“Music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul.”
This beautifully perceptive comment comes from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, supreme master of the art song, who died on May 18, 2012 just shy of his 87th birthday at his home in Bavaria.
For Lynne and me, these words have a very deep resonance, harking back to the days of our courtship. Separated physically by the time it took a Greyhound Bus–7 hours!–to travel between New York City and upstate New York, we discovered that music could help us survive the time apart. (In those far-off days even a simple phone call was a luxury for two poor graduate students.)
We especially loved the consummate rendition by DFD (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and pianist Gerald Moore of Franz Schubert’s lied (song) “Die Taubenpost” (“The Pigeon Post”). In the magical setting of its closing lines, the poet asks whether we also know his ever-loyal messenger pigeon whose name is “Longing.”
….“Sie heisst die Senhsucht–kennt ihr sie? Kennt ihr sie? Die Botin treuen Sinn’s” (“Her name is Longing–do you know her, the messenger of a faithful mind?”)
Yes, we certainly knew that emotion, so long ago.
It still has the power to touch our hearts, especially when DFD sings it. (*The English translation is at the bottom of this post.)
DFD had an unusual ability to communicate through music, to shine a luminous light on all that he sang. What was its source? The British music critic, John Amis, tries to explain it this way:
- “Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle….”
The young DFD, while shy and reflective, also liked to entertain others. Family members have recalled how he would put on puppet shows for them, voicing all the parts. Sometimes he had an audience of only one–his physically and mentally disabled brother, with whom he shared a room and who was later sent by the Nazi authorities to an institution where he starved to death.
In 1943, after having just completed secondary school and only one semester at the Berlin Conservatory of Music, DFD was drafted at 18 into the Wehrmacht (German Army) and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. Enduring cold, privation, and death around him, he was able to find solace in keeping a diary, his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.” When his mother’s apartment was bombed, he was granted home leave to help her. But the little that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart.
What saved their sanity during that time was the Arts. As early as his second day on leave, mother and son began seeking out theater, concerts, a lot of other music–in his words, “defying the irrational world” around them.
The trajectory of DFD’s career during the closing years of World War II and immediately thereafter has something of the miraculous about it. Instead of returning to Russia, he was diverted with thousands of other German soldiers to Italy, only to be captured and imprisoned on May 5, 1945, just 3 days before the Allies accepted German surrender. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for he was sent around by the Americans to entertain POW’s from the back of a truck for the next 2 years, avoiding much of the misery of post-war Germany.
Returning very briefly to his studies at the Berlin Conservatory, he was suddenly called upon to substitute for an indisposed baritone in Brahms’s “A German Requiem.” Fame came practically overnight. He had his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947 and soon became an important presence in major opera houses in Munich, Vienna, Bayreuth, Vienna , and London.
For some 45 years, until his retirement as a baritone recitalist at the end of 1992, DFD embodied an unsurpassed level of artistry. He encompassed a vast repertoire, ranging from the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf to solos from major works for church and stage–from J.S. Bach to Samuel Barber and Alban Berg. He sang in the world premiere in 1962 of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” which consciously featured internationally celebrated soloists in a powerful expression of anti-war sentiment.
After his retirement, he remained active as a teacher and as a painter. This video of him singing “An Die Musik” (“To Music”) presents a touching portrait of him as a human being as well as artist.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has left us an immense and inspiring legacy of recordings and video clips. We are all the richer for it. We hope you will further explore–or perhaps reacquaint yourself with–this transcendent poetic voice.
I have a carrier-pigeon in my pay
Who is devoted and true.
She never stops short of her goal,
And never flies too far.
I send her a thousand times
Out every day to gather information
Past many a beloved spot
To my beloved’s house.
There she peeps in at the window,
Spying out every look and step,
Gives my greetings playfully
And brings hers to me.
I needn’t write a note any longer,
My very tears I give her:
She will not misdeliver them,
So earnestly does she serve me.
By day, by night, in waking, in dreaming,
They are all the same to her,
So long as she can wander,
She is more than satisfied!
She never becomes tired, she never grows exhausted,
The route always feels new;
She needs no enticement, needs no reward,
This pigeon is so true to me.
And so I cherish her truly in my heart,
Certain of the fairest prize;
Her name – Longing! Do you know her?
The messenger of constancy.
Original text by Johann Gabriel Seidl and English translation courtesy of The Lied and Art Song Texts Page. Link to site: