A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Meistersinger

When I was in the fourth grade our class was given an art assignment to paint a representation of our favorite song. This was the year of the British Invasion; songs by the Beatles and other English boy bands topped the charts, and I recall any number of imaginative renderings of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “I Saw Her Standing There” and other rock n’ roll hits, some of which have aged better than others. My painting, however, was not of a single song but a series of songs. It depicted a mill on a stream, with a lovely young woman beside it (or at least, as lovely as a ten-year-old with no exceptional artistic ability could make her).  My favorite songs comprised Franz Schubert’s German lieder cycle Die Schoene Muellerin. With the exception of my teacher, no one had a clue what I had painted, or why.

Influenced by my father’s taste, I grew up listening to classical music, most notably the symphonies of Brahms, the operas of Donizetti and Puccini, and the lieder of Franz Schubert. No one sang those last pieces better than my father’s favorite baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died this past Friday just ten days shy of his 87th birthday. He inhabited those songs; he told their stories, his voice colored the tone and the text in such a way that the hopeful lover, the spurned and often suicidal suitor, all four of the characters in DieErlk├Ânig, among so many, many others, all were brought to life. I sang along with my father’s recordings, memorizing the lyrics phonetically if not literally. When I began the serious study of voice in my late teens and undergraduate years, it was not to the operatic stage that I aspired. In spite of my love of theatre, I wanted to be a recitalist who specialized in the lied. I wanted to unpack, inhabit, and present these gems in miniature, to draw an audience into their stories within the intimacy of the recital hall, as I had experienced them in those many recordings. Leave the opera house and verismo to others.
Fischer-Dieskau himself was equally at home, and equally acclaimed, on the operatic stage as well as in oratorio. In a gesture of global post-war reconciliation, Benjamin Britten recruited him to sing in the premier of his War Requiem. I loved to hear him sing Papageno. But to me he will always belong first to the world of lieder.

Gute ruh, Herr Fisher-Dieskau; you were a Meistersinger indeed. If there are liederabends in heaven, my father surely will be queued up for a front row seat!

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