The two singers, so different in so many ways, defined their music and their respective eras so precisely as to make it almost impossible for anyone else to fill their enormous shoes. Both died this past weekend – Summer on 17 May, age 63, and Fischer-Dieskau, age 86, the following day. J BROOKS SPECTOR pays his respects.
Summer, or LaDonna Adrian Gaines, as she was born, was virtually synonymous with disco music with her pulsating, sensual performances that earned her notoriety and accolades including five Grammy Awards and numerous top Billboard hits in a career that ran from the 1960s through to the 21st century.
Raised in a devoutly religious family, she got her first live-performance opportunities in church at the age of 10, filling in for a scheduled vocalist who failed to arrive for the service. Summer’s mother, recalling her daughter’s childhood, liked to recall: “She literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”
Her daughter remembered that first public moment: “I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice came out I felt like God was saying to me: ‘Donna, you're going to be very, very famous’ and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”
In 1967, just weeks before high-school graduation, Summers pushed off for New York City, got aced out by Melba Moore for a part in the Broadway cast of the musical Hair, but was offered a role in the show’s Munich production instead and she was off to Europe. Productions of Godspell and Show Boat as well as recordings, soon followed. She married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and, although that relationship ended, she kept her husband’s surname – but anglicised it to Summer.
Along the way she sang backup for the rock group Three Dog Night, and then met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte – two men who would change her life. The result of this collaboration was the resonant, elemental sensuality of Love to Love You Baby – with Summer keeping Marilyn Monroe’s vocal range in mind and the producers dimming the lights in the studio to create the mood.
At Casablanca Records’ Neil Bogart’s insistence, Summer recorded a longer, 17-minute version with – according to some experts on these things – 23 separate climaxes, vocally. Its fame only grew once it became known that radio networks like the BBC had banned it from their airwaves.
Hits kept coming after that, and then her cover of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park shot to number one and sold over a million copies. Summer was on the way to becoming the “queen of disco.”
With hits like Hot Stuff, MacArthur Park, Bad Girls and a Barbra Streisand duet, No More Tears (Enough is Enough, Summer had four number one hits in one 13-month period. These songs, plus Heaven Knows, Last Dance, Dim All the Lights, and On the Radio then meant eight US Top 5 singles within two years. Hot Stuff garnered a Grammy and eventually had a second life in the film version of The Full Monty.
By the 1980s, however, Summer was moving on from disco to other genres, working with Quincy Jones on new sounds for Love is in Control and She Works Hard for the Money that drew on rock, soul and R ‘n B roots and other influences, beyond the disco beat she had practically come to define in her earlier hits. It became a feminist pop anthem as well.
Donna Summer – She works for her money:
In the mid 1980s, Summer, having become a born-again Christian, was reported to have called Aids a punishment from God on homosexuals (although she always denied saying it). Regardless, these purported remarks led to protests as those angered by the words returned thousands of copies of her recordings to her record company.
In 1989 she wrote to the Aids campaign group ACT-UP to say it had all been “a terrible misunderstanding. I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters... If I have caused you pain, forgive me.”
In that same year, Summer also told an interviewer : “A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference.”
In that same year, This Time I Know it’s for Real became her last top 40 single in the US. If some of her later recording projects attracted less attention, some recordings still sold well, such as a 1994 gospel-influenced Christmas album and with 90s hits on Billboard’s Dance Chart.
In 2008, Summer released Crayons, her first studio album of fully original material in 17 years. The project reached number 17 on the US Top 200 Album Chart. In describing the creative impulses behind this late work, Summer said: “I wanted this album to have a lot of different directions on it. I did not want it to be any one baby. I just wanted it to be a sampler of flavours and influences from all over the world. There's a touch of this, a little smidgeon of that, a dash of something else… like when you're cooking.”
And speaking about one of the album’s songs, The Queen is Back, she added” “There's irony, it's poking fun at the idea of being called a queen. That's a title that has followed me, followed me, and followed me. We were sitting and writing and that title kept popping up in my mind and I'm thinking, ‘Am I supposed to write this? Is this too arrogant to write?’ But people call me ‘the queen,’ so I guess it's ok to refer to myself as what everybody else refers to me as.”
