50 years on from his tragically early death, Clive Paget talks to Barbara Wunderlich about her father’s golden legacy.

Barbara Wunderlich was less than three-years old when her father died, but she remembers his voice. Rehearsals for his legendary recording of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with pianist Hubert Giesen happened at home and little Barbara used to hang out in the music room. “He didn’t mind having his children around during work,” she tells me. “He was raised the same way, in a musical family, so for him it was very normal.”

Normal is a word that crops up a lot when talking about Fritz Wunderlich the man. Colleagues adored him for his easy-going charm and seemingly boundless energy. Normal, however, seldom crops up when discussing the voice. Wunderlich, who would have been 86 this year, was one of the most glorious voices in what is now regarded as a golden age of singing. A German tenor who was equally at home in Viennese operetta and Neapolitan song, he was also an intensely gifted musician with a repertoire that stretched from Bach to Berg. Name-checked as one of the inspirational greats by today’s finest – people like Jonas Kaufmann and Stuart Skelton – had he not suffered a fatal accidental fall on a hunting holiday just nine days prior to his 36th birthday, he might very well be considered the voice of the century.

Friedrich “Fritz” Karl Otto Wunderlich was born in the Palatinate region of Germany on September 26, 1930 to musical parents. His mother was a Bohemian-born violinist who had met her future husband in Cyprus where both had engagements. “My grandfather was born in Thuringia and came from a strict military family with 11 brothers and sisters,” Barbara explains. “He wanted to become a musician and his father didn’t want him to, so he escaped and had no contact with his family anymore.” 

Paul Wunderlich became a cellist, a kapellmeister and a composer. But by the end of the 1920s, travelling musicians were stuggling to make money so the Wunderlichs rented Emrichs Bräustübl, a modest pension with a restaurant and a little silent movie cinema, in the tiny village of Kusel. “They decided to settle down and my grandmother got pregnant and had my father. He was a very, very late child for her,” says Barbara.

Little Fritz was exposed to music from the start – “his sister was getting a musical education, so music was all over the house” – but his father had troubles. He had been wounded in the war and a problem with his stomach meant he couldn’t play cello anymore. Clashes with local Nazis resulted in his premature suicide when Fritz was only five-years old. “That for him was a big tragedy,” says Barbara. “Later on, when he started his career, all the men and all his teachers were like a replacement for his father.”

Recording The Magic Flute with Karl Böhm and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Photo © Deutsche Grammophon

His mother, who needed to make a living, taught the children music. “He didn’t only learn to sing, he learned to play piano, accordion, trumpet and horn,” Barbara tells me, “so he considered himself a musician more than a singer. They had nothing to eat, so he started playing with his mother in villages and church services. When he was 19-years old he already knew 2,000 songs.”

Fritz’s mother wanted him to get a regular education rather than relying on music and one day she packed him off to the town council with a note asking if he could work for them. “He threw it away in the river,” Barbara laughs. 

However, the Second World War meant that a lot of good musicians had fled the bombed-out cities for the countryside and it wasn’t long before Fritz’s musical talents were spotted. “Emmerich Smola – who is the record holder for classical music recordings in German radio history – saw my father playing in a little theatre in the village and was so impressed that he sent him off to the music university in Freiburg.”

There, the gifted young man was taken under the wing of voice teacher Margarethe von Winterfeldt. Blind from birth, she knew whole operas by heart and had excellent ears. “She was a genius,” Barbara believes, “and she was perfect for him. She gave him very good fundamentals for his singing, and she mothered him like mad.”

College contemporaries included early music pioneers, and so Bach figured from the outset. He was also singing “pop music” to finance his studies and was taken up by the local radio station who started making recordings with him. “He was singing German Schlager, very sweet, sugary stuff,” Barbara admits. “On one song from that time you hear him play trumpet. He got 40 Deutschemarks for singing, and 10 Deutschemarks for playing a solo.”

