Martin Fischer-Dieskau © Martin Fischer-Dieskau
Martin Fischer-Dieskau
© Martin Fischer-Dieskau

For Martin Fischer-Dieskau, the two-year period since his last engagement in the USA feels like a remarkably long gap. The peripatetic maestro loves interacting with musicians and audiences around the world, so he's excited by the prospect of returning to the New World to helm an all-Berlioz programme at the Round Top Music Festival in Texas on 13 July.

“It's a little funny they chose a German conductor for this programme of French music, which pays homage to the 150th anniversary of Berlioz's death,” Fischer-Dieskau remarked in a Skype interview while at home in his native Berlin. “But he played a powerful role for Richard Wagner, especially with Roméo et Juliette, an obvious influence on Tristan und Isolde,” he adds, referring to Berlioz's vast, original, deeply affecting reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play as a “dramatic symphony,” the centrepiece of the programme.

Another point of fascination is that Berlioz was himself a pioneer of conducting – “against his will, because no one else dared to perform these intricate scores. To this day, they are very hard to realise,” he explains. Fischer-Dieskau has studied the history of his profession in depth: understanding how the role and its expectations developed is for him essential to improving his own practice as a conductor. In 2016, Fischer-Dieskau published a book on the evolution of conducting in Italian opera houses during the early 19th century, and he recently finished writing an intriguing essay about how the proper qualifications to be a conductor are sorely misunderstood in today's musical scene. These are ideas he looks forward to sharing with the emerging musicians with whom he will work at the Round Top Festival Institute (founded in 1971).

“This is a wonderful chance for me to do exactly what I want to do. To work with younger musicians is always a test of whether you can make yourself understood,” he says. In addition to the intensive work on the concert programme, Fischer-Dieskau enjoys discussing his ideas about the role of the conductor and demystifying the power that audiences today often ascribe to a visually arresting podium personality.

“Body movements and gestures are merely the tip of the iceberg – but this isn't conducting,” he explains. “Even if the audience mistakes it for that. Yet that is also what is being taught as conducting at schools and festivals, even by great teachers when they correct the arm motions of their young students. All of that can only be meaningful after the person is already a real musician. Nowadays, many people start off with the body movements and forget about the instrumental preparation. In my own work as a professor [at the Academy of the Arts in Bremen], I know how students prepare for auditions without even playing an instrument but already thinking about a conducting career.”

What, then, would the proper preparation entail? “For Roméo et Juliette, I play the violin and viola parts myself and with my wife, who is a cellist, so that I know about the challenges for the strings. For the song cycle Les Nuits d'été [also part of the programme, with Sasha Cooke as the soloist], I play them at the piano and consider how the keys have to be transposed when there is only one singer, as we have, since Berlioz wrote them for different vocal ranges. Only after this detailed work can the gestural preparation begin.”

Martin Fischer-Dieskau © Martin Fischer-Dieskau
Martin Fischer-Dieskau
© Martin Fischer-Dieskau

Ultimately, Fischer-Dieskau is a firm believer in conducting the score from memory. Otherwise, he finds, insufficiently prepared conductors tend to fall back on superficial gestures as a way to conceal their lack of intimate knowledge of a score's details. “As a conductor, you need to make the architecture – how the music leads to the climaxes – clear to the audience so that it is not just a random array of sounds. They will have a sense of euphoria when the performance is authentic in this way. They feel it intuitively. The actual body gestures are irrelevant.”

Conducting arose, according to Fischer-Dieskau, as a merely practical, “logistical” issue of coordinating musicians. It wasn't meant to be an end in itself “and certainly not an individual discipline isolated from the participation of others.” But in today's scene, the hectic pace of concert planning and careerism – as well as the public's willingness to be dazzled by “the optical effect of conducting, the mime and gestural dance onstage” – have obscured the hard work that past generations of conductors understood to be essential to their role. In fact, he is convinced, this expertise is necessary to justify the existence of the conductor as a speciality.

“The expected thing would be for me to go on and on about the more than 100 orchestras I have conducted over my 45-year career, from Europe to Canada to Japan and Taiwan.” But Fischer-Dieskau wants to turn the focus away from a Heldenleben-like resume of “the hero's great deeds” and centre the discussion on what a genuine conductor should seek to achieve. “And that is the unbelievably difficult task of fulfilling a composer’s wishes with any given orchestra or soloists. You should try to elucidate what the composition in question is all about for the audience. If you really want to accomplish such a task in all its complexity, then you have no time to think about careerism. It takes a lot of fundamental abilities before you even ascend the podium. The basic attitude of conducting should be modesty. Paradoxically, that is not an obvious feature for someone in charge.”

As the son of a world-famous singer and a gifted cellist, Fischer-Dieskau, who was born in 1954, readily acknowledges that he started early on the path towards this holistic concept of the profession. “We grew up in an opera house, so to speak, as theatre children” – his two siblings are also artists – “and I am very privileged to be part of a great tradition. Maybe that is why I have not been so focused on careerism and can have the freedom to do the work I think is necessary to prepare as a conductor.”

Fischer-Dieskau mentions an upcoming project that is especially dear to him. When he was 23, he was selected by Doráti as assistant conductor at the Detroit Symphony, which led to a significant friendship. The year Doráti died (1988), Fischer-Dieskau played through his only opera score with him at the piano and was entrusted to secure its first performance. “It's taken longer than three decades, but now I'm planning to present it at a special festival in 2021 – if I can secure the funding.”

Doráti's opera is based on the mystery play Elijah by the German-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber. “The music follows in the footsteps of Bartók and Kodály but with an American stamp and is a wonderful piece,” says Fischer-Dieskau. If his plan works, he will conduct the premiere at the Buber-Doráti Festival in Tel Aviv and Berlin the fall of 2021.

What sort of repertoire does he prefer preparing? “I love to conduct the same repertoire as any other conductor: Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms. Verdi and Wagner. The question is not what I conduct but whether I have a chance to dig in deeply into what I conduct. Then I hope I can get across all of a composer’s wishes.”

A highly cultured musician whose love of literature and history saturates his conversation, Fischer-Dieskau completed a doctorate four years ago at the Freie Universität Berlin in Italian literature and musicology. “There are so many other things to do that are important for the profession of conductors as well: reading and studying other subjects are part of that. In my case, this can take a lifetime. I never stop being self-critical.”

Fischer-Dieskau considers all of these layers of preparation for a concert like the Berlioz programme to be “an art form in their own right.” The effort should be directed at elucidating what the score encodes. As for the conductor, “modesty remains the maxim.” Despite his critiques, he doesn't see himself as a reformer or revolutionary. “I just want to make sure that I am not influenced all too much by this ubiquitous careerism. The orchestra members see when you are well-prepared and an honest musician. I know this because I have seen it many times with orchestras in different parts of the world. There's no way of faking it.”

Expertise remains a challenging goal, however. “It's difficult to achieve for all of us. I think we have to be careful not to overestimate the celebrity allure of conductors and not to underestimate the difficulties.”

But after all the effort, when he finds himself again on the podium, what does Fischer-Dieskau most enjoy about conducting? “That I don’t have to conduct anymore! That I can just stand there almost motionless and listen – while I'm giving all the directions, of course. If you know the score from memory, it’s like a miracle and works by itself. The image of the composer shines behind the podium, coming up for everyone to see. It's so hard to achieve. But there’s hardly anything more enjoyable than that.”

This article was sponsored by Hemsing Associates.