of all time, died on Friday in Berg on Starnberg
Lake, the Bavarian State Opera announced on its website. He was 86 years
“The death of Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau is a great loss for the
entire music world,” the opera’s administrator, Nikolaus Bachler, said in a
statement. “Through his interpretations of vocals he decisively influenced the
art of opera singing. Today’s vocals would be unthinkable without the influence
of Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau.”
Fischer-Dieskau was one of the most
accomplished opera and lied (art-song) singers of the 20th century. During his
peak in the 1960s he was admired equally by audiences and peers. He was a
pioneer in popularizing the lied genre in the concert hall and was unique in his
emphasis on the expressive role of the singer in non-dramatic roles.
presentation stressed the meaning of the words he sang much more so than that of
other singers of his time. Critics claimed his interpretation was sometimes
exaggerated, stressing the drama of the words at the expense of the completeness
of the musical phrase.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin in 1925 and
began singing at a young age, beginning formal training at 16. He was drafted
into the Wehrmacht during World War II and was captured in Italy in
He returned to Germany in 1947, the year in which he began his
professional career by singing Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on short notice
At about the same time, producer Walter Legge hired
Fischer- Dieskau to sing lied albums of music by Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert.
Both albums were immediately successful.
Legge also teamed him with
sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefrid, and later with mezzo-soprano
In 1951 Fischer-Dieskau recorded his first album with
pianist Gerlad Moore, who specialized in accompanying singers. They recorded
many additional albums together. In 1972 they compiled the first complete
recording of all Schubert music appropriate for the male voice – a monumental
“He had only to sing one phrase,” Moore wrote in his memoirs,
“before I knew I was in the presence of a master.”
With another pianist,
Jorg Demus, Fischer-Dieskau recorded one of the most highly-acclaimed
interpretations of Schubert’s Winterreise.
Fischer-Dieskau also recorded
much-acclaimed albums of Mahler’s songs with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. In
these, his trademark emphasis on the drama of the words resulted in some of the
finest performances of Mahler’s works.
Fischer-Dieskau was equally
comfortable on the opera stage as he was in the recital hall, and as fluent a
performer in Italian as he was in German. He also sang roles in Russian, French
and Hungarian, recording the male role in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle under both
Ferenc Fricsay and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Under the baton of Israeli
conductor Gary Bertini, Fischer- Dieskau even sang in Hebrew for Stravinsky’s
cantata Abraham and Isaac.
He sang roles in Wagner operas at the Bayreuth
Festival and Mozart operas at the Salzburg Festival in the late 1950s. He was
also a champion of modern music, singing in Berg’s Wozzeck as well as in works
by Benjamin Britten, Ernst Krenek, Aribert Reimann and Witold Lutoslawski. He
sang in the legendary recording of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the
His recordings of operas by Italian composers were less
successful than those of German operas. His delivery was always intelligent and
balanced, lacking, perhaps, the gusto and temperament necessary for the typical
male roles in operas by Verdi and Puccini, although he was a remarkably humane
and sympathetic Conte in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Fricsay said about him, “I
never dreamed I’d find an Italian baritone in Berlin.”
retired from the stage in 1978 after recording Reimann’s opera Lear, which the
composer wrote at the baritone’s suggestion. He continued singing in recitals
until the age of 67, and continued performing as a conductor
Fischer-Dieskau was also an influential teacher and amateur
painter. A series of reissues of his recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label
is decorated with cover art based on his paintings.
several awards in his life and was hailed as a singer with flawless technique.
In a critics’ poll taken by the music magazine Classic CD in 1999 he was ranked
the second greatest singer of the 20th century.
His vast body of
recordings of music from all eras and his perfect vocal technique make many of
his albums “benchmark recordings.” Inevitably, albums recorded by baritones
today are often judged against his interpretation as a reference.
Dieskau was married four times. Of his three sons from his first marriage, the
first was a stage designer, the second a conductor and the third a cellist.
Since 1977 he was married to the soprano Julia Varady.
contributed to this report.