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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Great Fritz Wunderlich



"Fritz"(Friedrich) Wunderlich was born in Kusel, in 1930, into a musical family. His mother was a violinist and his father a choirmaster. Wunderlich's youth was not at all a happy one, owing to the terrible times in Germany, which was suffering extreme economic depression and the rise of the Nazis. His father, wounded in battle during World War I, and beset by many problems, took his own life when Fritz was a small child. Fritz worked in a bakery as a boy and, as the years passed, began to be noticed by others for his obvious musicality. He took music lessons and finally obtained a music scholarship that made it possible for him to study at the Freiburg Musical Academy. It was there that his voice attracted serious attention, and he was soon spotted as a very promising young tenor.

He first attracted attention for his singing of Mozart, but soon expanded his repertoire to include popular Italian operas, which he sang in German, as that was the tradition in Germany.

Wunderlich's career, because he died very young, was largely limited to singing opera in Germany and making (thank God!) a very significant number of recordings. It is almost exclusively through these recordings that Wunderlich is known and remembered today outside Germany. His recordings include famous operatic arias (usually in German), lieder, at which he excelled (he was very widely praised for his recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe, for example), religious music, and popular operetta pieces.

Wunderlich's voice was flawlessly produced, and very beautiful; it was, however, his extraordinary musicality and sense of style that won him such fame. The voice, spectacular as it was, would not have brought him the great reputation he enjoyed among musicians had he not been so brilliant a musician. By age 35, his future, both as a man and as a musician, seemed assured. He had married in 1956 and had three children. His reputation had begun to spread outside Germany, and he was starting to make foreign appearances (France, England, Argentina, Italy) and had been signed to appear at the Metropolitan Opera. Then, just short of his 36th birthday, he suffered an accident—falling down a flight of stairs at a friend's home—and died from the injuries he received. It was unquestionably one of the greatest musical tragedies of the twentieth century.

First, here is the aptly-named Wunderlich in one of opera's best known pieces, the lovely aria from Von Flotow's Martha, "Ach! so fromm," known to most by its foreign Italian title "M'appari."





This is musical and vocal perfection. Where to start! First, the very beautiful quality of the voice. We are in the non-Italian world of opera now—this is a much more open and "white" sound than the heavily covered and dark sounds so characteristic of Italian singing. This is not to say one is better than the other, only to say that the tonal qualities of open vs. covered singing are distinct. I believe the more open phonation of the German singers results in more distinctly individualistic sounds. The darker sounds of most (not all) Italian singers can sometimes lead to one voice not sounding all that different from another. In German, however, I believe it is immediately apparent to a music lover that Tauber's voice is distinct from Slezak's and both are distinct from Wunderlich's. The quality of each voice tends to be individual as opposed to universal "tenor." In English, we notice this more in musical comedy. Did Ethel Merman ever sound like anyone else?) Apart from the sound, which is lovely, there is the range. Wunderlich was solid all the way to his spectacular high C, and this is very rare for German tenors. Both the language and the training in Germany have historically tended toward high voices that are much heaver in the lower and middle registers than their Italian counterparts. This, in turn, can result in a short top. Tauber is a good example. He almost never sang above a Bb, (and there is nothing wrong with that), but it tends to narrow the singable repertoire. The big opera arias can only be transposed so far.

Here is a perfect example of what I mean. Wunderlich's recording of "Che Gelida Manina" is as vocally perfect as it can be. Be sure to wait for the big high C. I know of no other German tenor, living or dead, who could match it. Here I must ask you to click on the link, for technical reasons. I have the only version of the aria up on youtube, and I don't want to embed my own video in my blog because it can jam my hit counter on Youtube. Here is the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkP2Qu5-9TI


How about that! This is so uncommon for a German tenor! I cannot imagine it done any better. Yes, we can all name Björling, and a host of Italians, but they are not German speaking singers. The range is extraordinary, and the most extraordinary thing of all is that the top is entirely in line with the other registers of the voice. It is a seamless ascent to the top, with no sacrifice in beauty of tone. Musically, it is perfect.

The near disappearance of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor from the operatic repertory has robbed modern music lovers of some very beautiful music. It contains, among other things, one of the loveliest tenor arias ever written, "Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain!" ["Listen, the lark is singing in the Grove!"]
Again, I seem to have the only copy up on Youtube, so please click the link again:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ovy7P805R4


I honestly believe that this is one of the most beautiful arias I have ever heard.
What it all comes down to at the end is that it is almost impossible to fault Wunderlich on any aspect of his singing. The voice is lovely to the point of being glorious, the range is very high, and tonally it is a solid column of sound from top to bottom. The musicality was immaculate, and was said to be so by virtually everyone at the time. It's just perfect singing. As his friend and colleague Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau said when Wunderlich died at 35 years of age, there is no way to calculate the irreparable loss suffered by the world of music. We are unlikely to see another tenor who was so nearly perfect for a very long time indeed!

