Fritz Wunderlich - The Great German Tenor

Hubert Giesen on Fritz Wunderlich

from his autobiography "Am Flügel: Hubert Giesen", Frankfurt am Main 1972, pp. 251-260

Click here for the original German version!

Amongst all the singers I have played with during fifty years, there was only one whom I really loved like a son: Fritz Wunderlich. Our friendship began late, and it ended just three and a half years later due to Wunderlich's sudden death, that, it is no exaggeration to say, shook the whole world of music severely.

Oddly enough, we knew each other even years before then, without taking particular notice of each other. Wunderlich, who originally came from the Palatine mountains, had come to the Stuttgart Opera in 1955 as a newly-fledged graduate from the Freiburg College of Music. He was singing there as a lyric tenor - just on my doorstep. He had studied in Freiburg for five years, and nobody really knew what he had done before that. Opera lovers in Stuttgart became aware of this lyric tenor. He just could not be ignored.

For he sang with the same ensemble where Kammersängerin Ellinor Junker-Giesen (1) was a coloratura soubrette, I heard rather often of him: I was told about his intelligence, the quality of his voice, but as well about his earnestness when studying his roles. All that sounded quite well, but, unfortunately, I have never been a great opera lover. To put it more precisely: It was not the contents and the - more or less touching - plot I was interested in, but the conductor's work coping with a very difficult musical task.
One day Josef Traxel, Stuttgart's "first tenor" then, told me Wunderlich, "the new guy", was able to stand in any time and take over his role in the "Magic Flute". After I had once played a recital together with Traxel, Wunderlich asked me whether we as well could do something like that. I said yes, but he must have forgotten afterwards.

In 1960, he went to Munich where his rapid rise began. He was the new Mozart singer; he filled the audience with enthusiasm when he and Anneliese Rothenberger did Mozart's "Abduction"; he was a guest at Vienna and other big opera houses; he was invited to Salzburg and he went on tour. Concert artists' agencies scrambled to get him. At the beginning of 1963, I was just entering my car that had been standing in front of the Stuttgart Opera stage door when a young man came running towards me from a near petrol station. It was Wunderlich. "Hubsie", he shouted breathlessly, "I have been searching for you - that's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's because of you that I have come to Stuttgart."
"So what's the matter?"
"From now on, you have to be my accompanist."
I knew that he had been singing Lieder in Vienna, together with Heini Schmid, the first repetiteur at the State Opera, and I knew he had given Lieder recitals together with my friend Reinhardt at the Munich Herkulessaal. But I also knew he had always sung operetta arias and suchlike as soon as he got the opportunity.
"Gee", I said to him as if he was a horse, "what do you mean by that? I have to be your accompanist? Anybody could come and say that. You have been in Stuttgart for years without taking any notice of me. Why should I become your accompanist?"
We walked down the Neckarstrasse, and he let me know, admittedly in a shorthand fashion. After his recital in the Herkulessaal, Walter Panofsky from the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", one of the finest music critics in Germany, had confirmed that Wunderlich was a great opera singer but would not understand anything about singing Lieder.
"I was kind of thunderstruck - for he is right. After that, I went to Hermi immediately..."
Hermi was Hermann Prey, Wunderlich's friend. "Well?", I asked.
"I told him: I do anything I can, I work hard with my accompanists, but it comes to nothing. And Hermi tells me: go to see Hubsie Giesen, go to Stuttgart. But be careful: Do not contradict him, but do everything he tells you to do..."

We went to the College of Music and began to work on Schumann's "Dichterliebe". After we had come to the end of the first sheet, I stopped playing. He looked at me and asked me:
"What do you think about it?"
"Do you want me to be honest?"
"You have to be honest", he said. "That's why I'm here."
"Right then... I think it's rather bad."
"You see! That's just what I think", Wunderlich said with a sigh of relief, as if I had paid him compliments.
We kept on practising seriously for some hours. In the end, we had worked through four bars where his articulation, intonation and legato now were as I wanted to hear it. After that, he had to go back to Munich. The very next day, he phoned me and told me he had cancelled an operetta production with the Cologne broadcasting corporation to be able to practise with me. He asked me if I could come to Munich for the following three days. I came, and we continued our work. After these days he said: "Prey was right. It's no use contradicting you. What could I say then? It would only hold us back."

