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Genuflecting To A Master: Thomas Hampson On Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performing in England in 1962.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performing in England in 1962.

German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this month at age 86, was a paragon of excellence for generations of singers and fans. After his passing, we called American baritone Thomas Hampson for his memories of Fischer-Dieskau, whom he has called "a Singer for the ages, an Artist for eternity."

Renowned himself for his impassioned championing of the art song, Hampson declares, "You simply have to recognize him as one of the greatest vocal artists of all time, period, full-stop. If Fischer-Dieskau is the Encyclopedia Britannica of song repertoire, I would like to be a couple of well-written chapters inside of it."

"Even before I met him," Hampson continues, "I considered Fischer-Dieskau a kind of mentor. I've always been fascinated with the way he looks at music, and the way he sings. I've never heard anything that the man sang or recorded that was not interesting, or did not illuminate some reason why the piece was written in the first place. And I think it's going to take several years, and maybe even generations, to actually digest what this single human being did over a 50-year career and an 80-some year-old life."

The depth of what Fischer-Dieskau accomplished is matched by its abundance. "If you have his discography," Hampson says, "you're looking at 300-plus pages of single-typed pages of what he recorded, either for radio or commercially. For example, he made four or five different commercial recordings of Die Schoene Magalone of Brahms. I mean, when was the last time you even heard the Schoene Magalone? It's just breathtaking what the man did and wanted to do, and the passion with which he did it."

But as Hampson's own career developed, the two men began working together, and the titan Hampson had first known through cherished recordings became a more direct source of inspiration. "I don't want to misrepresent that I was a close friend, or that we were in constant contact," Hampson says, "but I am extremely grateful that in my professional life that I did have this relationship and had the kind of support behind the scenes from this giant. I'm not sure that there's ever been a time when I haven't had Fischer-Dieskau as a mentor or as a thought process in how I study, along with some of the other great musicians like Harnoncourt or Bernstein or Barenboim whom I've worked with."

"I'll never forget the first time I sang with him in 1985," Hampson says. "As I was genuflecting on my knees and and saying what a great honor it was, as one does when you're around a great master — I was so intimidated and so thrilled to be in his presence — he took my hand, and shook it, and said, 'You're very talented, and I wish you the best.' And then he almost let my hand go and then pulled it back, looked me smack in the eyes, and he said, 'Pay attention. It goes by so fast.' I'll never forget that."

The last time Hampson and Fischer-Dieskau met in person was about two years ago at the older singer's home in Munich. "We had a wonderful long conversation about repertoire and life and singing," Hampson recalls. "He'd been sitting listening to the radio broadcast from Bayreuth the day before. He listened incessantly to music. He kept up on performances and people and knew names, probably more than one could believe. And he said to me, 'You know, Thomas, at the end of the day, you have to believe in what you're doing, and you have to sing what it is you know you have to sing.'"

"I found that very powerful," Hampson says. "I was very, very happy to hear him say that. It was a kind of a moment that told me that he was totally connected with what he had represented and what he had done."

For those just starting to explore the artistry of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hampson recommends several recordings to begin the journey.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.