Two singers, and a sense of proportion, are dead

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died last week. So did Robin Gibb.

The former was one of the most seminal and influential singers of the twentieth century. His recordings of most of the Lieder repertoire, Schubert’s Winterreise and Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion will delight music lovers for as long as there are music lovers. ‘A born god who has it all’ was how Elisabeth Schwatzkopf described Fischer – a slight exaggeration surely, but it came from the heart of another great artist.

Robin Gibb was, with his brothers, a member of a popular pop group the Bee Gees that gave the world such disco hits as Stayin’ Alive and Jive Talkin’, selling 200 million albums as a result. In other words, if Fischer revealed to the world his interpretation of the very essence of the Western spirit, Gibb was a successful purveyor of primitive quasi-musical matter. As an experiment, read the lyrics of any of his songs as you would a poem. They relate to real poetry exactly as their musical accompaniment relates to real music.

Both will be missed – but in a different way and by different people. The word ‘different’ is these days a convenient cop-out, obviating any need for judgment and discernment. One hesitates to say that something is better than something else – just use the word ‘different’ and you’ll imply uncontroversial parity. Bach wasn’t better than John Lennon; they were just different. Rembrandt was different from, not better than, Tracy Emin. You have your taste, I have mine, and who’s to say that one is better than the other? To suggest that some tastes are infinitely more elevated and informed than others is to commit the ultimate heresy of our cultish age.

That’s why it’s only with an infidel’s trepidation that I dare say that Fischer-Dieskau was a musician, and Robin Gibb wasn’t. Fischer was among those who elevate the public taste to the level of mankind’s apex. Gibb was among those who drag the public down to the level of mankind’s nadir.

It has to be said that Gibb’s output, though having nothing to do with music, was generally inoffensive and not without its practical uses. Even the most accomplished of dancers would find it hard to dance to the sound of St Matthew’s Passion; even John Travolta twisted and turned creditably to the sound of Stayin’ Alive. On the other hand, I can’t imagine any post-pubescent individual sitting back, closing his eyes and spending hours listening to How Deep is Your Love and other variations on the same theme – which is the only way to treat Fischer’s work. In short, the difference here is between the functional and the sublime – between mindless entertainment and great art.

How is this difference reflected in the coverage of the two deaths in our ‘quality’ dailies, specifically The Times? One respectful obituary for Fischer-Dieskau; pages upon pages on Gibb, from the editorial to the cover story in Times 2. There’s no doubt which event The Times regards as more momentous.

‘The death of Robin Gibb reminds us how much pop music shapes our lives,’ says the editorial. It’s not something of which one likes to be reminded. Pop ‘music’ should remind us of something else: how a once great culture has been destroyed, how deeply we’ve sunk into the morass of deadened senses, crepuscular minds, undeveloped infantile tastes. It’s true that this junk has shaped our lives, but the same can be said about drugs, street crime and the pandemic of AIDS.

But The Times obviously believes that any shape is as good as any other, and each should be greeted with open arms. ‘A century ago, classical music made up 85 percent of sales of recorded music,’ announces the editorial proudly. ‘Today it accounts for well below a tenth.’ To me this ‘trajectory’ represents a cultural catastrophe. To The Times, it’s a welcome development.

The editorial then quotes Alban Berg, who allayed George Gershwin’s fears that his Rhapsody in Blue wouldn’t be taken seriously by saying, ‘Mr Gershwin, music is music.’ For The Times to use that quote in this context is dealing from the bottom of the pack. The Rhapsody is at the outer edge of what Berg would have recognised as music. To think for a second that he, or for that matter Gershwin, would feel the same way about pop is either dishonest or moronic, you decide which.

‘Pop’s ascendancy is everywhere,’ says The Times. I wonder if they’d say the same thing, with the same inflection, about the spread of drugs, which enjoys a symbiotic relationship with pop. They probably would – it’s the shape of things today and things to come.

By the standards of his chosen field, Robin Gibb was a nice man, and I’m sorry he died so early and with so much suffering. But that shouldn’t prevent us from keeping a sense of proportion when talking about his life and death and those of Fischer-Dieskau.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Robin Gibb, RIP. 

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