When we started working together, I was sixty-five years of age, Wunderlich thirty-tree. Fritz Wunderlich has never been my "pupil", but he considered himself as one while we were working together - the great tenor who had the opera world at his feet even then. Again, he cancelled some dates and refused invitations to work with me - now in Stuttgart, now in Munich. I found it was one of the nice things about him that we went, after having finally compiled a short programme, to his home town Kusel to do his first recital. Kusel is located in a godforsaken part of the Lower Palatinate in the Glan valley, at the federal road B 420 between Meisenheim and Ottweiler. We did not receive any fee; I was only paid my expenses. For warming up, we visited some other towns then. Then followed a concert tour which led us to bigger cities; after that we recorded our first record together, and finally the time was ripe for the Salzburg Festival. Our recital programme started with Beethoven's "Adelaide"; then we did some less-known Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert, plus Schumann's "Dichterliebe" as the second part of the evening. It was such a great success that we immediately began practising Schubert's "Die schöne Müllerin" and, again, we worked through it energetically. We did it with great success in Vienna and in the Munich Cuvilliés Theatre.

At that time Wunderlich was a distinguished Bach evangelist as well as an oratorio singer and opera tenor. Between our first public appearance in Kusel in April 1963 and the Edinburgh Festival in August 1966, Fritz Wunderlich also matured into one of the most touching Lieder singer of his time.

I was not alone in thinking that. In Summer 1966, Wunderlich's performance at Edinburgh gained general recognition. "The Scotsman", a newspaper whose intellectual quality bears comparison with the London "Times", published a long review by Conrad Wilson. Wilson was very sorry that the festival manager, Mr. Peter Diamond, had not provided more time for Schumann's two great Lieder cycles.
"All the more considering Fritz Wunderlich's and Hubert Giesen's 'Dichterliebe' performance at Usher Hall last afternoon. ... Mr. Wunderlich, whom we know as a Mozart singer from Stuttgart and Munich, sings Lieder in a much more casual manner than other opera singers do. He is a lyric tenor; he has a clear, soft voice, and he has expressive and tonal possibilities at his disposal which he uses with the highest skill. One should think that Usher Hall did not exactly encourage these virtues, but yesterday's afternoon granted us enthralling singing, with groups of Schubert, Beethoven and Schumann songs. And Wunderlich even brought us to Richard Strauss in good time with his generously granted encores.
Normally, a lyric tenor is not expected to hit the gloominess of some of the despairing 'Dichterliebe' songs. Yet, 'Ich grolle nicht' suddenly revealed Wunderlich's reserves of dark, dramatic timbre, of powerful emotional intensity. That seemed surprising, all the more as he had treated some of the earlier songs in a very soft and tender manner. From now on, the moving development of this musical composition was expounded in its coherence. This was a deeply experienced, carefully increased and singular interpretation where one did not only enjoy Wunderlich's subtle sentiment in every song, but also had to admire his understanding of the secret relations in the succession of the songs..."
Wilson then carefully analysed the whole programme; he reflected about the "Mailied", "Wachtelschlag", "An Silvia" and the "Forelle". He finally found that "Wunderlich made the strongest impression in the exciting 'Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren', the soft 'Der Einsame' and the elegiac 'Nachtstück'."
He also turned his attention to myself in a few lines which I do not want to hide: "Hubert Giesen, now 68 years of age, was a luckily chosen accompanist, whose unison with the singer and sense of musical joy let easily forget some minute technical mistakes.
The readers of Magidoff's Menuhin biography will recall the part Giesen has played in this young violinist's development. His brilliant accompaniment of Schubert's 'Pauçe' was one of the most gratifying experiences of yesterday's concert."


In the years of close co-operation with Fritz Wunderlich, I was sometimes overcome with a kind of fear: in spite of his carefreeness, in spite of his joy, confidence and coolness; he "burned the candle at both ends". He drew on unlimited resources; he did everything with an enormous energy and intensity, as if he knew that he had only a limited period of time left. He bought cameras and became a colour photographer who developed his photographs in his own lab that he had specially furnished. That took him a lot of time and also cost him a lot of money. He had the village blacksmith forge a spit that he used for roasting meat on an open fire. He gave charming parties, often lasting half the night, where he drank and smoked quite freely, as if he was not a singer whose precious voice was a great asset. Sometimes one could virtually feel the stress he was living in, for example the day we visited Hermann Mostar in Schwabing. The author had bought a large apartment in a six-storeyed building, where he lived with his wife after a serious operation had weakened him. Just for fun, Mrs. Mostar had put up a sign "Shouting and Noise prohibited!". When Wunderlich looked at it, he started crying, singing, stamping and beating the wall as if he wanted to demolish the entire building.
Another of his numerous skills was his excellent knowledge of how to handle with electronic equipment, which he made very sensible use of. When working together at his house, he recorded our rehearsals; he played the tapes when I had left. Therefore, he had the accompanist at his disposal. He was able to repeat certain passages that I had not liked, and he could correct his mistakes.

He was a man of everything-or-nothing, a man who always tried to make the best of what nature had given him. It was not only his voice of unspeakable clearness that distinguished him, not only the intelligence and the earnestness of his work, but something that is best described by the term "aggressiveness" - every note came from his entire body; he sticked to every note; his heart was with every single note.

