During a career that spanned nearly five decades, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau established himself as one of the most accomplished performing artists of the twentieth century. He is widely considered to have been the finest modern interpreter of German lieder, and his extensive operatic career was noted for fine musicianship and powerful characterization. He has also made important contributions as an author, conductor, and teacher.
Born in Berlin on May 28, 1925, Fischer-Dieskau began his vocal studies at the age of 16, only shortly before being drafted into the Nazi Wehrmacht. After two years as a prisoner of war, the young baritone returned to Germany and soon made his oratorio debut in Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, and his stage debut in Verdi's Don Carlos (Posa). Engaged as the 'house' lyric baritone (kammersänger) at the Berlin Städtische Oper, he also began making guest appearances at the Vienna Staatsoper, and the Salzburg Festival. In the early 1950's he began a series of engagements at the Bayreuth festival, establishing a lasting relationship with the music of Wagner, especially the role of Wolfram in Tannhäuser. In the following decades, Fischer-Dieskau would traverse an impressive range of operatic roles, including Don Giovanni in Mozart's eponymous work, Mittenhofer in Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, and John the Baptist in Strauss' Salome; his most critically admired performances were as Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, Germont père in La Traviata, and Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.
Fischer-Dieskau's recital career began equally early and impressively — with a 1948 Radio Berlin broadcast of Schubert's Winterreise; however, it was with his first concerts and recordings with the English collaborative pianist Gerald Moore that his international fame began to spread. Together, the two of them recorded every song of Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf (excluding those few that are generally reserved for the female voice) and considerable portions of those by Brahms, Strauss, Loewe, and Beethoven. This catalogue of repertoire is impressive for its sheer size, and even more so for its consistent excellence; while opinions have sometimes diverged on the subjective merits of Fischer-Dieskau's voice, there is no question that his performances of lieder represented the perfect wedding of poetry and lyricism — the very essence of the lied. While his collaboration with Gerald Moore was singular in its productivity, Fischer-Dieskau was by no means a "one-pianist" man. His work with accompanist Jörg Demus represents an impressive catalogue of its own, and he made memorable appearances and recordings with many other leading musicians, such as Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Horowitz, Daniel Barenboim, and Sviatoslav Richter. Also, his repertoire was by no means limited to works of the Romantic masters; he has championed the works of lesser-known composers, such as Othmar Schoeck. His cumulative body of recorded performances is stunning, perhaps best illustrated by the number of pieces of which his discography contains multiple (sometimes as many as four!) performances. A number of composers wrote works for him, the most notable of which is Benjamin Britten (Songs and Proverbs of William Blake), whose War Requiem the baritone also premiered in 1962.
Certainly Fischer-Dieskau is best characterized by his performances of works for voice and piano, in which his imagination, musicianship, and vocal timbre were showcased to the fullest. However, he made equal strides in the realm of orchestral lieder; his performances of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder are some of the finest on record. Other works he performed with orchestra included the Michelangelo Sonnets of Dmitri Shostakovich, Brahms' German Requiem, and numerous cantatas of Bach and Telemann.