His first big role in Freiburg was Tamino in The Magic Flute, a role he would go on to perform 121 times in addition to recordings. But he started out professionally in 1955 in Stuttgart, where he learned the repertoire from the ground up playing many small roles, even premiering new works by Carl Orff. At the same time he was singing in church and a little later he began a parallel career as a Lieder singer. It wasn’t long before great conductors were beating on his door. “He learned a lot from Karl Böhm, who I think he preferred working with, but he also adored Karajan for the work that he did,” Barbara says.

Backstage at Munich Opera, 1965 with his new Rolleiflex camera © Fritz Wunderlich Archive

His Stuttgart pals remained important though. “They were like family,” Barabara explains. “Singers didn’t travel like nowadays, and Stuttgart Opera House was a very special place after the war. Colleagues like Gottlob Frick and Hetty Plümacher were very close and remained friends until the very end.”

Barbara has an interesting tale to tell about how her father got to sing his first Stuttgart Tamino. “There were two major tenors at Stuttgart: Wolfgang Windgassen was in charge for Wagner and Josef Traxel sang the lyric roles. They all liked how my father sang and as a person, and so to give him a chance they had an idea for an arrangement. Traxel called the Intendant at midday and said ‘I’m sorry, I am very sick, I cannot sing’. So then they called Windgassen to replace him, but Windgassen said, ‘If you give that young guy a chance as Tamino, I will take over his part as the Second Armed Man.’”

He done very little acting, and according to his daughter Fritz didn’t know what to do with his hands. “He thought he’d got short arms and his hands were too small,” she says. “He was completely inexperienced. So Ferdinand Leitner, who was doing a lot of the directing in Stuttgart, gave him private lessons. Colleagues as well would give him hints and help him. They raised him like a baby, and he kept going back to Stuttgart even when his career was going through the roof. In fact, the very last tour he did was with the Stuttgart ensemble. They went to Edinburgh and performed The Magic Flute twice. After the matinee he gave his last recital and my mother and the whole team from the Stuttgart Opera House was sitting in the audience. But days later he had his accident and he died.”

Throughout his early 30s, Wunderlich’s light voice remained especially clear with impeccable diction. A tendency to sing Lieder as if it were opera led him to the accompanist Hubert Giesen who taught him how to sing in a more controlled way. He was also careful with his vocal development, resisting, for example, the temptation to sing Wagner. “They wanted him to sing Lohengrin at Bayreuth,” Barbara recalls. “But my father said ‘I know my voice is still too young and I will not survive’. So every year he kept Wieland Wagner waiting.”

Today Barbara manages the Fritz Wunderlich archive, and if asked cites Dichterliebe and Die Schöne Müllerin as reference recordings, as well as her personal favourite, Strauss’s Morgen. “It’s hard for me to listen to somebody else do these songs,” she says. “But when it comes to the popular stuff, the most breathtaking for me is Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk. It was written for Helge Roswaenge and it is a high dramatic song – quite a challenge.”

Returning from Edinburgh with his wife after final performances as Tamino. Photo © Fritz Wunderlich Archive

Perhaps Wunderlich’s most beloved popular recording is Granada. Rolando Villazón says that you forgive him singing it in German, while Jonas Kaufmann would take it to his desert island if he could only take one song.

On the 50th anniversary of his passing, his daughter would most like her father remembered as a spontaneous and sometimes wild character, a man living on the edge of possibilities. A passionate hunter, Wunderlich was fascinated by all sorts of gadgets and was an excellent photographer with his own darkroom, often taking his camera backstage. “He was very, very energetic and full of enthusiasm, living life to the fullest like a candle that is sparkling all the time. But music was everything for him. It made his life. And he wanted to give that to others.”

“What makes me most happy is when I meet young singers or young musicians. A student came up to me – she was a violinist – and she said ‘I learnt how to play cantilena by listening to your father.’ There was a reporter too who I met in Berlin and was in the war in Iraq. He told me he took Wunderlich recordings with him when he was in dangerous and scary situations. He was listening to my father on a Walkman to calm down. So I think I’d like him to be remembered as someone who has something to give, and that is the nicest way. I’d like to keep the flame growing, and not just preserve the ashes.”

Fritz Wunderlich’s Complete Studio Recordings are out now on Deutsche Grammophon