Schubert: A Biographical Study, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (+ The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder)*

Schubert: A Biographical Study of his Songs, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Cassell

The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, Gollancz



Not content with having three names to everyone else's two, and cutting two discs to everyone else’s one, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau took to writing and anthologising. In translation his books stay the same, but their titles are revised and enlarged. In German he was just “On the track of Schubert songs”; in English he's past them into biography. Even his modest selection of song-texts now has the accolade of being named after its own compiler.

    He certainly stands high among those who have helped to put German song on the world map. Of course he is a Titan among singers, even an Atlas of the Lied. But the trouble with towering is that one inclines to talk down to one's audience. The Schubert book (mainly commentary on some 500 songs out of 610) declaims and intones too much for my liking: The reader is enjoined to refrain from condemning or disparaging the songs for this or that sup­posed failing. But the author, by special indulgence, freely disparages the poetry or the music, just for failing to appeal to him. An arguably better commentator (Capell) earns just two references, both slighting, for doing exactly the same. An arguably better Lied-interpreter (Schwarzkopf) achieves a bare listing of her name, among several second-raters. As the fruit of a lifetime's knowledge and experience, it all seems rather under-ripe as well as tart. Personal taste is presented as objective fact, as if an accomplished singer naturally had a definitive voice.

    That assumption can be well-founded, for example in the comments on singers' ideas and techniques. But the rest is mostly just description of music, or a collection of previous musicology. The description is rarely relieved, in my view, by any real warmth or insight. Both style and content often suggest a book for the layman by a Lehmann (“Halt shows us that the youth has arrived at the mill. He asks the stream if all this has beep planned!”). This impression is accentuated by an English translation which, so far from rendering un­familiar songs more accessible, can actually make old friends difficult to recognise. In all five of the obviously dubious passages I checked, neither Schubert's music nor the original German had been properly construed.

    But considered as a compilation of source material the book has value; the painstaking and effective collocation of relevant detail could be of some service to scholars. They had better buy the German edition, all the same, because this one tacitly omits many of the original features (e.g., all the 70 pictures of Schubert's poets). There never were any musical illustrations; it's not that kind of book.

    Gollancz seem better advised in their production of a multi-purpose tool for the Lied-lover's basic kit, adaptable at need as a concert-goer's vade mecum, a record­collector's handbook, an extensive anthology or a historical source-book, whether for ready reference, discursive reading or serious study. It's a great pity that the format so often obscures the form, by breaking up the lines of German verse; and the many lacunae and errors, e.g., in the dating of songs, should certainly have been amended. But the song-translations show not only a reasonable competence but a sensitivity comparable to that of Professor Prawerin his Penguin Book of Lieder, and in more than twice as many texts. Even so, the material is still rather exiguous for the massive corpus of the Lied form; thus only about half Brahms is covered.

    There has quite recently (1973) been a spirited and largely successful attempt to encompass the world of art-song by discussing and illustrating the art-song of the world, from Russia to America and from the middle ages to the present day. This is the long but remarkably searching look taken by Werner Oehlmann in his densely­packed Reclam pocket-book, theLiedführer.Let's hope that some enterprising publisher will commission a translation, even if only in the belief that it's a biography of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.


© New Statesman, 1976