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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: ‘I achieved too much…’

The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died today, on the anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death – one of many composers whose songs he pioneered and popularised.

I visited the great singer in his Berlin home in July 2007 for the first series of Lebrecht Interviews on BBC Radio 3.

He was alone in the house – his wife, Julia Varady, was teaching that day – and in rather sombre mood. His English was immaculate and his memory pin-point. Not once did he have to search for a name or a detail.

Open and forthcoming, he was unable to consider alternative scenarios. When I asked whether, when his first wife died, he considered suspending the career for a year to look after their three small boys, he said: ‘No. Why would I?’

I suggested that he was not the most convivial of colleagues. ‘I was correct and  friendly with everyone,’ he replied. Did he ever go out with other singers for drink or a meal after a performanxce? ‘No. What would I have had to say to them?’

Late in our conversation, he confided: ‘I achieved too much.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I left too little for my successors.’

He made these statements in a prosaic tone, as plain matters of fact. There was no pride or boastfulness in the vast scope of his work – the complete Lieder of several languages, as well as major operatic roles – merely a regret that he had set too high a benchmark.

Inflexible as he sounded, I obtained a sense of deep personal warmth and moral purpose. I saw no contradiction between this iron man and the infinite subtlety of his indelible interpretations.

UPDATE More here from the same conversation.

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  1. Petros Linardos says:

    Norman, any chance we could listen to or read the entire DFD interview? I am sure I am not alone in asking for it.

  2. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    The greatest lieder singer ever.

  3. Fischer-Dieskau did accomplish a lot, even if the remark takes the cakes for self-aggrandizement. He even recorded one of Schumann’s melodramas, “Die Flüchtlinge”, Op. 122, Nr. 2. For a rather unusual musical experience, you can listen to it here:

  4. José Bergher says:

    ‘I achieved too much.” “I left too little for my successors.”

    Wow! I’ve never read this kind of statements from any other famous musical figures. Certainly not from Mstislav Rostropovich, Pablo Casals, Arthur Grumiaux, Jascha Heifetz, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Alexander Kipnis, Lotte Lehman, Arturo Toscanini, Andrés Segovia, Vladimir Horowitz, Tito Schipa, Plácido Domingo, Kirsten Flagstad, Fyodor Chaliapin, Enrico Caruso, Gerard Souzay, Hermann Prey, Leonard Bernstein, Marian Anderson, Jussi Björling, Artur Rubinstein, Franz-Josef Haydn, Robert Schumann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter, Kathleen Ferrier, Elena Gerhardt.

    • harold braun says:

      True.Richter said,famously:”Actually,i don`t like myself.”

      • Petros Linardos says:

        José, are you sure that all those artists you mention were that modest? Horowitz, for one, has bragged quite a bit about his achievements. Fischer-Dieskau seemed to be speaking out his mind and heart, according to Norman. And that fifteen years after his singing career was over. Like him or not, his contribution to his art is colossal.

        Personally, I appreciate the Fischer-Dieskau’s apparent honesty in his interviews. But I cannot relate to his comment about not considering to take a year off to take care of his newly orphaned children.

        • José Bergher says:

          All I said is “I’ve never READ this kind of statements from any other famous musical figures.”
          I wasn’t even referring to his tremendous artistry. I loved not only his singing of lieder but also his singing in Fauré’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, Haydn’s The Seasons and The Creation, Mendelssohn’s Paulus, Mozart’s Concert Arias,Schumann’s Faust, and of course Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

    • Wanderer says:

      Indeed, it’s a most narcissistic statement of a great singer who found his niche, filling it in a most sophisticated way. But only after realizing that he had to refocus his original ambitions of becoming a leading opera singer to other fields, where his relatively small and agile voice could shine.

      But I would also like to hear him saying this in context.

