A Princely Encounter with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 12:00 PM

“The person who achieves the most can also be forgotten most,” said Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 2005. Since his recent death, the German baritone who was most admired for his Lieder singing is also being remembered for his artistry and humanity. I had the honor to experience those aspects of this special man but also saw a side of him—a sort of rustic cheeky humor—that one would not always associate with a person of such elegant sophistication and deep introspection.

So permit me a small Rückblick, a backward glance, to a day—October 3, 1976—that lives in my mind as if it were yesterday. When I was a kid in the 1960s, there were various Lieder gods in my household, including Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and Aksel Schøtz. There were Lieder goddesses at home too, but much of the listening was centered on the aforementioned men. For whatever reason, Hans Hotter was not in that pantheon but I now know that he should have been.

Because my parents worked in the classical music business, all three singers visited our home and all were kind, took interest in what I said and encouraged me to pursue my love for music. Each also discussed singing and interpretation and would sometimes sit at the piano to show what they meant. This is how musicians spread the community of love that sustains their art form and it is more impactful than any marketing campaigns could ever achieve. I realized that I was hardly unique in this and they must have had contact with eager children wherever they went.

So it surprised me when, at the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich on that indelible day in 1976, my path crossed with Fischer-Dieskau in the most amusing way.

A bit of background: in those years I was living and studying in Bologna. I liked to travel to other opera houses and one night went to Milan, where I was to hear Aïda with Montserrat Caballé (who cancelled and was replaced by Elena Mauti-Nunziata) and the Amneris of Grace Bumbry, who was absolutely on fire that night. Somehow I wound up in a rather posh box whose ticket price was well beyond my student budget (and still would be today). The only other person in the box was a stately woman with remarkable jewels, a gown and a coat made of real jaguar. I wore my best clothes: a blue corduroy blazer, grey wool pants, a clean shirt, a dotted silk tie and nice Italian shoes. I realized that binoculars were trained on us as a rather odd pair in such an important box.

The woman, whose first name was Maria, was a descendent of one of the noble families of southern Germany. She was friendly, though quite grand, and as we left she was impressed that I offered to help her on with her coat, which she called a “Yogg-Vahr.” She then handed me her card and said that I should visit her in Munich and come to her home for lunch. Which I did, on October 1, 1976. She lived a small palace in the Englischer Garten, which would be like having a home in New York’s Central Park. 

Munich (right) in those days was jumping. It was Oktoberfest and the crowds surged from one beer hall to the next. There was a national election going on between chancellor Helmut Schmidt on the left and Franz-Josef Strauss, the head of the state of Bavaria, on the right. The election was October 3 and there were big rallies for both parties, even though Strauss was the hometown favorite.

Maria clearly favored Strauss and was hopeful that he would prevail, which seemed a strong possibility. On Election day, she was scheduled to attend Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera. She would attend with a man she referred to only as Der Prinz and they would be sitting in what would be a sort of royal box, which had a separate place for dining. Would I care to join them? Would I! The only complication was that I had a train ticket for some time after midnight to head home to Bologna.

Black Ties Meet Blue Corduroy

I arrived at the State Opera wearing the same clothes I had worn in Milan, though cleaned and pressed for the occasion, while Maria looked like an empress and Der Prinz was courtly in black tie and a sash. He walked with difficulty but was very warm. Maria said to me, “Der Prinz is a kind man but his politics are terrible.” Der Prinz murmured in my ear, “Maria is very good to me but her politics are horrible.” Before the performance, half the audience trained their sights on the box and its two illustrious occupants, plus an unknown youth in blue corduroy. 

Munich audiences roar with approval and let out a huge sound when they are enthused. This was a sound that reverberated in the theater throughout the evening. I had never even seen, nor even heard of, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and it was fascinating and confusing to someone still largely oriented to Italian opera. I seem to recall, but don’t quote me, that Karl Böhm conducted, but I was thrilled to discover that the role of Barak, the Dyer, was to be sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and his wife by Birgit Nilsson.

The music was stupendous, the atmosphere electric, and the tension was compounded by news that filtered in about electoral results. No one wanted to talk about it, but everyone had it in the back of their minds. And there I was, sitting with these two rather splendid individuals at one of the most amazing opera performances I would ever witness (and I would feel the same even if I had been in standing room) and feeling the theater rock and shake as the audience knew they were watching and hearing something extraordinary.

