This book celebrates the art and life of the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
from his debut recital in 1947 to his retirement almost five decades later. Born in 1925 into an upper middle-class, intellectual Berlin family that prized patriotism, culture, literature, and music, he first made his name as a lieder singer, but recordings and operatic engagements soon followed. His repertoire was enormous, ranging from Bach cantatas to many premieres of contemporary works. This biography documents the scope of Fischer-Dieskau's unceasing performing and recording activity; it enumerates his operatic roles, describing his musical, literary, and historical preparation for "becoming the character he impersonated." It also discusses the singer's vocal and musical working methods, often quoting his own words from his books and letters, notably his famously controversial views on the relationship of words and music, and the tension between his inquiring intellect and his emotional musical response.
Dominated by a sense of artistic responsibility, Fischer-Dieskau worked obsessively in pursuit of perfection, gaining stimulation and renewal by frequent changes of accompanists. To satisfy his constant need for more self-expression, he took up writing, conducting, painting, and teaching. Inevitably, his personal relationships and private life were subordinated to the relentless demands of his life onstage. In his memoirs, Fischer-Dieskau confesses: "I worshipped my profession and my career; I was under the spell of opera and my recitals."
Of his four marriages, the first ended in tragedy when his beloved young wife died in childbirth; the next two ended in divorce; and the last one, to soprano Julia Varady--with whom he has often appeared in opera and concert--has given both lasting happiness. Not surprisingly, his three sons inherited his artistic gifts and courageously followed in his footsteps as stage designer, conductor, and cellist. By their own account, they grew up mostly without their father, who himself recalls isolated moments of shared activity.
The book suffers from repetitiousness and chronological incoherence. Neunzig has an irritating habit of explicating quotes both before and afterward, and of exaggerating the obstacles the singer encountered on his meteoric rise to fame and subsequent illustrious career. The biography's greatest flaw is its lack of objectivity: obviously written by a starstruck admirer, it is an uncritical hymn of praise; indeed, the constant hyperbole becomes self-defeating. Even the copious quotes from reviews and comments on the singer's performances are carefully chosen to express approbation; adverse responses are brushed off, though there are excerpts from his own replies to his critics. Yet despite Neunzig's adulation, his portrait of a great artist cannot conceal that total dedication to a successful career can lead to total self-absorption; indeed the singer himself was aware of the danger of "avoiding reality and rejecting life's day-to-day affairs." This includes not only the familiar controversy about the separation of art and politics but the special problems of living in Germany after the rise of Nazism. Though Neunzig clearly states his own opposition to the regime, Fischer-Dieskau's views are expressed mostly in assertions of kinship with idealistic operatic characters, and complaints about the discomforts and deprivations of life in the army, POW camps, and postwar Berlin, for which anyone who survived the war on the other side hardly feels much sympathy. A single paragraph recounts the 13-year-old's shock at finding a Jewish shop smashed, and another the "elimination" by the Nazis of a handicapped older brother; the reader is left to infer the singer's political attitude.
The book is written in a somewhat heavy style, perhaps partly due to the translation, and includes a chronology of Fischer-Dieskau's life, lists of his books and innumerable CDs, and many excellent photographs, on and off stage. --Edith Eisler