  5. John Parfrey says:

    I was born in 1946. I first heard DFD as Kurvenal in the Furtwangler Tristan in 1961 and have listened to his artistry evolve over the years ever since then as his career arc traced the arc of my own life. I’m grateful that I have many of his recordings to carry me on in my own arc even though the curtain has come down on his. People sang lieder before Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and of course they have since, but he brought the form into the mainstream and brought it to life for millions through his superb interpretations of the greatest masters — poets and composers — of the art form. Every great singer today who performs in this medium owes a debt to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I’m so grateful for what he gave us.

  6. To high a benchmark ? let us give him his due but not forget there was always Souzay who for
    many was equal if not a greater singer .

  7. tgjolley says:

    even a fleeting glance of his achievements can only reveal that what he said was true.

    • Wanderer says:

      Many great performing musicians have fallen victim to their narcissism, when it comes to immortality. The performing artists ONLY creates for the moment. Recordings are mere keyhole perspectives into such moments.

      It’s the meta-dichotomy of music, that the experience of a memorable performance can’t be conserved.

  8. I first heard DFD when our German teacher played “Erlkonig” for our class (this was in the 60′s). I didn’t know the first thing about Lieder or even what it was???? BUT I never forgot the impact of his singing and to this day DFD is still the only singer that bears repeated playing without becoming boring. He has truly served the Muse

    • Istvan Horthy says:

      What a strange coincidence! I had exactly the same experience at about the same time. I asked for the record the following Christmas and was a bit put out on being given the Peter Dawson version (on a 78) because, according to my mother, “English is the most beautiful language”.

  9. Perhaps Mr. Dieskau might consider that he didn’t leave enough over for himself rather than “I left too little for my successors.” I happened to listen to Hermann Prey sing Das Schone Mullerin a few days ago. Only because I was making a joke at the library, after trying to find my library card, and in haste passing over it (it[s actually green come to think) and then having to back track, I said: “Does your machine recognize when the patron is nervous and then let you know that’s why they might have given the wrong card.” Since computers do everything (are you listening Mr. Gates?). What happened was that the machine, shortly after I made the joke, printed out that I had 33 items out (I only had 23, which printed out correctly when I asked them to do it again). Since it looked like there was no end to what spun out of the printer, I asked them to do it again, as it seemed a bit “too much.” Then only 23 printed out. So, I inspected what kind of spirit went into this joke, this “mistake,” this pfFFFFFT this “freudian” of mechanics; and I found that it repeated certain things, up and down when it printed too much, and these lines went mostly to Schubert’s unfinished Symphony (they also went to a few other interesting things…). So, I went to Schubert’s current hang out (and no, I’m not going to tell you where that is, not even the music critic that sat there by chance will I tell) and there something about the leaves in the tree, and his charm and fondness for it made me go take Das Schone Mullerin out of the library. In listening, I found out how, when the narrator hangs up his lute, there’s a green ribbon; and what a genius this is, how Muller (the poet) uses that idea….
    So, you can rest in peace Mr. Dieskau, all your accomplishments couldn’t interfere with this one end of a nonsense which no accomplishment could accomplish at all but is simply: Das Schone Mullerin…

    And now there’s something else the joke pointed out, I’m going to listen to…

  10. Wehmut2000 says:

    In his second book of memoirs, Fischer-Dieskau acknowledged that there was something cold about his personality, at least in the sense that music came before everything else, even personal relationships. Thus, the reply, “Why should I?” to the question about giving up work to care for his children is classic Fischer-Dieskau. However, this happened nearly 50 years ago. At that time, how many men would have given up their work to care for their children? He took measures to see that his children were properly cared for, and he went on with his work. Cold perhaps, but quite natural, in my opinion.

    • These views about gender and the division of labor are still not uncommon in the German-speaking classical music world, though things have improved. Sexism, of course, is not natural, nor is pushing one’s children off to outside care. Balances can be found.

  11. jamal nazreddin says:

    I listened with pleasure to this interview which was broadcast today.

    However, one or two of the questions were TOO intrusive. Something like ‘Are you happy?’ or ‘Do you cry?’.


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