I had much sorrow in my life, and I was a soldier, which was the worst thing of all. But it is a good thing to have led a life which has had good consequences.
(1925-2012), in a 2005 interview.
If there’s a Grand Central Station of the Beyond, Maurice Sendak would likely be among the first to greet Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau when the foremost singer of Schubert lieder gets off the train that departed the land of the living on May 18. Sendak, who expressed a “passion for Schubert songs and … his birds of doom or birds of good” to Bill Moyers in 2004, had arrived at the terminal only ten days before.
The concept of trains to the afterlife, including a special underground express to hell, is brilliantly pictured in Frank Borzage’s 1931 film, Liliom. In my version of the fantasy, I would add to the welcoming party the German baritone’s most frequent accompanist, British pianist Gerald Moore, who was a long time waiting to shake his colleague’s hand, having arrived back in March of 1987. Would you believe who’s standing shyly off to one side, his spectacles flashing in the heavenly glare? Yes, it’s Schubert himself and he’s singing, very softly, something from Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle that figures significantly in Fischer-Dieskau’s personal and professional history.
Schubert “sang continuously” during the last days of his life, according to Fischer-Dieskau’s biographical/analytical study, Schubert’s Songs (Knopf 1997). No wonder, since the only piece of music the dying composer had been able to focus on was the proof of the second part of Winterreise. Recorded a century and a half later by Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, Winterreise was also the subject of the 17-year-old singer’s first public performance, given in early 1943 in the town hall of Zehlendorf, a Berlin suburb. Seven songs into the cycle, the RAF intervened. “We had a terrible bombing of the city that day,” Fischer-Dieskau recalls in a 2005 interview, “and the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.” Asked where in the cycle he began again, he says the song was “Rückblick” (Backward Glance): “So we looked back to the part already completed.”
In fact, a clip on YouTube shows the singer rehearsing “Rückblick” with pianist Alfred Brendel for the 1978 recital that ends, memorably, with Fischer-Dieskau engulfed in darkness at the last stop in Schubert’s journey, singing “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), a composer’s farewell message as artless and lasting as John Keats’s “I always made an awkward bow.”
Imagine Schubert facing death in his closet of a room above Frau von Bogner’s coffee house in Vienna, musing over the last lines of “Der Leiermann” (“Strange old man, shall I go with you?/Will you grind your organ to my songs?”), and 115 years later at the conclusion of that bomb-blitzed recital, there’s Fischer-Dieskau facing war, soon to be drafted into the Wehrmacht, captured two years later in Italy by Allied forces, and not released until 1947, having proved himself a much-valued catch by giving morale-boosting recitals from the backs of trucks at various POW camps.
The Essence of Art
Maurice Sendak’s “passion for Schubert songs” was rooted in his identification with the aesthetic dimensions of Schubert’s accomplishment within that seemingly limited genre. What gave Sendak the idea, as he told Bill Moyers, was something said by the lieder singer Christa Ludwig in a television interview: “Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in this miniature form.”
For Sendak this was a revelation: “I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in the ‘50s and ‘40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole.”
In the first chapter of Schubert’s Songs, Fischer-Dieskau improves on Christa Ludwig’s appraisal, writing that when Schubert “raised the art song (Kunstlied) to hitherto unknown heights,” he “laid bare the essence of all art: intensity, concentration, a distillation into the purest of forms.”
A Lifelong Aversion
It goes without saying that anyone engaged by Schubert’s music must at some point learn to appreciate the genre in which he is the generally acknowledged master. The more you discover about this composer, the more you realize the obvious: that listening to Schubert without the lieder is like reading Shakespeare without the soliloquies or visiting Greece without seeing the Parthenon. Thus came the day in the 1980s when I swallowed a lifelong aversion to baritones with big voices singing in German and threw myself on the mercy of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, whose monumental Franz Schubert Lieder, Volumes I and II (Deutsche Grammophon) is one of the most rigorous two-man adventures since the Lewis and Clark expedition. We’re talking the equivalent of, say, five thousand kilometers on foot (with Schubert, you can ride part of the way on horseback), meaning close to 500 songs (not counting the 50-plus in Die Schöne Mullerin, Winterreise, and Swanengesang, another Fischer-Dieskau-Moore box set I purchased later).