This was the first time I had heard Fischer-Dieskau in opera and the second time with the great Nilsson, whose Isolde I had heard in 1974. The character of the Dyer is warm, complex, tormented and, though I did not know this work at all, the baritone was riveting even though it was Nilsson who was setting off vocal fireworks. Here is a clip of the two of them in a performance of the opera:

During the intermissions, there was a small buffet with Champagne laid on in a suite near the box. Maria, Der Prinz and I discussed the opera, Strauss (Richard, not Franz-Josef) and I observed that part of the opera made me think of Die Zauberflöte in terms of content if not music. Maria turned her nose up at that but Der Prinz said he would like to think about it.  

They invited me to stay for a small meal after the performance that included a huge platter of seafood, more wine and Bavarian cakes. Der Prinz said there were friends coming he wanted me to meet. The performance ended and there were what seemed like a half-hour of curtain calls. I decided that if I missed the train to Bologna and had to sleep in the streets with drunken Oktoberfest revelers or navigate political celebrations, it would be worth it to attend this meal. 

The friends who attended the party turned out to be the cast of the opera! Nilsson charged toward the seafood and gorged with hearty pleasure. I stood near Maria and Der Prinz as they greeted everyone and then introduced me. One of the last to arrive was Fischer-Dieskau, whom I had not seen in person since I was ten years old. He walked up to greet his hosts but, spotting me, went right past them and gave me a big hug. “Freddy,” he said, “You still like music!”

Maria and Der Prinz looked at one another with startled expressions, then at Fischer-Dieskau, and then Maria looked at me and said in imperious tones, “Who are you?” For a woman for whom social status was important, this mattered a great deal. Fischer-Dieskau said to her, "this boy has loved music for as long as I have known him, and that is a long time." He put his arms around me as if he had found a long-lost friend. Der Prinz smiled. Nilsson pinched my cheek and said, “nice boy.” 

I ate a slice of magnificent cake and realized that midnight was approaching. I apologized for having to leave and Der Prinz deputized his chauffeur to drive me to the railway station. Maria gave me a small kiss and told me she was sad. I did not know why but, as I left, I discovered that Franz-Josef Strauss had indeed lost the election. Is that why she was sad? I will always wonder.

Fischer-Dieskau again clasped me warmly and told me how honored he was that I attended his performance. This was a man so immersed in sharing his love for music that it took all precedence over the formality and political tension that were part of that evening. When I see pictures now of his face, in all of the tribute articles, and listen to him sing, I think that he is one of those musicians who shared music not only with his talents but on the ways he found to love it.

By the time I reached the Hauptbanhof, I somehow had transformed back to the college student with his overnight bag taking the train home. Cinderella went to the ball, met royalty but also saw musical gods in their natural habitat. This was the night, I now realize, that I completely, irrevocably fell in love with opera and knew that it would not just be an interest but central to my life.

Yes, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I still like music, especially when it is performed by the likes of you.

Here are two Fischer-Dieskau performances to cherish:

As Mandryka, opposite Lisa della Casa as Arabella (He enters at 38:20):

Singing all of Schubert’s Winterreise:


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Comments [13]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

DIETRICH FISCHER-DIESKAU will be remembered as an artist whose art reflected the composer's intentions without artifice or exaggeration or undue resort to lacrymosity, gushiness, or prolongation of notes simply for displaying that ability. I have seen him in concert at what was known as Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in NYC and abroad where his following is like that of a rock star. Besides being the possessor of a voice of unique and warm textured timbre, he was a good musician and his dramatic instincts were not fostered with a desire for sensationalism. So, one may consider them authortive. RIP, DIETRICH, YOUR RECORDS WILL EXTOL YHOUR TALENT AND HOW YOU GAVE LIFE TO THE MASTERPIECES YOU SANG !!! I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor, the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the roles of Wagner and Shakespeare are coached, and an opera composer of “Shakespeare” and “The Political Shakespeare." I have sung, and commercially recorded LIVE for Valhalla Records CDs four main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, solo concerts, three of them three hours long. I well remember the George Jellinek interview program with DIETRICH when it was originally broadcast with those iconic recordings. George Jellinek's programs with the interviews and the commentaries on recordings should be repeated for this era's ears and be available as a valued resource to artists and the general public. Jellinek's cornucopia of interviews and recordings upon which he commented should be archived in such a manner as to be accessible to students, artists and the general public.

Dec. 04 2012 07:34 PM
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Jun. 06 2012 06:14 AM
Melissa Fogarty from Jackson Heights, NY

A small rückblick! Ha ha! Wow. Can't wait to read the big ones, then! What an incredible story! I love the little details too, that really round this piece out. All-binoculars-on-your-box! AND the fact that although German opera was still somewhat new to you, 2 years before you just happened to have seen Nilsson's Isolde!

