I usually reject the declinist conceit in classical music—the belief that the Golden Age of performance lies behind us. But when it comes to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Olympian German baritone who died last month at age 86, I must succumb. German art songs, Lieder, have never had an interpreter of such exquisite sensibility; whether they ever will again remains to be seen. Yes, Fischer-Dieskau’s lyrical voice was stunningly beautiful, with a legato that enveloped the listener in the warmth of the most tender humanity. But it was what he did with that natural beauty that set him apart. No other musician has brought such subtlety of phrasing to the song literature. Each note and syllable were characterized by an individual nuance of breath, vibrato, and pulse, the product of a probing intelligence that at every moment considered how verbal meaning interacted with musical line. As a result, a song in Fischer-Dieskau’s hands led one to contemplate in awe the mysteries of human communication itself.

The tributes that have poured forth after Fischer-Dieskau’s death have stressed the unsurpassed breadth of his repertoire, the result of his drive for musical knowledge. He recorded more art songs than any other singer, including all the major song cycles, unknown works of known composers such as Meyerbeer, Liszt, and C. P. E. Bach, and works of composers who otherwise would not be known at all, such as Peter Cornelius and Johann Friedrich Reichardt (the latter of whom Fischer-Dieskau recorded in his efforts to track down all the musical settings of Goethe’s poetry). His nearly 100 operatic roles spanned from Handel to Hans Werner Henze. He played a central role in the rebuilding of Germany’s musical culture and reputation after World War II, and also conducted, wrote, and painted—the last with an impressive mimetic skill and Expressionistic flair.

All this is true and important. But to enter into the heart of Fischer-Dieskau’s contribution to civilization, we must turn to Franz Schubert. It was in Schubert’s songs, with their unbearable poignancy and uncanny sensitivity to text, that Fischer-Dieskau’s gifts reached their apotheosis. Along with the incomparable accompanist Gerald Moore, Fischer-Dieskau recorded for Deutsche Grammophon every Schubert song suitable for the male voice—over 400 of them—a feat of dedication and learning by both pianist and singer that no one has since attempted. Merely making this body of work, much of it unfamiliar, easily available in its entirety for the first time would in itself be a major contribution to culture. But this massive three-volume collection of records, completed in 1972, contains music-making on every track that has rarely been matched in its intensity and precision.

The purchase of the Deutsche Grammophon sets, priced in the hundreds of dollars, may seem like a daring extravagance, but it is really a milestone commitment to musical culture—the equivalent of buying all of The Remembrance of Things Past or the complete Greek tragedies and comedies. Though a recording can never match the magic of live performance, these albums have a singular musical virtue in their own right, thanks to what critic Harvey Sachs calls Fischer-Dieskau’s “absolute master[y] of the microphone.” The nearness of Fischer-Dieskau’s breath and the still, hovering hush of his pianissimo are almost too intimate to bear.

To launch into the collection is to plunge into the lost world of German romantic poetry, with its passion for nature—above all, water, whether running, still, turbulent, or transparent; its embrace of solitude and loneliness, embodied in the figures of the wanderer and the hermit; its yearning for transcendence; and its exploration of every variant of romantic love. It is a world where invoking classical myth is still possible—but just barely, as Friedrich von Schiller’s lament for the Hellenic gods he can no longer see makes clear. Naturally, Schubert set stanzas from Schiller’s Die Götter Griechenlands (Greece’s Gods) with aching pathos. (Here is baritone Matthias Goerne’s rendition of the song; Fischer-Dieskau’s is not available online.) Schubert’s love for this literature—whether long heroic ballads or two-stanza teardrops of longing—was deep and lifelong. He appropriated from the greatest German writers of his time—Goethe, Schiller, Friedrich von Schlegel, and Heinrich Heine—and from his Viennese friends, such as Matthäus von Collin and Baron Franz von Schlechta, whose names have survived today thanks to Schubert’s settings.

