Not many people in the musical world intimidated Benjamin Britten; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of them. Below, I've excerpted two letters that Britten wrote to the baritone — the first almost comically meek in tone, the second considerably warmer. They bracket the legendary premiere of the War Requiem, in Coventry, on May 30, 1962. During the recording sessions for that work, in January 1963, Fischer-Dieskau approached Britten with the idea of writing an opera on King Lear. Britten seems to have agreed to the proposal, and, as Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke observe in the notes to Volume 5 of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears began making notes toward a libretto. Then, later in 1963, Britten mentioned the project in an interview with Desmond Shawe-Taylor, and the resulting torrent of chatter, replete with references to Verdi's unrealized Lear opera, seems to have discouraged his interest. The Lear for which Fischer-Dieskau yearned was, in the end, composed by Aribert Reimann; the DG recording of that work is one of the most stunning documents of the singer's art.
Britten to Fischer-Dieskau, 1961: "Please forgive me writing to such a busy man as yourself — you can be sure that if I did not feel very strongly I should not be troubling you! ... I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra ... Peter Pears has agreed to sing the tenor part, and with great temerity I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone. You may not, I fear, be free (the dates of the two performances are May 30th and June 1st, with rehearsals the few previous days), and above all you may not feel inclined to do this, but I am earnestly hoping you may be free and willing... [handwritten] Please forgive me troubling you."
Britten to Fischer-Dieskau, 1962: "I am made happy when I think of our working together, & our meeting with you and your dear wife, in Coventry. It was one of the great artistic experiences of my life ... I cannot say how touched I was by the great trouble you took over the War Requiem, & by your complete understanding of what I was trying to say in this work."
Fischer-Dieskau in his memoirs: "The first performance created an atmosphere of such intensity that by the end I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind."