Walther Ludwig

Walther LudwigIt is a strange matter of fact that German tenor WALTHER LUDWIG is as little known in Germany as in all the other countries where opera, recorded music and collecting recordings is an inherent part of the cultural life. Not many of the great standard works on the history of singing have honoured Ludwig with an entry. The pleasure of Walther Ludwig’s recorded legacy was for a long time a privilege of those who could play Schellacks. Not many of his recordings have been reissued on LP, not to mention the CD.

This has fortunately changed during the recent years: a couple of Ludwig’s most important recordings have been released again. The issued performances, the impressive list of his artist colleagues and the importance of the events in which Ludwig participated and which are presented on those CDs, prove that Ludwig was one of the most requested and eminently respected singers in Germany during the 1930s and the twenty years that followed. Music & Arts has released a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth with Ludwig and Furtwängler, recorded live 1937 in London. Another CD features his highly praised interpretation of Tamino in a performance of Die Zauberflöte with Seefried, Schmitt-Walter and Furtwängler (Salzburg live 1949). Another interesting and utterly impressive CD is Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Hans Hermann Nissen, Tilla Briem under the direction of Bruno Kittel (Berlin 1942). A representative selection of his early recordings (Berlin 1930s) has been released by Preiser. Who was Walther Ludwig?

Walther Ludwig was born on March 17, 1902 in Bad Oeynhausen, a small community close to Hannover. The music making in the home played an important role in German upper class families, and Ludwig, whose father was a successful businessman, soon was introduced to the world of music by playing the piano and the cello. In addition, Ludwig regularly sang in the school choir. Another important event in the musical education of the young Walther Ludwig were the recitals of the great German baritone Heinrich Schlusnus, who at regular intervals participated in the spa concerts held at Bad Oeynhausen. Later, Ludwig is reported to have said that the sound of his cello and the smooth and warm timbre of Schlusnus’ voice merged creating his ideal of beauty.

After graduation the parents decided Ludwig to become a bank trainee – similar to Franz Völker and Peter Anders, the other two great German tenors who were of the same generation as Ludwig. The insecure times of the postwar period were the reason for these down-to-earth decisions. Like Peter Anders, Ludwig had a strong aversion against his new job:

“I have made this disgusting job for over three years. During the stormy years of inflation I worked as a bank clerk. When the inflation was over, they did not need me anymore, and I left voluntarily.”

But studies of music were still out of question. According to his father’s will, Ludwig now began to study law at the universities of Freiburg and Munich. But soon it became clear that the studies of law were not the ticket. During a long period of  ill health Ludwig convinced his father that it would be the best to switch to medical studies. Ludwig studied medicine for one semester in Münster, then he moved to Königsberg, Immanuel Kant’s hometown in East Prussia, where he continued his studies.

Beside the studies Ludwig made his mark as a good amateur singer. He regularly went to see performances at the Stadttheater Königsberg and, being a member of a fencing fraternity, he had plenty of opportunity to sing (and to practice as surgeon!) for his fraternity brothers. Soon he participated in university concerts, singing songs by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss.

Ludwig could, according to his own words, “not imagine anything else but becoming a doctor”. But man proposes and God disposes:

“A friend of mine, a conductor, advised me to give recitals on my own account. I did as he said and I had more success than I ever would have imagined in my wildest dreams.”

Ludwig gave his first recitals in 1929 at the age of 27, and the success was so enormous that he soon attracted prominent listeners: the manager of the Königsberg Theatre, Dr. Johannes Schüler, and the composer and conductor Max von Schillings, who attended one of Ludwig’s recitals, given at the refectory of his university.

Schüler and von Schillings invited Ludwig for an audition at the Königsberg Theatre, where Ludwig sang songs by Richard Strauss and a couple of opera arias. They hired him right away. Thenceforward, Ludwig had to live a double life: university and practical training from 7 am to 10 am, followed by rehearsals at the theatre. The practical training at the university continued in the afternoon, followed by performances at the theatre.