In an extraordinary re-appearance from near-retirement, Summer sang at Barack Obama’s 11 December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, together with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Somebody was clearly a big disco fan in his student days in the early 1980s. After she had died, Obama issued a statement that read: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the 'Queen of Disco.' Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna's family and her dedicated fans.”
Definitely not something the president does for everyone, having passed on just such opportunities upon the deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, just to name a few other logical candidates for a presidential message.
Summing up her influence, the New York Times’ popular music critic Jon Pareles wrote Donna Summer had captured both the giddy hedonism of the 1970s disco era and the feisty female solidarity of the early 1980s with her numerous hit recordings. “With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms Summer became the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-70s well into the 80s.”
But she was not content to stay within the genre she personified. Pareles added she had drawn on styles as diverse as funk, electronica, rock and the torch song tradition as she piled up 14 Top 10 singles in the United States. He noted that Summer’s “combination of a church-rooted voice and up-to-the-minute dance beats was a template for 1970s disco, and, with her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of I Feel Love in 1977, a sound that pervades 21st-century pop.”
No minor lounge singer herself, Liza Minnelli spoke of Donna Summer’s legacy, saying “She was a queen, the queen of disco, and we will be dancing to her music forever". Meanwhile, Dolly Parton has said: “Donna, like Whitney, had one of the greatest voices ever. I loved her records. She was the disco queen, and will remain so. I knew her and found her to be one of the most likable and fun people ever. She will be missed and remembered.”
Bette Midler added her unique view, saying: “I was working at the [Continental] Baths [a gay club] and we heard this magical voice. It was Love to Love You Baby and you knew that something was in the air, that something was going to change. It was so revolutionary. It was quite provocative, really outrageous, this gigantic production, fantastic production…”
New York club scene veteran and fashionista Diane Von Furstenberg probably summed up Summer’s impact best when she said: “Last Dance was the song of that era, and of course it actually was the last dance. It was a moment of freedom that was never to be repeated again because there was no Aids, and that makes all the difference.”
Curiously, Summer had not – up until her death – been honoured by the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the biggie of those many halls of fame for popular music. Of this oversight, a major “oops” moment, the organization’s Jon Landau now says: “There is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognise her — an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.” Go ahead, bet the farm on that one.
Now, to the best of my knowledge, there is no official “lieder hall of fame” in the great lieder composer Franz Schubert’s hometown of Vienna. But if there were one, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would be at the head of the class roll of honour – complete with a bronze plaque and a polished marble bust. More than almost any other classical singer, Fischer-Dieskau took lieder, or art songs, out of the stuffy salons of the rich and into the great concert halls for the many – and on to over a thousand recordings of these works.
Fischer-Dieskau’s extraordinary output throughout a busy, productive life came from a thoughtful man’s desire to tackle, then “own”, every art song he encountered, even as he took the lead as a proselytiser for this art form – and then for classical singing more broadly still.
As a result, over the past half century, Fischer-Dieskau became an inspiration to an army of other singers who followed his example, turning lieder into a usual experience for singers and creating, in turn, a large (at least for classical music) audience around the world for this music. One way to measure the real impact of such effort comes in the tens of thousands of CDs now available of lieder – including more than a thousand recorded by Fischer-Dieskau himself. But it almost didn’t happen at all.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin and began his musical studies just before the outbreak of World War II. He had given his first recital of Schubert's Winterreise at age 17, in 1943, singing in the town hall of Zehlendorf, a suburb of Berlin. The performance ended up being interrupted by an RAF night bombing. A few years ago, Fischer-Dieskau, in describing that debut, said: “The whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two and a half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.”
His war was not a good one, but he survived it. His mentally and physically handicapped brother was starved to death in a concentration camp and Fischer-Dieskau himself was drafted into the Wehrmacht - and then dispatched to the Russian front to tend the horses that Hitler’s army literally depended upon for its transport needs. Surviving that harrowing ordeal in a war that killed millions on the battlefront, Fischer-Dieskau was eventually reassigned to the Italian front, where the American army captured him towards the end of the war.
