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Touched by voice of Fischer-Dieskau

The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died, and eulogies are coming from all over the classical music world. The case could be made that Fischer-Dieskau, who was just short of his 87th birthday, was the greatest singer of the 20th century. Certainly there was nobody greater.

For me, the loss is personal.

I never met Fischer-Dieskau. When I was a teenager, though, we had a brief but glorious (in my memory, anyway) correspondence.

If you are a music lover, no matter what the genre, there was probably someone who was your hero, your guiding light. For some people, that may have been John Lennon or B.B. King. For me, it was Fischer-Dieskau.

He first appeared on my radar in a TV production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Fischer-Dieskau was playing the philandering Count Almaviva, the opera's bad guy. I could not take my eyes off him. He was a handsome man. And that voice! It was light but deep, and it had a kind of sensuous, honeyed quality. I may have been a kid, but I knew quality when I heard it.

Fischer-Dieskau was great for my music education, because he was not only one of the world's best opera singers but also the world's greatest singer of Lieder, or art song, and he was a leading Bach authority. If you like Fischer-Dieskau, you learn it all.

When I was 16, I found his address in a "Who's Who in Music" -- Lindenallee 22, Berlin.

In my best high school German, on my best stationery, I wrote a note detailing my admiration for him and listing my three favorite Schubert songs. I still love these songs. I always will. One -- I'm translating -- was "The Song of Greenery," about being young and lounging outside, reading and daydreaming. Another was the slow, smoldering "Night and Dreams." The third song was "Norman's Song," with words by Sir Walter Scott, about a knight galloping to war and saluting his beloved.

"He'll never write to her," I overheard my father tell my mother.

But he did. An envelope arrived with scratchy European writing, and inside, a signed photo, and a little note thanking me and replying to a couple of questions I had asked him.

I thanked him, and he sent me another picture, and then I wrote to him asking if he would come to Buffalo, and he wrote back apologizing that he could not. (Then I stopped writing because I do not like to bug people.)

I know I was not alone in my appreciation of him. The Associated Press quotes German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann as saying Fischer-Dieskau "deeply moved countless people around the world for more than half a century through hundreds of concerts and recordings."

Still, it was always in the back of my mind, as the years passed and I continued to listen to him, that maybe someday, somehow, we would meet. I feel sad that now it is too late.

On the other hand, it is a gift, to have your childhood idol around for so long. And what a world he opened up to me, and to so many thousands of others.

I am afraid we cannot ask for more.