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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY SIX The Second-Best Singer in the World

Perhaps the most exciting way to approach Germany is from Holland across the Afsluitdijk – the dam and causeway that seals off the Zuider Zee. To the north is open ocean; to the south is what was previously a 42-square-mile inlet of sea, now a huge fresh-water lake, the Ijsselmeer. In Roman times, there was no inlet as such, just marsh dotted with islands and run through with streams and water channels. But over time, by a process the Dutch call waterwolf, the peat banks of the islands eroded to make an open salt-water inlet.

Zuider Zee (c)wikicommons

As waterwolf slowly destroyed the natural barriers to tidal surges, the Zuider Zee became murderous. From the middle of the ninth century, when 2,500 people drowned, and thereafter at intervals of fifty years or so, devastating floods would sweep in. In 1212, 60,000 people died; in 1219, 36,000; in 1287, 80,000; in 1530, 100,000; in 1836, flood waters from the Zuider Zee reached Amsterdam. Now the tides are held back by the Afsluitdijk and the lake is reduced in size by the creation of polders, areas of land reclaimed by enclosing them with dykes (coloured green on the map above).

duelling alpacas on the edge of the Zuider Zee (c)meirion harries

There is an opportunity when you cross the Afsluitdijk to pause for poffert – the truly solid cake they make in nearby Groningen from a dough of flour, eggs and butter stuffed with raisins, apricots, figs, and stem ginger. On a winter transit, when the wind from the North Sea is doing its best to cut you in half, a large slice is necessary. Or you might opt for dikke koek, similarly solid dough dotted with currants, raisins, and candied lemon.

I mention this way-station because of the photographs they still display of the German army's retreat across the Afsluitdijk in 1945. The surprise in the photographs is that as far as the camera can see, the road is solid with horse-drawn carts. For those of us raised on movies where British and American troops drive everywhere in trucks, the sight of carts is a surprise. But the German Army had sufficient fuel to mechanise only a fifth of its units - so they mostly fought with horses pulling artillery and supplies, much as they did in the First World War.

German Army retreating across the Zuider Zee causeway in 1945

At the turn of the year in 1941, the Germans lost 179,000 horses in battle and by the end of the war, they had used 2,750,000 horses and mules. The animals were both a logistical solution and a nightmare. If they had only grass to eat, they could not pull weight – so a typical German supply train had to carry militarily-useless bushels of grain. Even conscripted horses needed stabling and they needed rest. And they had to be looked after by soldiers, depleting available combatants: a typical infantry division would have 4,000 men serving 2,500 horses.

German horses on an unpaved track in Russia (c)wikicommons

One of the men looking after horses on the Russian Front in 1943 was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His diary reads: 'Lots of cold, lots of slush and even more storms. Every day horses die for lack of food'. The Race Marshal's father, Neville Marriner, conducted Fischer-Dieskau on a number of occasions and recalled that just before going on stage, Fischer-Dieskau always smoked a strong Russian cigarette - to help him reach the low notes, he said.

Fischer-Dieskau was captured in Italy in 1944 and did not emerge from his American prisoner-of-war camp until 1947. He was then 22, but before being drafted he had studied singing for three years, and his voice had stayed in good shape even through the rigours of the Russian campaign. His captors, recognising his talent, used him to entertain other prisoners of war: in fact, they liked him so much that he was among the very last to be repatriated, not returning to the Berlin conservatoire until June 1947.

But then he had a huge slice of luck. He was pulled in to sing Brahms's German Requiem at short notice when the intended baritone dropped out. Rather like Pavarotti in similar circumstances, he proved a sensation. Later that year he gave a concert of lieder and was launched. The hugely influential record producer Walter Legge took Fischer-Dieskau under his wing; they went on, over the years, to record virtually the entire German lieder repertoire.

Fischer-Dieskau's biography is highlight after highlight: Britten wrote the baritone part for War Requiem for him; he sang at all the major opera houses; all the great conductors loved to work with him; his are among some of the most acclaimed records of all time. The foundation stone of his success was total mastery of a beautiful voice: as Opera News put it, "His technique is breath-taking; someone should build a monument to it." His long-time collaborator in lieder, Gerald Moore, spoke of his 'flawless sense of rhythm' and 'one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive'. Gerald Moore was considerably older than Fisher-Dieskau and would have been a huge influence on his musical and technical development.

Fisher-Dieskau credited part of his success to his childhood. There was a musical lineage of sorts through his mother (Bach wrote the Peasant Cantata for one of her forebears) and he developed an early love of poetry that would underpin his performances of lieder: 'I was won over to poetry at an early age [and] I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading'.

And he learned to perform. He was a shy, withdrawn child and spent his days voicing all the parts of puppet shows that he put on for Martin, his physically and mentally disabled brother. He once said that 'The war helped him understand the transience of life' – not least because that war had seen Martin murdered, locked in a mental institution by the Nazis and starved to death.

When asked what he thought his legacy would be, Fisher-Dieskau had no answer: 'I have done nothing but sing'.

Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore - Schubert Nacht und Träume (Salzburg 1963) -

1948 recording of Winterreisse with Klaus Billing

1962 recording of Winterreise with Gerald Moore -

1979 recording of Winterreisse with Alfred Brendel -

Fischer-Dieskau giving a masterclass in 2003 -

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