16 comments:

corax said...

ein wirkliches wunder. thank you for making me reconsider him -- i had discounted him quite unfairly, but you -- as usual -- are spot-on, and express your accuracy eloquently here.

one thing that comes across to me especially in the 'che gelida manina' is that the singing sounds *natural* -- in the sense of 'unstudied' -- which is perhaps as great a challenge as excellence itself. ars est celare artem.

Royka said...

As promised! Thank you so much for this contribution. A beautiful tone (in a universal sense) and great musicianship, coupled with German discipline and a brilliant youthful soul, he had it all, didn't he?

Not being familiar with the German language, I was unlikely to become aware of the existence of this truly amazing artist, but thanks to Glenmed's channel on youtube, he is now one of my favorites. Before knowing Wunderlich, I used to boycott opera excerpts recorded in any language other than original, but now I regularly listen to his German versions of French romantic arias. He remains so true to the style of the music he is interpreting, that the language effect becomes minimal (and it's German we are talking about!).

Getting to know Fritz Wunderlich was an especially enriching experience to me; following this singer's recordings, I was (finally) able to start listening to German operas and lieder, and I got to hear a whole host of fantastic German/Austrian singers, in short I learned that I should open my heart to different experiences, otherwise I might deprive myself of something very special!

His lieder are more famous but I also equally enjoyed his baroque works (esp. in Haendel's Alcina, and in Bach).

Speaking of individualistic sound and the conversational quality retained in open singing, I just remembered some youtubers' reaction after hearing Wunderlich's speaking voice for the very first time. By reading earlier comments I realized I wasn't the only one to be amazed at how close it was to that liquid singing voice, it was too good to be true!

Mr Wunderlich is becoming increasingly popular with the new generation of opera lovers, too bad he isn't around to enjoy this recognition. Not to mention an even more glamorous career that was waiting for him. But let us celebrate this artist for his greatness and for all the treasures he did leave behind.

Thank you also for introducing the aria from Nicolai's Merry Wives... It is absolutely lovely. Now I can say I'm ready to start a busy week. Bonne journée :-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend. You are absolute right. And to conceal his art is exactly what he does! Brilliant observation. Ergo the lack of strain, or obvious belaboring; everywhere apparent in his singing. Excellent comment! My thanks.

Edmund St. Austell said...

The response above is to Corax, and this is to Royka: Thank you so much for a most fascinating comment. Your own personal journey to an appreciation of Wunerlich is a joy to read, and confirms my long-felt admiration for this great tenor. To test my own enthusuasm, I have attacked him (theoretically, to myself)and I cannot find any weaknesses or excesses. Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, I failed. He resists all charges, and his singing should serve as an inspiration to young singers, especially to develop their musicianship and style as much as their voice. Again, thank you for your comment. My best, Edmund

JD Hobbes said...

In the arts each culture seems to have its own nuances, and one or two of those nuances will stand out and differentiate it from other cultures. In German music it seems to me that "Lieder" have a style and tone or "attitude" that make the songs quite distinct. There is a longing or "Sehnsucht" and often (in Austria especially) a kind of "fin de siecle" feeling that makes the songs so beautifully bittersweet. The song you have shared, "Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain," is an outstanding example, I think. As everyone has noted, it is sad that such a talent (like that of Mozart and many others who died young) passed so quickly.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much! Excellent observation about national and cultural stylistic keystones. The northern nations long ago inherited a tradition of songs, originating around the fireplace as soldiers sat and sang of the day's conquests or failures, and tomorrow's challenge, the Icelandic sagas being a case in point. From this epic background a great love of songs developed and remains important to this day. Or, to get off my professorial high-horse for a moment, maybe it was just a way a pass the long and dreary winters:D But yes, you are of course right...the tale becomes very important in German music. Thanks for your comment--always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on one of my favorite tenors and for the videos . I totally agree - he was a fine musician, he had an extraordinary voice. What I like the most, he was a real romantic hero in his singing. There was something in his timbre that made him a perfect “Romeo”. He sang Lensky brilliantly, and many Russian opera fans love his version, even though he performed it in German. To my taste, he was almost as good in this role as Lemeshev.(as you now it’s a huge praise :)) , there are two greatest Lenskys for me - Lemeshev and Wunderlich. Perhaps, it would have been worse if he tried to sing Lensky in Russian with an accent. In German he is very convincing. Maybe it’s because he was so musical, that every line sounds expressive and natural. A brilliant tenor.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for a great comment. What can I say? I totally agree with you! Yes, I can just imagine that if he had tried singing Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi in Russian, с немецким акцентом, it might have received a chilly reception:-) But you are quite right....it's a perfect voice for Lensky.

