Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Vocal Lightning Captured in a Fragile Bottle

Fischer-Dieskau's voice carries us to that primal, first speech, that musical utterance that communicates desire, represents passion, and attempts to eradicate the barriers that separate human beings.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Autumn Journey / A Franz Schubert Recital (Opera Theatre of Nuremberg)

Subtitle: Autumn Journey / A Franz Schubert Recital (Opera Theatre of Nuremberg)
Label: Kultur
US Release Date: 2007-06-26

In his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that gesture was far more eloquent than verbal language in the communication of thought. Gesture, he claimed, relied to a lesser degree on convention, could convey numerous bits of information simultaneously, and manifested the intention of the communication before the eyes with an inimitable precision. Necessity, Rousseau postulated while reveling in the open paradox, was far better served by gesture than by speech. Speech merely served to dilute such clarity of expression.

Thus Rousseau hypothesized that speech arose not out of need but rather out of passion. Vocal sounds arouse our sympathy. We physically respond to the voice of the other; we come to resonate with the tones of the vocal utterance so that we feel speech as much as we understand it. Because articulate sounds are attained only with great difficulty, Rousseau imagined that the first languages were comparable to song; pitched syllables melded into one another to create legato melodic lines. The first speech-utterance was musical; it found its purpose in the communication of desire, the representation of passion, and the attempt to eradicate the barriers that separate human beings to bring the speaker and the listener into a shared resonance of emotion, their bodies sympathetically vibrating, joined in inexplicable communion.

As everyday speech gradually eschewed pitch, song became a separate entity, a sanctified reserve for the primal emotionality that drew human beings into closer association. One might imagine that as quotidian life divorced itself from song, those who exemplified the fullness of melodic expression came to be valued as quasi-sacrosanct representatives of a human purity that reached back to recover the vestiges of a more basic humanity no longer directly accessible for the majority of worldly beings. Perhaps Rousseau’s observations are one way of accounting for the cult of the voice that has arisen in connection with certain figures, both mythic and mortal, since Orpheus purportedly moved gargantuan rocks, uprooted trees, and inveigled Death to forfeit one of his acquisitions (Eurydice), with his voice. As contrived as we might believe song to be, perhaps it connects us to something primordial in our very essence as human beings, it reunites us with our deeper emotive impulses, feelings that refuse to submit to the intellect, desires that refuse to surrender to rationality.

Within the pantheon of celebrated voices, there are a few singers who seem to transcend our reasonable expectations for what a voice can be thought to accomplish. Maria Callas, revered as much for the tragedy of her personal life as for her ability to transmute that pain into a tortured and public art, embodied the unlikely combination of a keen dramatic sensibility with a voice that quavered on the edge of instability and yet managed to wrest an unimaginably beautiful tone from the brink of collapse. Joan Sutherland, despite her utter inability to enunciate in any language whatsoever, demonstrated that the supposed limits of the human voice were no impediment to a virtuosic impetuosity that dared to adorn the mellifluous with dizzying acts of acrobatic agility. Franco Corelli, with his rarefied amalgam of animality and urbane charisma, electrified audiences and yet could deliver himself of surprisingly haunting subtleties. And yet, perhaps the greatest of them all -- if only owing to his surpassing professionalism and the chameleon-like flexibility of his musical character (always different, yet always the same) -- was a baritone known more for his lieder than for his operatic performances (although he was a prolific performer in both realms): Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Fischer-Dieskau sings Schubert -- "der Lindenbaum", accompanied by Gerald Moore

Autumn Journey & A Franz Schubert Recital is a fitting tribute to a musician (in the deepest sense of the term) whose career spans over half a century. Indeed, the DVD not only celebrates a remarkable career, but also exemplifies the miraculous quality of his matchless ability (vocal lightning captured in a fragile bottle) by including a full recital of Schubert lieder. If anything, the inclusion of the recital might be the downfall of the overall product in that Fischer-Dieskau’s unrivaled mastery of his instrument overshadows any documentarian’s ability to chart the life and accomplishments of an artist of this caliber. However, even should one only wish to sit through the documentary portion (Autumn Journey) of the DVD once, the recital will prove itself worthy of repeated viewings / listenings, each of which will repay one’s patience with fresh discoveries, new insights into a seemingly depthless talent. (I found myself compelled to hear it twice through in immediate succession upon my first encounter with the concert and have continually returned to it since.)

Autumn Journey comprises a series of interviews with Fischer-Dieskau on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1995. The baritone had just recently decided to retire as a singer (his final performance was as the eponymous antihero of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1992) and thus seems to have been in a reflective mood. Indeed, Fischer-Dieskau (both within these interviews and a host of others available in print) strikes one as an artist touched to the quick by an awareness of the passing of his ability (he claims his retirement was instigated by the gradual decline in the quality of his instrument, despite the fact that any such deterioration is practically impossible to detect in the 1991 recital recorded a mere four years prior) and the fear that his accomplishments will be lost to the vicissitudes of time and musical taste. A singer, he laments, must suffer two deaths: the death we all experience as mortals coupled with the earlier demise of his / her voice that leaves the singer to bear witness to a living death, bereft of the gift that made life meaningful. And yet, as evidenced in the documentary, Fischer-Dieskau seems to evade that singerly death altogether -- perhaps because he transferred his energies to conducting and teaching or perhaps because his voice was always timeless, always beyond the depredations of age and fortune.

The baritone worries that ours is an era of banality in which a corporate mentality that has imposed itself upon artistic expression threatens to eradicate the radical qualities of untamable individuality necessary for art in preference for a secure and manageable sameness that vouchsafes continuous revenue. And yet Fischer-Dieskau fervently believes that the lied (the artform that he clearly feels embodies the highest form of vocal expression) reached its fullest maturation in the early Romantic era, a mere decade or so after its inauguration, with the achievements of Franz Schubert. Later composers, it would seem, merely appended beautiful footnotes to Schubert’s rich accomplishment and modern singers were the humble vessels (by no means an easy existence) through which this holy cultural gift continues to live.

Thus, in a sense, vocal art is inherently a religion of the dead, a commemoration of past ingenuity. Simultaneously, Fischer-Dieskau humbly celebrates his connection to such luminaries of the world of musical composition as Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Hans Werner Henze, and Aribert Reimann. The baritone closely collaborated with all of these men to create some of the most important vocal works of the 20th century. The singer seems to see no need to clarify such paradoxes; he has lived them fully. He strikes one as an improbable musical conservative heedlessly willing to undertake the arduous difficulties of some of the most perilous creations of the avant-garde. When Fischer-Dieskau brings Reimann’s Lear to life, there can be no apparent contradiction with the baritone’s insistence that Schubert was the apex of vocal composition. Music, in all of its contemporary complexity, was never in better hands.

The documentary charts Fischer-Dieskau’s extraordinary career from his childhood to the early years of his post-retirement turn to conducting and running masterclasses. He vividly recounts his first public recital (given in 1943 at the tender age of 17) in which he tackled Schubert’s incredibly demanding song cycle, Winterreise, in Berlin during an RAF bombing. When the shells began to fall, they halted the concert as the audience and performers took refuge in a shelter. When the bombing ceased, the recital recommenced. Such were the vicissitudes of art in the time of war.

He later was conscripted into the army and landed in a POW camp where he entertained fellow soldiers with unaccompanied performances of lieder (he wonders, with an amused expression, how many of them would have preferred less serious material). The master singer discusses his marriage to soprano Julia Varady (his earlier marriages go without mention); he describes his close collaborations with conductors, accompanists, and soloists; he details his surprising, self-imposed restriction as an opera singer to primarily two venues (the Berlin and Bavarian State Operas), insisting that he required such stability in order to create the characters in a convincing manner; finally, he outlines the unique challenges of a song recital, the demands it makes that far surpass those of an opera performance. Mostly, he speaks of an artistry that boggles the mind. But he speaks of it with the placid assurance of the everyday, the familiar. He speaks with the confidence of a man who knows his craft.

