18 May 2012

The End of the (Dietrich Fischer-) Dieskau Era

The death of German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has just been announced. Although he enjoyed a successful career onstage in opera and on the podium as a conductor, he garnered most acclaim as a Lieder singer and as a recording artist: he is the most-recorded singer in history.

Given the current state of the recording industry, and its rather grim prospects, Fischer-Dieskau is entirely liable to retain that claim to the end of all time. It’s true that his very ubiquity in the record catalogues sometimes annoyed me. (Had he really recorded every song ever written? Could a collection of Patsy Cline covers be next? What did I have to do in order to find a recording by anyone else?) And yet there’s no denying that he was an extraordinary artist who left us with unparalleled documentation of his work.

He was lucky to be born at the right time, at least so far as recordings go, in an era when multiple companies signed many artists and released hundreds of albums each year. Long-playing records opened up new artistic possibilities and new markets; the definition of an acceptable profit hadn’t yet inflated to pop-blockbuster proportions; and, not least because music education was still a priority in the schools, even people who weren’t hardcore Lieder fans might be expected to know who Franz Schubert was, to listen occasionally and perhaps even to purchase a recording of his work. And those who really were hardcore Lieder fans could be expected to purchase multiple copies of the same recording over a lifetime, because their old copies would wear out and need to be replaced.

Never before, never again? Not quite. This happy mix of circumstance had been building awhile, and the twilight hour hasn’t entirely descended yet, as my friend the producer–composer Glen Roven valiantly proves, every chance he gets. But it’s getting more and more difficult for singers to document their work and to share it with a broad listening public: recording contracts are scarce, clips on iTunes or YouTube will take you only so far — and who knows how long it will be before those venues are obsolete, too?

We’ll never have to wonder what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sounded like, how he interpreted a particular passage, how he approached a given repertory, how he matured as an artist. In a very real sense, his death today changes nothing, because he’ll always be with us, his voice forever in our ears. But even as I’m grateful for that blessing — and it is a very great one — I worry what’s to become of the next German baritone, perhaps one who’s born just today.

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