Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose beautiful voice and mastery of technique made him the 20th century’s pre-eminent interpreter of art songs, died on Friday at his home in Bavaria. He was 86.
His wife, the soprano Julia Varady, confirmed his death to the German press agency DPA.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was by virtual acclamation one of the world’s great singers from the 1940s to his official retirement in 1992, and an influential teacher and orchestra conductor for many years thereafter.
He was also a formidable industry, making hundreds of recordings that pretty much set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. His output included the many hundreds of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice, the songs and song cycles of Schumann and Brahms, and those of later composers like Mahler, Shostakovich and Hugo Wolf. He won two Grammy Awards, in 1971 for Schubert lieder and in 1973 for Brahms’s “Schöne Magelone.”
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau (pronounced FEE-shur-DEES-cow) had sufficient power for the concert hall, and for substantial roles in his parallel career as a star of European opera houses. But he was essentially a lyrical, introspective singer whose effect on listeners was not to nail them to their seatbacks, but rather to draw them into the very heart of song.
The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had a flawless sense of rhythm and “one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive.” Onstage, he projected a masculine sensitivity informed by a cultivated upbringing and by dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his feeble brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.
His performances eluded easy description. Where reviewers could get the essence of a Pavarotti appearance in a phrase (the glories of a true Italian tenor!), a Fischer-Dieskau recital was akin to a magic show, with seamless shifts in dynamics and infinite shadings of coloration and character.
He had the good luck to age well, too. In 1988, at 62, he sang an all-Schumann program at Carnegie Hall, where people overflowed onto the stage to hear him. Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, noted that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice had begun to harden in some difficult passages — but also that he was tall and lean and handsomer than ever, and had lost none of his commanding presence. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau described in his memoir “Reverberations” (1989) how his affinity for lieder had been formed in childhood. “I was won over to poetry at an early age,” he wrote. “I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading.”
He discerned, he said, that “music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul.”
Albert Dietrich Fischer was born in Berlin on May 28, 1925, the youngest of three sons of Albert Fischer, a classical scholar and secondary school principal with relatively liberal ideas about education reform, and his young second wife, Theodora Klingelhoffer, a schoolteacher. (In 1934, Dr. Fischer added the hyphenated “Dieskau” to the family name; his mother had been a von Dieskau, descended from the Kammerherr von Dieskau, for whom J. S. Bach wrote the “Peasant Cantata.”)
Family members knew Dietrich, as he was called, as a shy, private child who nonetheless liked to entertain. He put on puppet shows in which he voiced all the parts, sometimes for an audience of one: his physically and mentally disabled brother, Martin, with whom he shared a room.
Before adolescence Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group where, he recalled years later, he was appalled by the officiousness as well as the brutality. His father died when he was 12. And he had just finished secondary school and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.”
“Poems by Morgenstern,” one entry read. “It is a good idea to learn them by heart, to have something to fall back on.”
“Lots of cold, lots of slush, and even more storms,” read another. “Every day horses die for lack of food.”
It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”
And then his mother’s apartment in Lichterfelde was bombed. Granted home leave to help her, he found that all that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart. But as early as his second day home, he and his mother began seeking out “theater, concerts, a lot of other music — defying the irrational world.”
Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on May 5, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.
With all that, he was still only 22 when he returned for further study at the Berlin Conservatory. He didn’t stay long. Called to substitute for an indisposed baritone in Brahms’s “German Requiem,” he became famous practically overnight. As he said, “I passed my final exam in the concert hall.”
Because of his youth, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had been in no position to make his own choices in the 1930s and ’40s, so he didn’t encounter the questions about Nazi ties that hung over many a prominent German artist after the war. (The soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, his frequent musical collaborator, repeatedly denied that she had joined the Nazi Party until confronted with evidence in 1983. “It was akin to joining a union,” she said in an explanatory letter to The Times, “and exactly for the same reason: to have a job.”)
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947. Success followed success, with lieder performances in Britain and other European countries beginning in 1949. He first toured the United States in 1955, choosing for his New York debut to sing Schubert’s demanding “Winterreise” cycle without intermission.
Meanwhile, he had made his opera debut in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (later renamed the Deutsche Oper), where he was hired as principal lyric baritone. He also sang regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and appeared frequently in the opera houses of Vienna, Covent Garden, Salzburg and Bayreuth.
Versatility was not the least of his assets. He tackled everything from Papageno in “The Magic Flute” — who knew that a goofy bird catcher could have immaculate diction? — to heavier parts like Wotan in “Das Rheingold” and Wolfram in “Tannhäuser.” He recorded more than three dozen operatic roles, Italian as well as German, along with oratorios, Bach cantatas and works of many modern composers, including Benjamin Britten, whose “War Requiem” he sang at its premiere in 1962.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was married in 1949 to his sweetheart from his student days, the cellist Irmgard Poppen. They had three sons: Matthias, who became a stage designer; Martin, a conductor; and Manuel, a cellist. Ms. Poppen did not live to see them grow: she died of complications after Manuel’s birth in 1963. For her husband, it was a profound, disorienting loss.
He was married again, to the actress Ruth Leuwerik, from 1965 to 1967, and again, to Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher, from 1968 to 1975.
His fourth marriage, to Ms. Varady, the Hungarian soprano, in 1977, was a rewarding match. Like the many artists who studied with him more formally, Ms. Varady found him to be a kindly, constructive and totally unsparing mentor.
His insistence on getting things right comes through vividly in scenes of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau at rehearsal or conducting master class. In a widely circulated video, at the time, of him coaching a young Christine Schäfer, Ms. Schäfer is singing beautifully, or so it would seem to your average mortal, yet the smiling maestro interrupts time and again to suggest something better. And it isn’t merely that he is invariably correct; it’s also that when he rises to sing just a few illustrative notes, the studio is instantly a stage, and he illuminates it with what seems to be an inner light. Even better is a documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon, “Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Autumn Journey” with archival and up-to-date footage of a master at work in his many trades.
Besides making music, he wrote about it — insightful, accessible books about the lives and music of great composers, including Schubert and Schumann. He was a widely exhibited painter, too, known especially for his portraits.
Mr. Fischer-Dieskau retired from opera in 1978. He continued giving song recitals through the end of 1992 and then, on New Year’s Day 1993, announced that he would sing onstage no more.
Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:
“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 and that is just about all there is to be said about it.”
Mr. Amis continued, “Having used a few superlatives and described the program, there is nothing else to do but write ‘finis,’ go home, and thank one’s stars for having had the good luck to be present.”