Up through the early nineteenth century, the solo song, accompanied by piano, had been a minor genre; Schubert turned it into one of the greatest. Whether Schubert himself, who could knock off five songs in a day, shared that assessment is uncertain. In 1823, he wrote dismissively to a friend that “since my opera I have composed nothing but a few songs to Müller.” Those “few songs” were none other than the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Miller’s Daughter), to the poetry of the German classicist Wilhelm Müller, a work universally regarded as a masterpiece; the opera, Fierrabras, has—deservedly or not—almost sunk from sight.

Schubert’s capacity to embody in music a poem’s subject matter—whether the moon’s quiet orbit or the unquiet of the person watching it—was astounding. The emotional power of his songs comes from their fertile melodic sense and diaphanous harmonies, whose alternation between major and minor modes trace a poem’s most delicate tremors of feeling. Schubert maintained a firmer loyalty to form than later Lieder composers. Unlike Schumann’s unsettling piano accompaniments, which can snake languorously beyond the verse like a tendril of jasmine, Schubert’s piano parts, however technically challenging, rarely exceed a brief introduction or conclusion to the poem. And unlike florid eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century bel canto operatic writing, Schubert’s work maintains a close correspondence between syllable and note. His vocal ornaments are few and modest; the listener never loses awareness of the word being sung or the meaning conveyed.

For Goethe, however, who would be such a powerful inspiration to Schubert, the young Viennese composer had already taken Romantic expression too far. Goethe resented any songwriting that distracted from his poetry with too much musical finesse. Amusingly, he preferred his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter’s pedestrian settings, which were limited to a few unimaginative chord progressions. Fischer-Dieskau, with his zest for musical archaeology, exhumed Zelter’s settings of Goethe’s poems (as well as recorded the correspondence between Zelter and Goethe); the hackneyed coloratura embellishment on “frei” in Zelter’s Mailied is simply unimaginable from Schubert.

YouTube contains a decent smattering of songs from the Deutsche Grammophon Schubert collection, thanks to listeners’ dedication. It is worth listening carefully to a few available offerings. The early gem Der Jüngling an der Quelle (The Youth at the Fountain), with text by the Swiss aristocrat Johann Gaudenz von Salis-Seewis, is a good place to start. The crystalline piano opening echoes the clear running stream by whose side the poet seeks relief from his erotic yearning:

Leise rieselnder Quell! Softly rippling fountain!
Ihr wallenden flispernden Pappeln! You tossing, whispering poplars!
Euer Schlummergeräusch Your lullaby murmurs
Wecket die Liebe nur auf. Only waken love.
Linderung sucht’ ich bei euch, I sought comfort from you,
Und sie zu vergessen, die Spröde. And to forget her, the coy one.
Ach, und Blätter und Bach Ah, but the leaves and brook
Seufzen, Luise, dir nach. Sigh, Luise, for you.

Fischer-Dieskau’s hushed vibrato in the first two lines already contains subtle variations in pulse and intonation, such as the breathed emphasis on the first syllable of “Pappeln.” His characteristic elasticity of phrasing enlivens the fourth line, “Wecket die Liebe nur auf”: he swings up in a controlled release of energy on “auf,” as love itself is awakened, then grows quiet again. By contrast, Jonas Kaufmann, today’s hottest young tenor, merely traverses the same interval without dynamic tension in his strangely somnolent rendition of the song, and he makes no effort to shape the words. Fischer-Dieskau’s further shadings of energy and enunciation include an impossibly tender, whispered ending of “euch” in the fifth line, the elegant enjambment in the final iteration of “Bach/Seufzen,” and the slight but arresting pause before the final “dir nach.” Kaufmann simply fades out.

Erlafsee (Lake Erlaf), another early water work from 1817, set to text by Schubert’s close friend Johann Mayrhofer, embodies that suspended state we can reach contemplating natural beauty; its fleeting modulations into minor modes, like the poem’s wisps of clouds passing over the sun, express the undercurrent of melancholy in solitude:

Mir ist so wohl, so weh’ I feel so happy, so sad
Am stillen Erlafsee; On quiet Erlafsee;
Heilig Schweigen Holy silence
In Fichtenzweigen, In the pine braches,
Regungslos Motionless
Der blaue Schoß, The blue depths,
Nur der Wolken Schatten flieh’n Only the clouds’ shadows fly
Überm glatten Spiegel hin. Over the smooth mirror.
Frische Winde Cool winds
Kräuseln linde Gently ruffle
Das Gewässer, The water,
Und der Sonne And the sun’s
Güldne Krone Golden crown
Flimmert blässer. Glimmers palely.
Mir ist so wohl, so weh’ I feel so happy, so sad
Am stillen Erlafsee. On quiet Erlafsee.

