Fritz Wunderlich had such a short career that I probably should have included him in my “Brief Candles” page. But he had such an important career that he really deserves a page all to himself. In the years since his death his reputation and his popularity both increased to such a point that when BBC Music Magazine conducted a poll in 2008, Wunderlich was voted the fourth greatest tenor of all time. He was most famous as a wonderfully expressive and elegant interpreter of Mozart operas and of German lieder, but his range was extensive and he could occasionally display a willingness to dip into Mario Lanza territory, even tossing off high C’s without effort.
Friedrich “Fritz” Karl Otto Wunderlich (1930 – 1966) was born in Kusel, Germany to a family of poor musicians. His mother was a violinist and his father a choir master. For a short time his father managed a local Inn but the nazis caused him to lose that job. His father also suffered severe injuries in battle during World War I and committed suicide when Fritz was only five years old.
His mother gave music lessons to support Fritz and his sister and and Fritz worked in a bakery to help keep the family together. He mastered the accordion as a child and he often sang in the bakery where soon his voice was noticed. He obtained a scholarship to the Freiburg School of Music where he studied voice and french horn, which must have certainly had a direct effect on the extraordinary breath control he later displayed as an operatic tenor. To help pay expenses at school he played in several bands and even formed his own dance band, but it was singing in student opera production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and that led directly to a contract with the Frankfurt Opera. In short time he was a member of the Munich Opera and the Vienna State Opera.
He had a crystal clear, strong, warm, lyric tenor voice which was instantly recognizable. He combined this with an incredible breath control to sing with great elegance and style. He was often compared to Jussi Bjorling, who sang an entirely different tenor repertoire, because of his musical perfection and effortless vocal production.
By 1960 he was known throughout Europe as the premiere Mozart singer of his time, but he developed an amazing variety to his repertoire including the lyric Verdi roles – “ La Traviata”, “Don Carlos”, and “Rigoletto” as well as Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Tchaikovski’s “Eugene Onegin” – and more adventurous items including the first performance of Carl Orff’s “Oedipus der Tyrann.” He was a superb lieder singer and performed Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Handel as well as Mahler, Strauss, and Franz Kehar. He brought to operettas a sensuousness and subtlety not heard since Richard Tauber.
Wunderlich partnered often with his friend baritone Hermann Prey and they sang magical versions of “La Traviata” and “Barber of Seville”
It was standard procedure at the time for all operas in Germany to be sung in German instead of the original language (as it was in Sweden where operas were sung in Swedish when Jussi Bjorling began his career) so most of his opera recordings were sung in German. Since Robert Schuman wrote in German, this did not pose a problem with Wunderlich’s “Dichterliebe”, which remains to this day the finest recorded version of this song cycle.
Wunderlich had married in 1956 and fathered three children, but he seemed intent on living every part of his life to it’s fullest and by the mid-1960’s had begun drinking heavily as well as pursuing women. He loved hunting and owned several shotguns. He was a fine photographer with his own darkroom (this was before digital photography), and he was fascinated by electronics, installing his own recording studio in his home.
His international career was finally beginning to take off. He had completed a highly successful American tour followed by appearances at Covent Garden in London and in October of 1966 he was to make his Metropolitan Opera debut. But in September of that year, at the home of a hunting friend, he awoke late at night and went downstairs to the library. He apparently did not bother to tie his shoelaces and when he climbed on a ladder, probably to reach a book, he slipped and fell. He must have tried to stop his fall by grabbing a rope bannister, because the rope was pulled out of its wall socket. He fell headfirst onto the stone floor and was taken to a hospital in Heidelburg in a coma from which he never recovered. Fritz Wunderlich died nine days short of his 36th birthday.
If the above description seems excessively detailed, it is so because shortly after Wunderkich’s death a small cottage industry of speculation and conspiracy theories developed involving murder by a jealous husband or even by his own wife. It seems likely that the simplest explanation is the truth. It was an accident.