Entertainment Music

Saturday 24 February 2018

In a time of War, this baritone entertained his fellow PoWs

Last month music lost a stellar light with the passing of the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He died a mere 10 days short of his 87th birthday, and just 12 days before the 50th anniversary of one of his most significant performances.

The 14th-Century gothic cathedral at Coventry in the English midlands had been destroyed by German bombs in the early years of World War Two. Its reconstruction came to symbolise renewal in post-war Britain.

The leading English composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned to compose the music for the rebuilt cathedral's consecration in 1962, and he presented his War Requiem. This would be a work for three singers. Britten's idea was to bring together English, German, and Russian soloists as a gesture of hope and reconciliation.

His close associate Peter Pears would sing the tenor role, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would perform alongside. The imagery was powerful.

The Cold War scuppered Britten's hopes of having a Russian sing too. The top Bolshoi soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich) was refused a visa by the Soviet authorities. Heather Harper from Belfast took her place.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was born plain Dietrich Fischer to parents who were teachers. The hyphen and the second portion of the surname were added to acknowledge the connection of his mother's people to minor nobility for whom Bach, no less, had composed a cantata.

His education was interrupted by conscription into the Wehrmacht. He served on the eastern front, singing lullabies to the horses in his care. He was posted to Italy, where the Americans captured him. When they found out how good he was, they had him perform to entertain the other prisoners of war.

Back in Berlin after his release, his career quickly took off. He stepped up as an understudy to sing in Brahms's German Requiem, brought his love affair with Lieder -- the classic German songs -- to the stage, and was hired as the principal baritone in the opera.

He was as versatile as he was prolific, playing everything from Mozart to the more modern, with John the Baptist in Salome by Richard Strauss -- based on Oscar Wilde's play -- and Alban Berg's Wozzeck in the eponymous opera among his leading roles.

His repertoire was German through and through, and his operatic career was based almost entirely in German-speaking Europe.

The New York Times probably summed him up best of all. The headline over its appraisal of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau read simply that his was "The Voice that made you fall in love with Lieder".

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3.00pm.

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