Unlike most famous performers who write books, predominantly memoirs, when they retire, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau turned to writing at the peak of his career, and his subject was not his life (that came later) but the art form with which he was most closely associated: the lied or art song. (It's interesting that the German word Lied, though it simply means "song," has entered the English language as if it denoted a separate, distinct vocal genre.) Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest Lieder singers of our time, had always been attracted to expressing himself in both words and music; his interpretations, too, emphasized their equal importance, their interaction and interdependence. For his first book, a compilation of Texts of German Songs, his only original contribution was the introduction, cast in the convoluted, abstruse style typical of scholarly German writing. In the next one, Schubert's Songs: A Biographical Study, he discarded this complexity; expressed simply and naturally, his love, knowledge, and understanding of his subject suffuse every page. The present book on Schumann's vocal works seems inspired not only by his affinity for the songs, but for a man who, like Fischer-Dieskau himself, was drawn equally to literature and music: a poet and a tone-poet, who chose his texts with care and discriminating literary taste, and achieved a true melding of tone and word, as well as a true partnership between voice and piano.
The book is excellent, clearly organized, filled with penetrating and illuminating insights. Fischer-Dieskau discusses Schumann's artistic development, changing style, and influence on future song composers. His analyses of virtually every work are detailed and exhaustive, though sometimes they seem to read too much psychological meaning into every harmonic and melodic turn. Despite copious musical examples, it is advisable to have the music at hand. Schumann's settings of a poem are compared with those of other composers, tracing similarities and influences and listing all the changes he made to his texts. There are biographies of the poets for whose verses Schumann composed and descriptions of his relationship with them, whether direct or indirect. The author's knowledge is encyclopedic, yet he never flaunts it. He rejects the long-held idea that Schumann's deteriorating health brought about a parallel decline in his creative power. On the contrary, he asserts that Schumann was striving for a new, simpler, leaner style, and that his late works have a deeply moving inwardness and concentration that make their neglect both unjust and unfortunate.
Though the book focuses on Schumann's music, it naturally includes biographical elements. It recounts the familiar events of his life, giving more than usual attention to the inevitable problems of a marriage between two people of supreme but very different gifts and the mutual accommodations necessary for their often unfairly disparate artistic success. It also presents Schumann's illness in a different light, locating its onset much earlier in his life than is generally assumed and adding a new causative and aggravating component: alcoholism. However, there seems to be no documentary or contemporary evidence to back this up. Fischer-Dieskau himself admits that "one did not speak of such things" in those days, but does not indicate the source of his information. And even this sympathetic, circumspect biographer cannot resist the temptation to mention Schumann's secret distress at the "infatuation" of their "house-guest," Johannes Brahms, with Schumann's wife, Clara, though her diaries mention no such hospitality, nor does anything she wrote about Brahms, then or later, justify credence in an "infatuation."
Reinhard Pauly's English version reads well, but there are occasional errors in punctuation and frequently serious mistranslations of the German song titles and quotations from the poetry. The book is beautifully laid out, with many pictures as well as reproductions of Schumann's manuscript pages. --Edith Eisler