Schumann: Dichterliebe (16 songs on poems by Heinrich Heine)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone)
Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Recorded 1985. Deutsche Grammaphon B00000E30F
Song is the most direct form of musical expression. The sound comes directly from a person, not an instrument – and all sorts of other things come across apart from the sound – the words and the meaning given to them, the singer’s expression, posture, gestures….and an emotion. This last is a bit hard to pin down – but some singers involve us in the emotion of what they are singing, while others leave us almost untouched – hearing but not participating. Particularly in pop music, the actual sound may not be so great in terms of voice production – but the singer’s ability to communicate a meaning or an emotion may be quite outstanding. In classical music, however, for starters the vocal technique and quality of sound must be great, and after that the ability to communicate sets apart the really outstanding artists. And in classical singing in the latter half of the 20th Century, baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” to use Shakespeare’s words about Caesar.
How is it possible for someone to develop his (or her) voice so to be able to stand and sing in front of a full orchestra plus chorus, in a large concert hall, and still be heard clearly? Are such people superhuman? Not really, although probably richly gifted with the right apparatus – but the trick is really about the exploitation of resonance. If we imagine a source of sound in a cavity (sound being waves of high and low pressure through the air), then the sound will propagate until it hits a wall, when it will be reflected back on itself. If the high-pressure bit reflected falls back on a low-pressure bit, it will tend to smooth it out, and the sound disappear. But if the high-pressure bit falls onto another high pressure bit, the wave will be reinforced. In fact, it may be reinforced many many times, as it doubles back on itself. This then is resonance. If you make a violin, the trick is to make the sounding box so that it reinforces through resonance all the frequencies the violin can play, in a uniform manner. When you are a singer, the trick is to adjust the cavities in your body – windpipe, throat, mouth, nasal cavity – so that their resonance reinforces the note you want to sing (and whose basic vibration is produced by the vocal “folds” in the throat). When supported by resonance, the voice projects… and then very loud sounds can be produced.
But – and here begins all the complication – the resonance depends on the air pressure (and you use up breath when singing); when you sing in the low part of your voice, or the high part, the body has to adjust in different ways; different vowel sounds alter the resonant cavities in a different way; some consonants tend to interrupt the vibration of the air column….. So singing ends up being a very complex interweaving of breathing, posture, maintaining open the internal cavities, altering the position of the tongue, lips and jaw….. and being able to do this automatically, so the practice doesn’t change even in front of an audience.
So to hear this carried out to perfection in an intimate form of music, we can turn to Schumann’s Dichterliebe sung by “DFD”.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, at age 81 happily still with us, had a prestigious professional career from 1947 (right after the war) until 1992, when he retired. His repertoire encompassed all the major Oratorios as well as Opera – but he may well be most remembered for his singing of Lieder – songs with piano accompaniment, usually by German composers, and more suited to the drawing room than the operatic stage. He was acclaimed for his detailed and imaginative interpretations and the tremendous variety of colours and shadings in his voice. He may be the most recorded singer ever – a search in amazon.com yields 525 different albums!
And as for communicating, here is an interesting insight from DFD talking about the influence on his music of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler: “He once said to me that the most important thing for a performing artist was to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings. I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”
This song cycle “A Poet’s Love” is a very imaginative setting by Robert Schumann of 16 poems by Heinrich Heine. At the beginning, the poet is working happily on the conquest of his loved one: In the marvellous month of May/ when all the birds were singing/ then did I reveal to her/ my yearning and longing (in the 1st poem)……
When I gaze into your eyes/ all my pain and grief vanishes/ then when I kiss your mouth/ I am made wholly and completely well (4th Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’)…..
but this soon turns to disappointment: I do not complain, even if my heart is breaking/ love lost for ever! (in the 7th, Ich Grolle Nicht)……..
and despairing: When I hear the sound of song/ that once my beloved sang/ my bosom is near to bursting/ with the savage strain of sorrow (10th)…..
which pursues him everywhere: I wept in my dreams/ I dreamed you were still kind to me/ I awoke, and still/ the flow of my tears streams on (13th).
But then he begins to think of other things: From old tales someone waves/out with a white hand/ There is singing, and there are sounds/ of a magical land….. Ah! Could I but go there/ and there make my heart happy (15th)…
until finally he gets over it: The old and evil songs/ the dreams so evil and bad/ let us bury them now/ fetch an enormous coffin……. Do you know why the coffin/ must be so huge and heavy/ I want to sink my love/ and my sorrow in it (16th Die alten, bösen Lieder).
Throughout these songs with their wide range of sentiment, Fischer-Dieskau gives a masterly display of everything one could ask from a singer – delicate pianissimo to full-voiced joy, dark low notes to a magnificent top A (in Ich grolle Nicht), always melodious and sonorous but with the words wonderfully clear (particularly since German is not considered an easy language for singers) – and withal he has little subtleties of phrasing and intonation which make each phrase different. But looking at the music, he does all this while being exact – there’s nothing you can say is out of place or a liberty of interpretation….. a real master-class in singing.