I can’t remember precisely when I first heard his recordings. I was bitten by the opera bug during my senior year in high school, and in college, listening to student recitals, I discovered that I loved art-songs (lieder), as well. One of my favorite professors was a huge admirer of Mahler, a composer I’d never heard of till then, and I think the first Fischer-Dieskau recording I purchased was most likely an album of Mahler songs with orchestra.
His voice was like velvet and molten gold, his technique and control extraordinary. He could breathe a barely audible whisper of sound or soar into a full-bodied swell that was never rough or stentorian. But what really drew me was the emotional depth of his singing. This was due in part to his care with words, but also to the musical shading and nuance he brought to every phrase.
We’re fortunate that he recorded extensively. His Don Giovanni purrs with soft, swoon-inducing seduction, his Schubertian heroes pour forth their stories with pathos, his Mahler reaches the heights of religious ecstasy.
The ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is one of the most beautiful passages in all music, and especially fitting as a memorial because the subtext of final section, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), is death It is moving without being morbid, giving a vision of rebirth as well as sorrow, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s performance always moves me to tears.
Das Lied von der Erde
VI. Der Abschied (only the poem by Wang Wei, final part)
Leonard Bernstein, Conductor
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Baritone
Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müßte sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort: Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!
Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
(Youtube video from nimicide; Translations by Deryck Cooke:)
He alighted from his horse and handed him The drink of farewell.
He asked him where he was going
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
Ah, my friend,
Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going?
I am going to wander in the mountains.
I seek rest for my lonely heart.
I journey to the homeland, to my resting-place.
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!