Over the last years I often had to think about what made Wunderlich's voice so unforgettable to his audience - especially in Lieder singing. I have worked with many singers, and I know some of them shared my opinion on how to perform a Schubert Lied, but I also know they thought that our work together was a burden. I was once called a "slave-driver" - by a tenor whom I had many a success with and whom I feel friendly with even today. Therefore my view could not be that bad. But I never tried to tie a singer to a particular scheme of singing. It was the faithfulness to the original that mattered to me, comprehension of the dramaturgy of the Lied as well as of its importance within a cycle. I did not "teach", but tried hard to improve what was already there - which makes quite a difference. That is why I refuse being called a "teacher" of a singer like Wunderlich. On the other hand, our intensive co-operation, the permanent dialogue at the piano, has gradually rubbed off on both of us. When Wunderlich sang in Edinburgh, he - in his own way - ranked without competition among the great Lieder singers of his time. He had such a great comprehension of a song like "Die böse Farbe" (from Schubert's "Müllerin" cycle) that he was able to afford letting the song be effective just on its own. The listener will notice that he sang it nearly unardoned, but in such a clarity that not a single note could be lost. Nothing was elegantly passed over; he did not put in any false emotionalism or sentiment, and thus he made the greater - one could even say the noblest - impression. The audience received first-hand what was Schubert's will when he composed the song. They were not confronted with the singer's emotions, his coquetry, his love of bel canto, but solely with the song itself. There were years of work underlying, years of a growing knowledge of precision, one could even say: work in the service of Lieder singing. Wunderlich had high notes that turned out well effortlessly, but he sang them without showing off, just as he sang all other notes that belonged to the song. This seemed to be severe and objective, but made a strange impression on the audience. Many years after his death, a lady told me: "I have heard 'Die böse Farbe' sung by many singers (and she named some really great ones), but it was only Fritz Wunderlich who made me weep, because I did not hear the singer anymore, I heard only the song. It was as if I had understood for the first time what it expressed..."

After our Edinburgh recital, I said to him:
"Fritz, you sang so wonderfully, and we formed such an integrated whole - I think you are complete now. I cannot tell you anything anymore."
He was furious about me and shouted:
"What are you talking about? You do not want to tell me anything anymore? I will be your pupil as long as you live! You will tell me everything you know, and every time I sing a little worse, you will have to play even better, so they won't notice... "
This was one of our last conversations. I had to think of it even years later.

Wunderlich came from an ordinary background. I do not even know whether he has attended grammar school. When we went to his home town Kusel in 1963, his father was already dead. There was only a sister present at the concert. Later, I became acquainted with his mother at his house, and he told me she had given violin lessons. It was probably from her that he had inherited his musicalness. But all that is pure conjecture, as well as I knew only little about the roaring days of his youth and about his singing studies at Freiburg College. As he told me, he had earned his living by wandering through the Palatinate, singing, playing the accordion and the French horn (that is what, presumably, gave his lungs their extraordinary power).
He was medium-seized, a little - really just a little - stocky, with a sharp face and a straight and somewhat too sharp nose. That nose did not exactly improve his appearance, but oddly enough - when he appeared in Belmonte's garments, in this fantastic costume with its rococo ruches, this very nose granted him diabolical and seductive charms.

It was about three weeks after our last conversation that I received the news of his death. I want to go into further details because soon after his death there were the most bizarre rumours going round. (In Vienna, it was alleged that he had blown his brains out during a game of Russian roulette. (2))
He had gone to visit a hunting friend, a rich industrialist who owned a house in Oberderdingen near Maulbronn. Fritz Wunderlich not only was an excellent Porsche driver but also a passionate hunter. When the family and the other guests retired, Wunderlich also entered his room on the ground floor, but soon left it again in order to get a book from the library on the first floor. It was probably therefore that he had slipped his shoes on again, but had not tightened the laces. When going down the stairs again, he presumably stepped on one of his shoelaces and therefore stumbled. He grabbed at the banister that consisted of a thick rope. The rope pulled out its wall catch and the singer fell headfirst onto the stone floor below. He seems to have turned round as he fell and hit the back of his head on the floor. When he was found and taken into hospital in Heidelberg, he was in a deep coma that he never awoke from.

He was just thirty-six years old, he had reached the position of a distinguished opera singer and an excellent evangelist - but I have always been convinced that the course of his career as a Lieder singer would be equally successful. Everything was still to come when he died after a short, restless life that was fulfilled in every minute. To me, his death meant the loss of a great personal friendship. I have to repeat: I loved him like a son, and I also think that he saw more in me than just a teacher.

(1) Giesen's wife (AP)
(2) Even in 1996, I was unaskedly told this version by a Munich pub waitress! (AP)

Translated from German by Andreas Praefcke, 1996. Original version © by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH 1972.

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