As luck would have it, the Americans discovered his musical gifts and kept him as a prisoner of war for two years, sending him around various military bases to entertain the occupation troops stationed there. Talk about singing for your supper, those must have been some really tough gigs for a half-starved, young German POW lieder singer in the 1940s. Maybe this is where his legendary ability to draw out and portray the emotional core of the songs he so loved got its start.
By 1948, he had already begun his recording career with radio transcription recordings for the American military radio station in Berlin, including his trademark Winterreise song cycle by Schubert. He resumed his music studies and quickly became a hot new young opera singer in Vienna and Munich. He starred in such roles as The Magic Flute’s Papageno, the title role in Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro’s Count Almaviva and the Herald in Lohengrin.
Then, moving beyond the operatic repertoire, Fischer-Dieskau performed and recorded such large-scale works as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Bach’s various cantatas and passions, and Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah.
One of his early triumphs in the English-speaking world was in the 1962 premiere of Benjamin Britten’s emotionally draining War Requiem, commissioned to consecrate the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after it had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Britten, a committed pacifist, had incorporated antiwar poems by Wilfred Owen into his text and the composer himself had recruited Fischer-Dieskau – together with leading British tenor Peter Pears and the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (whom the Soviets declined to let travel to Britain to perform in the premiere) – to sing the baritone solo. This decision was not without controversy for at least some Britons, given Fischer-Dieskau’s participation in the German army in World War II. But Britten’s wording in asking him to join the premiere, speaks volumes about Fischer-Dieskau's enormous reputation among other musicians. Britten had written to the singer: “With great temerity, I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone.”
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Benjamin Britten's War Requiem:
Upon Fischer-Dieskau’s death, the Guardian’s music critic wrote that, despite all his enormous musical accomplishments, ultimately “it was with his lieder that he achieved his greatest deeds. He recorded all the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Strauss suitable for a male voice… Fischer-Dieskau had a full, firm and resonant baritone, which… was used with the utmost care in managing and projecting the text. He could on occasion be too emphatic in his treatment of words and was sometimes accused of overloading climaxes, but these were only the downside of a singer who was totally immersed in everything he undertook. An excellent linguist, he was almost as happy singing in Italian, French and English as in his native tongue…”
To listen to him sing was to hear a musician who crafted a special, almost magical form of sprechgesang, his voice sounding almost as if he was singing his speech rather than simply singing the composer’s notes. And in fact, after he retired from concert singing, he began a follow-on career of reciting great literary texts, often associated with song, as well as private lessons to a select roster of carefully chosen singers.
How much of an emotional jolt did a fine Fischer-Dieskau performance deliver to a listener? Composer Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times upon hearing of Fischer-Dieskau’s death that, aside from the performances themselves, there was that famous New Yorker cartoon in which “a Manhattan couple, obviously divorcing, are packing up things and sorting through recordings. In the caption the glowering wife says: ‘Just a minute! You don’t get three years of my life and the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskaus!’”
Together with all those James Thurber and Gahan Wilson cartoons about overbearing women, deluded advertising men and unlikely monsters, to be a lieder singer immortalised in a New Yorker cartoon seems something quite unique. Not entirely modestly, but perhaps truthfully, Fischer-Dieskau told British journalist-musicologist Norman Lebrecht in a 2007 interview: “I achieved too much. I left too little for my successors.”
And so these two singers, from vastly different musical universes, but both giving their all, working immensely hard for their money, have now become part of musical history. But their recordings will be around for a long time to help us remember. DM
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau obituary in the Guardian.
- The Voice That Made You Fall in Love With Lieder in The New York Times.
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, master singer of German art songs, dies at 86 in the Washington Post.
- German baritone singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dies at the BBC website.
- Remembering 'A Born God' Among Singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the NPR (National Public Radio) website.
- On the Enjoyment of Challenges, an extraordinary interview with Fischer-Dieskau published in Opernwelt Jahrbuch (in translation).
- Donna Summer Dead at 63, Disco legend was struggling with cancer at Rolling Stone.
- Obama Mourns Donna Summer, 'Her voice was unforgettable,' says president at Rolling Stone.
- Donna Summer, Queen of Disco Who Transcended the Era, Dies at 63 at The New York Times.
- Memories of Donna’s Disco Nights at The New York Times.
Photo: Donna Summer (Reuters) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Wikimedia Commons)