When Schubert songs appear en masse in the form of 25 LPs in two formidable boxes, it’s not easy to comfortably or casually approach such a domain. As soon as you lift open the cover of one of the elegantly designed receptacles and take out the fat book of lyrics and translations, it becomes a formal experience, one I preferred to save for the after-midnight privacy of the downstairs study, which naturally encouraged a preference for compositions and performances in harmony with the nocturnal atmosphere. I wanted moody quietude. I saved the heavier, more operatic versions of Goethe, Heine, and Mayrhofer for daytime hours when I had the house to myself and could hear the singing and playing at full volume.
Over time I made pencilled notations in the booklets, asterisks for my favorite songs, according to the number of listenings, which I eventually transferred to miniature versions of the booklets after trading the two monsters for the boxed CD equivalent. For the past few nights, using an ancient Sony Discman and headphones, I’ve been listening to Volume II (Lieder from 1817-1828), with a copy of Schubert’s Songs in my lap, so I could consult Fischer-Dieskau whenever I had a question about the music.
With headphones, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice is an absolute. Listening to “Erlkönig,” one of his and Schubert’s most renowned performances, it’s as if the dynamic of an entire opera has been packed into a three-minute span, Fischer-Dieskau becoming the narrator, the clueless father, the crooning demon, and the terrified child, Moore’s piano at an unrelenting gallop until death halts it. “In a recital with a mixed program I have to portray 20 characters, one after the other,” Fischer-Dieskau told an Opernwelt interviewer after his 1992 retirement; in this one song alone, he portrays four.
While all Schubert belongs in the “common domain” of poetry and music Fischer-Dieskau refers to as the “landscape of the soul” in his autobiography Reverberations (1989), such language seems too ponderous next to melodies like “Der Jungling an der Quelle” (The Youth at the Well), where the charm is so simple, so transcendent, and yet so direct as to inspire thoughts of a Monty Python sketch where every time the song is played the listener drops dead from sheer delight; imagine John Cleese, idiot smile, sigh, swoon, before he keels over backwards, both legs straight up. “Captivatingly beautiful” is the best Fischer-Dieskau can manage when he first mentions the piece; returning to it a hundred pages later, he speaks of Schubert’s “water music,” a “genre painting over a murmuring accompaniment that wanders up and down the triad of the fifth, while the boy’s sighs rise to a high A, until he finally whispers above the sustained dominant, the musical name which Schubert added to the end of the poem: ‘Luise.’”
You have to hear, not read, the subtle but heartfelt yearning in Fischer-Dieskau’s singing of the girl’s name as Loueeesa. Even if I understood dominants and triads of the fifth, all I could say of this song is that listening to it is like falling in love, or rather, like the fleeting, haunting infatuation from family trips when your car passed a car with a girl your age smiling out the window at you, flirting at 50 miles per hour, and you smiled, and shading that sudden lost and found and lost flash of love was the knowledge that in all of life and the world and time, you’d never see each other again.
In “Der Jungling an der Quelle,” what seduces you is the way the piano “wanders up and down.” However, “Im Frühling” (In Spring) doesn’t wander, it strolls, and the stroll Gerald Moore takes after the second verse is one of the most exhilarating moments in all of Schubert: love hurts, but life goes on, merry and bright, till the next blow falls. When Fischer-Dieskau comes back for the third verse, Moore is still strolling but with a hint of urgency leading to the harsh, penultimate verse, where “joys with quarrels change” and all that’s left is “love and torment.” When love is love again in the closing verse, it’s a reunion, and the strolling couple is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, with Schubert leading the way, crossing a century and an ocean as he tosses off a “how-dry-I-am” quasi ragtime postlude that would make Scott Joplin smile.
The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once told Fischer-Dieskau that the most important thing for a performing artist was “to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings.” Songs like “Im Frühling” create that “fellow feeling.” Said Fischer-Dieskau, “I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”
Except where otherwise noted, the quotes are from Martin Kettie’s May 20, 2005, interview in The Guardian, conducted a week before Fischer-Dieskau’s 80th birthday. Frank Borzage’s film, Liliom, is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.