Jing said...

What glorious singing and what an interesting exchange of thoughts. I can only echo what you all have already said. For me, this is the best performance of "Ach! so fromm" I've ever heard. I somehow wonder that, sung in German, everything moves forward in the aria so swiftly and gracefully, while losing no musical force at all. When sung in Italian, it is so often over-wrought, pushed in the wrong direction somehow (it seems to me at least). Quite a revelation...Also, I want to thank JD Hobbes for introducing me to the term "Sehnsucht." In the culture of Brazil, the Portuguese word "saudade" carries enormous importance - endlessly lifted up to evoke yearning, longing, homesickness, a kind of pain that almost exists ultimately as an end in itself - the sweetest kind of fulfillment at the very heart of emptiness and loss. Both these terms are, I think, attempts to capture what C.S. Lewis called "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." And as Hobbes says so well, "Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain," captures this so well - indescribable, ineffable, and somehow heart-breaking. Thanks everyone!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Lovely comment, beautifully written! Your observations on saudade are genuinely moving. And on a more mundane note, I have always felt that this aria was far better in German than Italian. Von Flotow actually knew what he was doing, incredible as that may seem to some:) The trouble is that we are so Italian oriented in this country that even Italian translations of operatic arias are the ones that are known. I guess it's not a huge deal, but there is an authenticity in works sung in their original language. This is especially the case when the blocky syntax of German or English is over-layered with the smoother,longer line of Romance language syntax. Something can seem out of joint. Great comment--thank you!

hapeen said...

Dear Mr St. Austell,

despite all the great tenors I had the chance to hear, in my opinion he was the greatest of them all!
Did you hear his rendition of Granada? In my ears beyond comparism to all the other great renditions, including Mario Lanzas!
His Lensky is full of tragedy, but his Mozart arias are unreached, and it could be, never will come a better one!
Hear his Tamino, I think you will understand me.
I miss him so, what a loss for all opera lovers!
By the way, German is a wonderful language, full of colour and beauty. Most arias sounds better in good German than in bad genuine language!

Dear
hapeen

Edmund St. Austell said...

I certainly agree with you that he was a wonderful tenor, and yes.....he sounds great in German, whose potential as a sung language is fully realized in his work, virtually all of which is in German. Thank you for your comment!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Wonderful again. I agree with Hapeen. Wunderlich in Mozart was incomparable but also in Schubert songs. When I first discovered him about 25 years ago I was immediately struck by what I call a purity of sound. I don't know how else to describe it. I was just getting interested in Schubert lieder and the first recording I bought was his recording of Die Schone Mullerin with Hubert Giesen as the pianist. It is still my favourite recording of this song cycle. Unfortunately another wonderful career cut short by a tragic accident.

The Balch said...

Dear Mr. St. Austell,

I can't thank you enough for sharing your thoughts on Wunderlich's life and art. I'm ashamed to say that I avoided really getting to know his work for quite some time, since I feel strongly about the importance of linguistic fidelity, but I'm really starting to come around.

His "Che gelida manina" is something else. It might be the novelty of hearing it in German, but am I the only one who's impressed by his diction? He seems to have done a fantastic job of weaving the German consonants into the musical line, and the way he accents and colors certain words actually brought tears to my eyes. His Bb(?) at 1:18 is devastating. And I don't even know what to say about the aria from the Merry Wives of Windsor. How many lungs does Wunderlich have?!

Thanks again. These recordings are real treasures. It is tragic that he died so young, but he left behind enough beauty to last lifetimes.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. Much appreciated! Yes, that is a stellar Bb at 1:18. The amazing thing is that Wunderlich, unlike some German tenors, can carry that same brilliant sound all the way to the high C. His aria from the Merry wives of Windsor was the second video I posted when I first went on to Youtube. To this day, I think it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot:-) One of the most musical and elegant tenors of all time. When he died, his friend Dietrich Fischer Dieskau said that the loss to the world of music was incalculable.

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