Voice of the Mind

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ‘s Schubert song cycle is endlessly instructive, even if it isn’t always transporting

By Matthew Gurewitsch

THE sad news has quietly been getting around that Dietrich FischerDieskau (born in 1925), since the fifties the pre-eminent master of the German art song, has retired from the concert stage—driven away, it is said, by unkind reviews. Can this explanation be true? FischerDieskau, who according to folklore has for decades been papering the walls of his Berlin bathroom with critics’ attacks?

Fischer-Dieskau, who as recently as two summers ago could deliver Schubert’s hour-long cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller’s Fair Daughter) in an account so fresh, so original, and so technically accomplished as to fasten the hyperfashionable, hypercritical audience of the Salzburg Festival onto every phrase, every inflection?

People argued about Fischer-Dieskau in his heyday; they have argued about him in the twilight of his long career; they will go on arguing as long as an audience for lieder exists. And so they should. Everyone admits that his voice had a thousand colors, but what of simple beauty? Everyone knows that he has a mind of infinite subtlety, but what about a heart? A master he assuredly was. from his earliest days, but is he a good model? On these questions there can never be consensus. It is certain, though, that Fischer-Dieskau’s passion, intelligence, curiosity, and daring have been of an order to transform a classical, perhaps academic, heritage into a brave new world. Performers of like stature appear once in a generation, a lifetime, or a century.

Now that Fischer-Dieskau has crept from our company, Deutsche Grammophon has at last reissued the most monumental part of his sprawling discography: the three-volume compendium of songs by Franz Schubert, recorded from 1966 to 1972, formerly available on twenty-nine LPs, now complete on twenty-one compact discs running twentyfour and a half hours. (Song texts and translations have been reprinted, but not, unfortunately, the index of titles and first lines or the excellent biographical notes on Schubert’s poets.) The survey, undertaken with the late Gerald Moore (at the time the prince of accompanists) at the piano, follows, w’ith minor adjustments, the order of Eusebius Mandyczewski’s still-standard edition of the Schubert songs, published from 1884 to 1897. Items that presuppose a female interpreter are omitted, as are certain ballads of such monstrous length—some close to thirty minutes—that not even the tireless Fischer-Dieskau could push his way through. (In his wake other singers have taken up the challenge, with some interesting results.) Fischer-Dieskau’s tally stands at 463 songs, including the cycles Die schöne Müllerin (twenty songs), Winterreise (Winter Journey, twentyfour), and Schwanengesang (Swan Song, fourteen). Other singers account themselves specialists with a repertoire of, say, the cycles plus three dozen other songs. No singer before or since FischerDieskau has gone into this literature in anything approaching such depth.

WHO was Franz Schubert? The world, vague in its grasp of history, and sentimental, has long thought of him as the chubby Biedermeier successor to the discredited rococo Mozart of the chocolate boxes, warbling his native wood-notes wild through the cobbled streets of old Vienna and the surrounding countryside. This much is true: He was born in 1797 to the master of a by-nomeans-flourishing private school, showed early musical promise, sang as a boy in the choir of the court chapel, and studied composition with Antonio Salieri—the same Salieri slandered by posterity as the poisoner of Mozart. As a young man he attracted a circle of devoted admirers who gathered for private concerts of his music, called Schubertiades. He died in 1828, at the age of thirty-one. (Mozart, also struck down before his time, reached thirty-five.)

Earlier generations assumed that typhoid fever was the cause of Schubert’s death. Recent scholars have diagnosed syphilis: moreover, they have associated the composer with a secret (outlaw) milieu of homosexuals—which among other things would help make sense of some very puzzling songs to texts by literati of his acquaintance. In “Im Freien” (“Outdoors”), for instance, such a subtext can bring into focus the hazy intimations of passionate friendships under the starry sky. It may also hold the key to the obscure allegory “Uraniens Flueht” (“Urania’s Escape”). Zeus, outraged by humanity’s treatment of the poor goddess Urania, wants to smite the feckless planet, but at the sight of a pair of lovers he stays his hand. Are the lovers two men? The (homosexual) poet’s circumspect wording seems calculated to leave open that possibility. His friends would have known what he meant. Love like ours is the thing itself, he could be saying; it redeems the world.

Whatever further revelations the biographers may have in store, the sources of Schubert’s art, like Shakespeare’s, lie deeper than did ever plummet sound. His output was prodigious: nine symphonies, culminating in the revelation of the “Great” C Major; more than a dozen piano sonatas and a host of sublime shorter piano pieces; fifteen string quartets, a string quintet, and two piano trios, all glories of the chamber-music literature; a host of operas, ten or so completed, though none ever established itself on the stage; dozens of masses and dances; and, of course, the songs.

Fischer-Dieskau’s three volumes comprise roughly two thirds of the songs. The British pianist Graham Johnson, Moore’s successor and to my mind his better, has reached the halfway mark in a superb thematic, nonchronological survey of them all (on the Hyperion label). The project will amount to some three dozen well-tilled compact discs and involve as many vocalists. Still, the volume and the arrangement of Fischer-Dieskau’s material are sufficiently imposing to suggest a reference work, and inevitably the set (in the old phrase dear to professors) “smells of the lamp.”

UNTIL you start to listen, that is, Whether you start at the beginning and soldier all the way through or jump straight to a particular song, you will find not one reading that is dutiful or perfunctory. And the range is simply incalculable: here a lyric of graceful simplicity which has been taken up as a folk song, there a dramatic ballad calling upon the artillery of the star orator; here a florid aria in search of an opera, there tracts of gloomy philosophy; here moving pictures of the ocean, there of the stars. No composer conveys a more exact impression of the natural world in its infinite variety: none looks with greater compassion and understanding into the depths of the mind and heart.

