Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau 1925-2012

Only twice in my life have I ever burst into tears when first sighting a front-page New York Times obituary. The first time was when I was at Grace Church. I walked into the front door and there was a copy of the paper lying on the bench by the reception desk. It announced the death of George Balanchine, and I burst into spontaneous floods. The dances of this incomparably great choreographer had been at the center of my life for more than forty years. His ballets have not survived well, alas--and I suppose I surmised, even then, that without his coaching they could not.

The second time was today. Here is the link to the obituary--a full page, plus the first page photo and introduction:

Scroll down to the 1970 photo to see what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau looked like in his prime. (He must have had a fat stage, but it was short-lived.)

I only heard him live once, in a program of lieder with Dame Janet Baker, but I have numerous recordings which I play over and over. He is best known for lieder and art song, but I cherish most his roles in opera and oratorio. There has never been (to my knowledge) a Gunther (Götterdämmerung) or a Papageno (Magic Flute) to match his. I adore his Don Giovanni, though I suppose it is idiosyncratic. He is matchless in Bach's cantatas. But for me, most unforgettable of all is his interpretation of Handel's Saul. His English is flawless and unaccented, but more important still is his interpretation of the tortured Biblical king. (And it's a great work by Handel, too.)

The obituary ends with this:
Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:
“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle, and that is just about all there is to be said about it.” 
On a lighter note, another article about F-D today, by Anthony Tommasini, the music critic, tells of a New Yorker cartoon from the 70s, by William Hamilton. A Manhattan couple, obviously splitting up, are packing their possessions and sorting through recordings. The soon-to-be-ex wife, scowling, says: “Just a minute! You don’t get three years of my life and the Fischer-Dieskaus!”

(The New Yorker doesn't have cartoons like that any more. I have ceased to look at them, except for those by the lovable Roz Chast.)

The rest of the Tommasini appreciation is here:

Here is the Balanchine obit, from 1983:

P.S. A friend just sent me a link to a couple of YouTube audios of F-D singing Schubert lieder. I sat in front of the computer (with the German and English words before me as the songs played) and was soon in tears. How much I have missed! I just ordered the full set.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Don't call me "conservative"!

It is very annoying constantly to hear the term "conservative" used by people who don't really care to parse the subtleties of someone's thinking. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to take a couple of leading examples, were both radical theologians but are constantly being reduced and tamed by being called conservatives. Similarly, the Founding Fathers (and mothers) are appropriated by the Christian Right with very little reference to the actual complexity of their thinking. (I was taken to lunch at Pat Robertson's Regent University once and was shocked to see larger-than-lifesize full-length paintings of various Founders dominating the huge entrance hall.)  

It is quite possible to be conservative in social and cultural matters while being liberal or, better, radical in politics and theology. The real question is about foundational beliefs. One belief that does indeed lie at the heart of Christian theology and the best political conservatism has to do with the nature of humankind. David Brooks represents this, much of the time. In his column today he quotes James Madison:

"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualitites in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."

Depravity! Isn't that what the much-maligned John Calvin called it? But was Calvin a "conservative"? Yes and no!

In any case, David Brooks concludes his column in his usual measured and balanced way, saying this:

"People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is non-existent and they take self-government for granted."

Those are two superb sentences! And Brooks finishes:

"Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses."