Alex Ross has some intelligent comments and valuable links concerning the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Last night, off the plane from Europe, I looked around for some of Lear on YouTube, and to my surprise found quite a bit of 1982 footage, including a mesmerizing last scene. Aribert Reimann is one of my favorite living composers but I had never really listened to his most famous work created in collaboration with Fischer-Dieskau.
I don't know why I didn't look for this sooner. Reimann is one of the greatest masters of atonal vocal writing, and the regrettably rare collection of lieder on Wergo — Neun Sonette der Louize Labé, Nacht-Raüme, and Kinderlieder by Liat Himmelhaber, Christine Schäfer, Axel Bauni, Werner Reinert and the composer (who is an excellent pianist) — is one of my desert island CDs.
Now I must investigate all of Lear more seriously as well. I hope a DVD becomes available.
Watching these devastating clips, it's impossible for me not to think of the relationship of these Berlin-born artists to World War II. Reimann would have been nine in 1945, around the same time that the 18-year old Fischer-Dieskau (serving in the Wehrmacht) was captured and interned for two years as a POW in Italy. The sound of Lear grieving is not made by single man, it is a whole society wondering what went wrong.
(Alex also has a post about Fischer-Dieskau's relationship to another composer, Benjamin Britten, and the celebrated premiere of War Requiem.)
Admittedly, WW II was on my mind anyway. I ran across Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five in France a few days ago. I hadn't read it since high school, but was eager to look at it again after recently discovering the powerful letter Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 after surviving Dresden and the rest.
This passage from the novel is particularly fine:
It was The Gospel From Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space… [who] made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
But the Gospels actually taught this:
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought…:
Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.
The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that too, since the Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!
After all, what is war but the wholesale murder of those with no connections?
Right at the beginning of the book, Vonnegut calls Slaughterhouse-Five a failure, because
…There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?"
There may not be might not be much to say, but there may be much to do. For example, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau turned out countless recordings, creating a beloved library of beauty. Might his determined fecundity and declaration of humane intent been partially motivated by what he had seen and felt as a teenager?