Most importantly, the documentary intersperses clips of his various performances throughout its running time. Though doubtless intended as evidentiary displays of his ability, the sheer understated virtuosity and haunting musicianship of the clips rupture the smooth narrative the film attempts to establish. These excerpted performances emerge as both the subject of the investigation and the impossible limit of the film’s ability to penetrate that subject. The immense sounding presence of his voice defies attempts at explanation; it resists our efforts to pin it down to chronological development. This voice seems to stand outside time. Indeed, this is the most remarkable aspect of the DVD.

Fischer-Dieskau insists that he was not “born a star,” that his voice developed slowly over time and through great effort, and that he retired as he started to notice his capabilities declining, but the performances, ranging from the years immediately following the Second World War right up to the years just prior to his retirement, seem to belie such assurances. His voice seems untouched both by the excesses typical of youth and the ravages of time. The Schubert recital that constitutes the second half of the DVD provides eloquent testimony that just prior to his 70th birthday, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau remained . . . well, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; which is to say, he remained an artist of immeasurable ability equipped with a profound musical insight.

The documentary is not without its flaws but these are mostly shortcomings in production values. Instead of subtitling the interviews, the producers decided to overdub an English translation. In doing so, however, they hired a voice actor whose timbre and range are so close to Fischer-Dieskau’s that, at times, the two voices -- simultaneously speaking at almost equal volume (an utter failure on the part of the sound engineer) -- cancel each other out, making it nearly impossible to comprehend what is being said. Furthermore, all of the clips showing the musician conducting rehearsals or leading masterclasses are neither subtitled nor overdubbed with translations. Therefore, unless you are fairly well versed in German, you will miss out on precisely those aspects of the segments that are of the greatest interest.

Here Fischer-Dieskau imparts his hard-earned wisdom and insight to future musicians, but if German is unintelligible to you, then so will be his teachings -- a real shame that could have easily been avoided. This is particularly troubling in a clip that shows the master working with a singer on the initiation of a phrase during a Schumann song. He instructs the singer on the precise manner of attack and the particular buzzing timbre the opening “Za” sound should receive to make the greatest effect. This attention to detail and the rhythmic exactitude are among the elements that separate Fischer-Dieskau’s art from that of so many other, lesser singers. But again, without basic German, it will be lost on the English-speaking viewer.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of the DVD is not really a flaw at all; indeed, it is the disc’s greatest asset: the inclusion of the Franz Schubert recital. Here we see an extended example of Fischer-Dieskau in action but the concert is so moving, so fascinating, that it renders the documentary itself almost pointless. There is no possibility of understanding this music; one must experience it. More to the point, to return to Rousseau, one must resonate sympathetically with this Orphic master. The recital also neglects to include subtitles (although the curious viewer can easily find all texts and translations through a simple search online) but here what would seem to be a deficit merely elucidates Rousseau’s notion that vocal sound is the perfect vehicle not for the communication of concepts but rather for the communication of the passions.

One never feels at a loss for what is being conveyed; while the exact nature of the poetry may remain inscrutable, the feelings behind the performances are rendered in exacting detail. Every nuance, every subtle shading of the voice speaks to us, makes specific what we must feel. Fischer-Dieskau has the remarkable capacity for “hearing” a song in its entirety, as a whole, an all-at-once. He is then able to transmute that spatial understanding of the songworld into a temporal unfolding in which every miraculous moment remains faithful to his global conception. I can think of few other musicians (not just singers) who can manage this so effectively.

While viewing this DVD, I decided to order some CDs of Fischer-Dieskau’s recorded work (many of which I already own) to give as presents. I discovered that many of them are out of print and only available through used CD sellers. When I first heard the baritone complain that he was being forgotten, I dismissed the notion as the empty worry of an aging artist, but the dearth of available recordings (including, I fear, some of the most valued constituents of my personal collection) made me question whether he was correct in his assessment. I certainly hope not. Surely these recordings will soon be reissued. It would be a devastating loss if they were not. In the meantime, I can think of no better item to tie one over than this DVD. Even if you purchase it for the documentary out of historical curiosity, you will return to it time and again for the recital and its marvelous access to a direct form of communication that Rousseau well understood but that Fischer-Dieskau truly embodied.

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