Regarding your commentators so far, Jackson Heights is in the house again! Hooray!

May. 27 2012 08:15 AM
Frances Yasprica from NYC

Wow! It's like what Felix Unger said in the Richard Fredricks episode of "The Odd Couple" -- "the bigger they are...the bigger they are!" I had no idea when we were in elementary school that you were hobnobbing with the likes of Fischer-D. Did Lenore George, our music teacher know about the company you kept?

May. 24 2012 05:19 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

When I first began singing lessons, I started with Italian, English and French. When given a German piece to sing, I was revolted. I told my teacher that this was an impossible language. I distinctly remmeber saying "If bulldozers could sing, this would be the language they would use".

Then, I got recordings done by Fischer-Dieskau and Wunderlich. My whole perception of the language, as music, changed almost overnight. Now, German vocal pieces are among my favorites thanks to this man.

Ich danke dir!

May. 24 2012 01:04 PM
MICHEL from Montréal -Canada

Adieu M.Papageno!

May. 24 2012 09:39 AM
Betty Sekhri from Kensington, Md

Dear Mr. Plotkin,
Your wonderful story of the encounter you had with Fischer Dieskau, after the Strauss opera, transported me to another time ...your description was so beautifully written that I pictured the whole scene in my mind as though I were there and it was happening to me.
Thank you for sharing this memorable experience with us.

May. 23 2012 12:01 PM
Maryanne Alfano from Oakland Gardens, NY

Dear Mr. P, I am with Alonso in his comment. Your piece transported me to the place and time of your wonderful night and actually made my heart beat faster with the excitment you must have been feeling. How amazing and how fortunate you are to have a memory that is absolutely cosmic in scale. I live a small, simple life, expanded greatly by the consciousness provided by my mother and my appreciation of the arts by my father. WQXR is my daily companion and I am a monthly supporter. Please write a book (if you haven't already) on your reminiscences - I would adore it, and feel that I have travelled with you through these amazing encounters with these amazing artists.

May. 23 2012 08:39 AM
Mark Mood from Jackson Heights, NY

I always thought "FrauOSch" was "The Magic Flute" on serious psychedelic drugs. I (mostly) love the music, but it still makes very little sense to me.

May. 23 2012 06:41 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Clearly, Fred, you were the Student Prince.

May. 22 2012 11:45 PM
Alonso Alegria from Lima, Peru

An absolutely beautiful account, so well-written, hearfelt and truthful. Thank you!

May. 22 2012 09:57 PM
Kenneth Asch from London

This a lovely story, Fred, and very finely written. Thank you very much.

As a Canadian music student I went from McGill to Munich to complete my studies with Hans Hotter. This was the early 60s before going on to a career at he opera houses in Munich, Venice, etc. For me Hans Hotter possessed two characteristics which identified him - for me, at least - as the very greatest artist, unarguably without equal, well, perhaps one in my lifetime, being Alexander Kipnis. Chaliapin was before my time, although my Scala teacher had sung with him and had incredible things to say about his experience.

Hotter exemplified dignity and simplicity. Because of these qualities he imbued truth to all that he did - everything that he did, not solely music. Needless to say, his musicality was outstanding. This derived partly from an innate sense of music as a language, partly from his grounding as an organist and pianist.

I spent time en famille with Hans Hotter and his family, I sat at table with him during rehearsal season at Bayreuth, with many famous soloists and musicians, conductors and choral directers, Harold Schonberg, as well as the three - yes, three - Wagners of that era, the early/mid 60s.

There is an important story, little known, about Hotter and a confrontation with Adolf Hitler. It is a story of immense courage in which he emerged not only unscathed but superior in every way to all those with whom he shared that terible history. He was the very distillation of courage on at least one particular day of which know. Adding this to everything else that I know of this great man, I put him in a category which I find difficut to imagine can ever be exceeded.

Meanwhile, Fred, I am happy to have seen your story. I' sure that I shall remember it. By the way, I have been a journalist these past 25 years and had the privilege, among my earlier BBC jobs, of doing a Hans Hotter feature for the BBC Proms on the occasion of an important Proms anniversary.

I'd be pleased, of course, to be able to contribute to WQXR's Fischer-Dieskau retrospective, having heard and seen him countless times on TV, radio and disc and twice live on stage.

Good wishes.

Sincerely .. . Ken

May. 22 2012 02:28 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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