Often the ladder to Schubert’s world of wonders is a golden lyric; equally often it is verse that on the page looks trite and conventional. But just as true poets can transcend their ideas, so blessed composers can transcend their texts, not leaving the words behind exactly but discovering in them dimensions of unsuspected richness. In Fischer-Dieskau’s performances, with Moore’s able assistance, these truths are told.

And yet, if sheer vocal splendor is the criterion, Fischer-Dieskau seldom earns a perfect grade. In passages that are soft or of medium volume, he has at his disposal shades as delicate, blooming, bitter, harsh, or wan as his imagination could wish. Not only his temper and character hut even his age can seem to change within a phrase, within a note. But especially at the not uncommon moments combining high intensity with high volume and high pitch, a basic dryness in his tone tugs song toward the sound of talk. A singer is never wrong to keep a listener’s mind on the words, of course, but that is a different matter. When FischerDieskau falters, the problem is not that verbal meanings suddenly overwhelm musical ones. It is that for an instant we hear his voice rather than his song.

Throughout his career detractors have taken Fischer-Dieskau to task for affectation. He would x-ray even the shortest lyrics for the intricacies below the surface, rendering what he found there with a moment-to-moment clarity bordering on the hallucinatory. He proceeded on the apparent assumption that nothing in the songs was obvious, nothing to be taken for granted. Consequently, he never stopped making discoveries, as the Schubert set amply documents. Thus “Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren” (“Seafarer’s Song to the Dioscuri”), which has suggested to other singers a prayerful serenity, in Fischer-Dieskau’s rendition expresses brimming energy and self-reliance. He had the wit to see “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf’) for the miniature Gothic tragedy it is, and staged it for the mind’s eye with subtle accents that, like pastel spotlights, pick out the shipboard queen and her diminutive assassin. He sang the graceful close of “Der blinde Knabe” (“The Blind Boy”) not as that little song’s big tune but quietly, as if with the child’s own inward smile.

WHAT made Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations controversial was less their implicit divergence from received wisdom than their quality of internal contradiction. He was never content to choose one mood for a song and sustain it. Often it seemed as if he were reading one word at a time. In “An die Leier” (“To the Lyre”), for instance, a poet finds to his astonishment that every time he tries to sing in a warlike mode, his instrument plays strains of love. “Farewell then, heroes!” he concludes. “For rather than threatening with the song of champions, my lyre will only give forth sounds of love.” The rhetorical flourish with which the poet begins is, in other words, a false start. His lyric nature triumphs over his epic ambition, and this fact, rooted in his personality, determines the shape of the song. Fischer-Dieskau sees all this as well as anyone. Yet he gives “Heldensang” (“song of champions”) in the penultimate line of the song one last heroic shading, scrupulously serving the single word rather than the larger statement of the song.

By such details he imbues every instant with exact meaning, but often the effect does not strike most listeners as “natural. At its most elaborate, his delivery resembles type set by a printer who italicizes every word, sprinkling in different fonts and point sizes for good measure. Yet is the baritone’s style really more artificial than one that is less highly wrought? The artlessness of a smoother surface than the one Fischer-Dieskau usually strives for is an illusion too. Nor is he forced into his manner by limitations of vocal technique. No one, in fact, can spin out a purer legato—think of his ethereal poise as the suave Grim Reaper of “Der Jüngling und der Tod” (“The Youth and Death”). The true character of FischerDieskau’s analytical, artful readings lies in his fantastically chiseled textures.

The interpretation of the songs Fischer-Dieskau performed throughout his career remained in constant flux. I wonder how many times he has sung the three Schubert song cycles; he has recorded each of them many times over, starting with a Winterreise (still available) in 1948, and he never did one the same way twice. In his final seasons before the public, as instanced in that last Salzburg Schöne Müllerin, he could at one moment convey an impatience too intense to allow the miller lad so much as an instant for reflection, and at the next moment point up the state of his soul with arrowsharp deliberation. The one-to-one correspondence between word and color, typical of his work at the time of the great Schubert edition of some two decades before, had given way to a more free-floating charge of electric emotion. For all the air of authority, his interpretations were never definitive and always provisional.

In this, Fischer-Dieskau revisited his material in the spirit of a great teacher, returning to the same classroom time and again lo cover the same ground with new pupils, never losing command and yet never ceasing to question. At every pass Fischer-Dieskau is shedding light.

Then why is it, I ask myself guiltily, that whenever the Schubert songs I love most start sounding in my head in the still of the night, memory plays them in other artists’ voices? Elly Ameling, Marian Anderson, Janet Baker, Olaf Bär, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Wolfgang Holzmair, Jorma Hynninen, Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Gérard Souzay . . . They, not Fischer-Dieskau, are the ones who carry me over to the other side. Maybe it is that FischerDieskau’s mastery is like that of Henry James: axiomatic yet impossible to keep in focus. His habit of inquiry channels Schubert’s message to the mind for decoding rather than to the heart.

“God send the companion a better prince!” cries Falstaff, thereby branding himself forever unfit for royal company. Reservations notwithstanding, for such gifts as Fischer-Dieskau’s, thanks can but fall short. By day, at least, I return to his school gladly. Having come to the end of his Schubert set, I feel the lesson has just begun.