Once more, the elasticity of Fischer-Dieskau’s line is stunning: it is a living, breathing thing, with a constant push and pull of energy and repose, tension and release. The glissando into “Schweigen” is particularly seductive. His use of vibrato to highlight certain words is as precise as a string player’s; the nasal “ä” in the second “blässer” is part of an almost infinitely varied vocal palette. (The melody of “Und der Sonne / Güldne Krone” adumbrates the final lullaby of Die Schöne Müllerin.)

The gorgeous and better-known Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen (To Be Sung on the Water, from 1823), set to a poem by the German-Danish diplomat Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg, is a metaphysical water work in which the soul is likened to a boat gliding over the waves of mutable time until it soars free into eternity. The swinging barcarole-like momentum, driven along by the cascades of right-hand repeated notes that Moore unfurls effortlessly, anticipates Liszt. Here the harmonic poignancy comes from Schubert’s fleeting modulations into major from the starting A-flat minor.

Mitten im Schimmer der spiegelnden Wellen Amid the shimmer of mirroring waves
Gleitet, wie Schwäne, der wankende Kahn; The lightly tossed boat glides like a swan;
Ach, auf der Freude sanftschimmernden Wellen Ah, on joy’s gently-shimmering waves
Gleitet die Seele dahin wie der Kahn; The soul glides like a boat;
Denn von dem Himmel herab auf die Wellen From heaven onto the waves
Tanzet das Abendrot rund um den Kahn. Dances the evening’s glow round about the boat.
Über den Wipfeln des westlichen Haines Over the tops of the western grove
Winket uns freundlich der rötliche Schein; The rosy light beckons us kindly;
Unter den Zweigen des östlichen Haines Under the branches of the eastern grove
Säuselt der Kalmus im rötlichen Schein; The reeds rustle in the rosy light;
Freude des Himmels und Ruhe des Haines The soul breathes heaven’s joy
Atmet die Seel im errötenden Schein. And the grove’s peace in the reddening glow.
Ach, es entschwindet mit tauigem Flügel Ah, time vanishes from me with dewy wings
Mir auf den wiegenden Wellen die Zeit. On the cradling waves.
Morgen entschwinde mit schimmerndem Flügel Tomorrow with shimmering wings it will vanish
Wieder wie gestern und heute die Zeit, Again like yesterday and today,
Bis ich auf höherem strahlenden Flügel Until I, on higher, radiant wings
Selber entschwinde der wechselnden Zeit. Myself disappear from changeable time.

Fischer-Dieskau’s vocal colors range here from hushed and tender in the first two stanzas—punctuated by his glorious crescendi on “Tanzet” and “Atmet”—to a darker sound in the final strophe. He lays down the concluding “Zeit” as gently as one would a baby upon the grass; the aspiration of the final “t” is like a caress.

At the end of his tragically short life, Schubert returned briefly to Italian poetry, which he had occasionally set since his early studies with Antonio Salieri. Gioachino Rossini—five years Schubert’s senior and lionized in Vienna since the late 1810s—may have been the most immediate musical influence on the Drei Gesänge (Three Italian Songs, 1827) which Schubert dedicated to a famous Italian bass, but they’re clearly also an homage to Mozart, with echoes of Elettra from Idomeneo and Figaro from Le Nozze di Figaro. Fischer-Dieskau’s rendition of these delightful songs is startling, after a listener has been immersed in his German corpus. His voice, in a lower-than-usual register, is suddenly tauter, more covered, and, above all, ironic, manifesting the self-conscious artifice of Italian style, which Fischer-Dieskau’s contemporary Cesare Siepi so erotically personified. The German Romantics were no strangers to irony, of course, but the fundamental quality in most of Schubert’s German songs is sincerity. Self-presentation in Italian musical forms is more rhetorical: the fictionalized self is playing a role and knows it. Fischer-Dieskau effortlessly conveyed both German authenticity and Italian theatricality. (His Don Giovanni, recorded in 1958 under the baton of Ferenc Fricsay, also demonstrates his understanding of Italian sprezzatura, though it will not displace Siepi’s ownership of the role.)

