The two that got away
Consider two other singers not well-known to any but aficionados – Joseph Schmidt and Fritz Wunderlich. Both confirm Tennyson’s dictum “of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”.
Schmidt was born in 1904, in Davidende, a small town in the Bocovina region of Romania. He was a vocal prodigy whose talent was noticed when he joined the choir of his local synagogue. He gave his first recital in Czenovitz in 1924. In 1928, his uncle and manager Leo Engel took him to Berlin where he quickly gained fame from his radio concerts, but he did not appear on the opera stage in Berlin. His diminutive size (he was less than five feet tall) prevented it though it was the goal he valued above all else. For a long time I thought he never appeared in a staged opera anywhere, but recently I read that he gave 24 performances of La Boheme in Belgium and Holland in 1939-40 before World War II ended his career and his life.
Schmidt loved Berlin and Germany and the German public loved him, but the advent of the Nazi horror forced him to leave despite Goebbels’ cynical claim of admiration. He said he’d make Schmidt an honorary Aryan. Schmidt made Vienna his base after 1933, but the Anschluss again forced him out. He toured all the capitals of Europe as well as singing in the United States twice where he was billed as the “Pocket Caruso.” When the war broke out, he waited too long before be attempted to get to America and ended up in a Swiss internment camp instead. It was there that he died in 1942 from either heart disease or tuberculosis – I can’t tell for sure which.
In addition to his broadcasts, Schmidt made numerous recording and movies. Ein lied ght um die Welt (My Song Goes ‘Round the World) was his most popular. The film is painfully close to life and he didn’t want to make it. In it, he plays a singer whose voice makes the heroine fall in love with him, but whose size sends her to the embrace of his best friend. His size also results in his appearing on stage as a clown instead of as an opera singer. The film, which the Nazis eventually banned, is available on video tape from the Bel Canto Society (BCS-0529).
But it’s his sound recordings that hold the most interest. They are available from EMI (CDM 7 69478 2 and 0777 7 64676 2 7 [two discs]). The former contains mainly operatic arias, while the latter is devoted to songs. Everyone who hears Schmidt sing seems to come up with the same image – the voice sounds like it’s coming from a dream.
The sound is not Italianate, rather, is dusky and dark, a sound associated with singers from central Europe. Every word is suffused with meaning. His technique is effortless and astounding. Listen to the sustained trill which he inserts at the end of “Una furtiva lagrirma”; no tenor who has recorded the aria produces an effect anything like it. Schmidt’s high notes flow as effortlessly as his middle register and are brilliantly focused.
His facility with language is also remarkable. He recorded most often in German, but was at ease in French. Italian, and English. His recordings in English reveal not even the hint of an accent. In short (pun not intended), he was a marvel and another tragic victim of the agony of this century.
Fritz Wunderlich was also a victim, but it was his own inadvertence that did him in. He was born in 1930 in Kusel in Rhine-Pfalz, Germany. His parents were not very successful musicians. As a boy, he learned to play the accordion and the French horn. It was with the intention of becoming a professional horn player that he enrolled in the Freiburg Conservatory. His tenor voice was too good for a horn player and he studied voice instead. After an apprenticeship at the Freiburg Open House, he was engaged by the Wurttemberg Staatstheater in Stuttgart. In 1958, the Munich opera signed him up. The next year he appeared in the Salzburg Festival. Thereafter, he was an international figure.
Success did not come overnight to him. He achieved it by ever-increasing excellence which took a while to sink into the consciousness of both his colleagues and the public. But by the time he was 30, there was no doubt that he was the best German lyric tenor available, and one of the best ever.
He first came to prominence as a Mozart singer. It was in Mozart’s Don Giovanni that he was to make his Metropolitan Opera debut. The only Ottavio I ever heard who could compare with him was the Italian Cesare Valetti who was 8 years his senior. In addition to Mozart, Wunderlich’s repertory included Alfredo in La Traviata, Lenski in Eugen Onegin, and Jenik in The Bartered Bride. He was an accomplished Bach singer and also developed into a fine interpreter of Lieder.
While his sound is not quite as sensuous as was Schmidt’s, his voice is richer in its middle and lower registers. His technique is flawless, as is his top range which is brilliant and focused. He sings everything with direct and total conviction. He recorded much more extensively than did Schmidt. There are numerous complete opera, oratorio, and lieder recordings which showcase his extraordinary talent. A good introduction to his voice is the three disc album, The Great German Tenor, EMI CZS 7 62993 2.
In September of 1966 he was the guest of a hunting friend. After everyone in the house had retired for the evening, Wunderlich left his room apparently in search of a book from the library on the floor above. He fell while climbing the stairs and struck his head on the stone floor. He was taken to a hospital in Heidelberg where died on the 17th without ever having regained consciousness. He was nine days short of his 36th birthday and three weeks shy of his debut at the Metropolitan.
Both Schmidt and Wunderlich died when they had just reached the apex of their powers. They should have performed at this level for 20 or so years more. Wunderlich was born three years after Alfredo Kraus, the Spanish tenor, who is still active. Schmidt should have performed into the sixties. Whether he would have been able to make a career on the stage is problematic, but we would have had scores of high quality recordings. Wunderlich doubtless would have had a great career in the US and would probably be as familiar a name as Domingo or Pavarotti. War and misadventure decreed that both these artists would not be allowed to realize their promise.