Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) (*) died today… and in my head I hear his Schubert version of Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’ (Elf-king) as I heard it often as a boy on the radio:
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?” –
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”
(“My father, my father, and don’t you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves.”)
In the end the father racing with his horse through the darks woods, notices that his son – who was ill and hallucinating seeing beings his father did not see -has died in his arms…
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
(It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.)
The word “tot” that ends the song, hardly been pronounced by the mouth of Fischer-Dieskau, is dramatically cut off by his lips in a split of a second.
I am listening now to the song again, but not on the radio but on the music streaming service of ‘spotify’ (**) and so we will keep hearing Fischer-Dieskau’s voice through the never “withering leaves” of our digital age.
(*) And.. yes I know Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had to join the Hitler Jugend when he was 10 years old, like all German boys of that time, and yes he did perform during the war in Berlin, his first public concert, which is common knowledge, but better to say in these days, far removed from World War II, in which some people may be more touchy than their parents about an unescapable past. The Guardian has a very nice 2005 interview by Martin Kettle on-line with Fischer-Dieskau from which I quote the war passage here:
Fischer-Dieskau was, is, and will always be a Berliner. He has lived through some of the great city’s best times and most of its worst. This most refined and intelligent of artists began his career in circumstances from hell. In early 1943, aged 17, his first public performance of the greatest of all song-cycles, Schubert’s Winterreise, given in the town hall of the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf, was interrupted by the RAF.
“We had a terrible bombing of the city that day,” Fischer-Dieskau recalls, “and the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.” I ask him whether he can remember where in the cycle he began again. “It was Rückblick [Backward Glance],” he grins. “So we looked back to the part already completed.”
As a conscript soldier he was captured by the Americans in Italy in 1945 and spent nearly two years as a prisoner-of-war. “I believe it forces you to straighten out your thinking at an earlier age than you would otherwise do,” he says. “You have to survive. You have to stay focused, otherwise you will not live. That was my first thought.”
It was this German experience of suffering and war that partly led Benjamin Britten to invite Fischer-Dieskau to sing in the historic premiere of his War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Britten’s letter – “with great temerity I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone” – tells us something both about the composer and about the grandeur that Fischer-Dieskau had attained in the musical world by then. But Fischer-Dieskau’s memories of the event are mainly about Britten’s nerves.
(**) this is a paying service for subscribers at a small fee, a different version can be heard and seen on youtube all with the last word ‘tot’ and a last chord by the piano (this version, especially the ending, differs from the recording I listened to on ‘spotify’; each performance by Fischer-Diskau must have differed and his mastery must have laid in his ability of recreating a composition in so many ways).