Not everyone was equally enthusiastic about Fischer-Dieskau’s deeply thought-out performances. Radio host George Jellinek said that his interpretive genius was the kind that “always searches for solutions even when there are no problems.” But the degree of detail in Fischer-Dieskau’s readings in fact varied with the music. His “Mache Dich, Mein Herze Rein” (“Make Yourself Pure, My Heart”), the cathartic final aria of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, recorded in 1958 with Karl Richter, contains little of what a fence-sitter like Jellinek might call the almost Mannerist aspects of Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert; the line flows in a straighter course, with less localized inflection and vibrato. And that is not just because Richter’s interpretation anticipated the coming early-music trend. Rather, it is because the aria’s text represents a collective subjectivity, not a Romantic poet’s intensely individualized one. “Mache Dich” expresses the redemption of all believers. Embroidering the Passion text as if it were lyric poetry would not be appropriate.

The key to Fischer-Dieskau’s accomplishment in the Lieder repertoire lies at the end of Deutsche Grammophon’s Volume II (the final of the individual song sets; Volume III contains the song cycles). To come upon this track now makes one’s hair stand on end. It is Abschied von der Erde (Farewell to the Earth), five spoken stanzas from a play by Adolf von Pratobevera, remembered today only as an Austrian minister of justice. This genre of “melodrama”—narrated text set to piano or orchestra—was popular in the nineteenth century, and Schubert created more melodramas than any composer of his stature, according to pianist Graham Johnson. Abschied, from 1826, is a dying man’s valediction to mortal joys and sorrows, accompanied by a heartbreaking piano arpeggiation, whose cross rhythms recall Schubert’s early piano sonatas. (Here is a performance by tenor Ian Bostridge.) Fischer Dieskau’s speaking voice, as if from the grave, is almost impossible to encounter here without tearing up, especially addressing such a theme. It is higher than one might expect—explaining the light, lyrical quality of his baritone—but just as tender. The performance shows that for Fischer-Dieskau, language itself was already music, even before it was turned into song. Melodrama gave the speaker enormous discretion in fitting the spoken line over the accompaniment; Fischer-Dieskau creates a flowing tide of sound and silence, pulling against the piano’s triplets. His command of diction rivals that of the best classically trained actor. He cradles his rolled R’s and silken S’s, delighting in the character of each German phoneme. His breath infuses the verse with life and sweetness. For him, the process of signification, of creating meaning through words, was an act of utmost seriousness.

It is no wonder, then, that pairing Fischer-Dieskau’s artistry with Schubert’s genius, which wedded poetry to music as no composer has before or since, resulted in such an overpowering legacy. We should be grateful that Fischer-Dieskau lived during the age of recording.

(Here are a final few lesser-known delights from the Schubert collection available on YouTube: Der Wanderer an den Mond (The Wanderer to the Moon, 1826), beginning at minute seven; Im Frühling (In Spring, 1826), beginning at 4:19; An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night, 1818); Der Wanderer (1819); and Liane (1815). More familiar offerings are Der Musensohn (The Muses’ Son, 1822) and Du Bist die Ruh (You Are Repose, 1823).

The Deutsche Grammophon Fischer-Dieskau-Moore set sadly contains no index. For readers who might want to listen on disc to the songs discussed here, they can be found as following: Die Götter Griechenlands, Volume II, disc 3, track 13; Der Jüngling an der Quelle, Vol. II, disc 4, track 14; Erlafsee, Vol. II, disc 1, track 16; Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen, Vol. II, disc 5, track 22; Drei Gesänge, Vol. II, disc 9, tracks 3-5; Abschied von der Erde, Vol. II, disc 9, track 16.)


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