In 1931 Ludwig got an interesting offer from the opera house in Schwerin, where they were looking for a lyrical tenor. As a consequence, Ludwig gave up his double life, decided to become a professional singer, asked for time off at the university and went to Berlin for preparing himself for his début in Schwerin. Thitherto Ludwig did not have a single singing lesson!

In Berlin Ludwig went to see Professor Jacques Stückgold (1877-1953), who was an experienced teacher at the conservatory. Zinka Milanov and Willi Domgraf-Faßbaender were two of his most prominent students. But in spite the fact that Ludwig was a complete autodidact, Stückgold did not feel the need for changing much of Ludwig’s technique. He just prepared him for the two roles that were required for an engagement in Schwerin: Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème and Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

In Schwerin Ludwig gave his début as Don Ottavio and established himself immediately. In addition to Don Giovanni and La bohème , Ludwig soon appeared as Walther in Tannhäuser and in Alessandro Stradella, as seaman in Tristan und Isolde, as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, as Kavalier in Hindemith’s Cadillac and created the title role of Paul Graeners opera Friedemann Bach in November 1931.

In 1932 Ludwig left Schwerin in direction Berlin, where the Städtische Oper had offered him a lucrative contract. Soon he became an indispensable member of the Städtische Oper, singing parts like the tenor-solo in Schreker’s Schmied von Gent, Der Steuermann in Der fliegende Holländer (with Nemeth and Andrésen and under Fritz Stiedry’s direction) Kunz Vogelsang in Meistersinger (with Pistor, Rode, Andrésen and Reinmar), Fenton in Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, the title role in Vollerthun’s Freikorporal, Oldofredi in Mona Lisa and Froh in Rheingold (with Rode and Burgwinkel). He also made his first recordings for Electrola.

In 1933 Ludwig sang his first Ottavio in Berlin. The stage design of this production was made by the world famous painter Max Slevogt, who created stage designs since his first collaboration with Max Reinhard in 1906.

During the season 1934/35 he appeared as Walther in Tannhäuser (to Laholm’s Tannhäuser and Rethberg’s Elisabeth), Pietro in Boccaccio, the shepherd in Tristan und Isolde (with Pistor and Andrésen), Almaviva in Barbiere di Siviglia, Alfredo in La Traviata and the Duke in Rigoletto (with Reinmar and Bohnen, under the direction on Karl Böhm). He furthermore recorded the part of Nureddin in a complete recording of Cornelius’ Barbier von Bagdad for the German radio.

In 1935 he also sang his first Tamino during the festival in Glyndebourne with Aulikki Rautawaara as Pamina, Willi Domgraf-Faßbaender as Papageno and Ivar Andrésen as Sarastro. He also participated in five performances of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, again with Andrésen and Heddle Nash as Pedrillo. The conductor of all these performances was Fritz Busch. The critics were enthusiastic. Ernest Newman wrote:

“Strange that this singer is almost unknown to us. His interpretations of Mozart have something that almost none of his colleagues in this Fach have: controlled virility. His voice does not have that glassy objectivity that in our days wrongly is associated with Mozart. Ludwig’s voice has a dark timbre, brilliantly educated and controlled and used with so much subtlety, that the marionettes Tamino and Belmonte suddenly become real persons of flesh and blood.”

In Berlin he recorded another complete opera for the German radio: Lother Mark’s Das kalte Herz, together with Else Tegethoff and under the composer’s direction.

In 1936, at the age of only 34 years, Ludwig was invested as Kammersänger. In Stuttgart he recorded the role of Hans in a complete recording of Smetana’s Die verkaufte Braut. Back in Berlin, he recorded Johann Strauss’ Zigeunerbaron (with Teschemacher, Harlan and Hann), a complete Rigoletto, with Hans Reinmar in the title role and Erna Berger as Gilda. Also his Tamino was conserved by the German radio (with v. Manowarda and Callam) in 1936, and one year later, two more times, with different casts: On Dec 10 in Stuttgart with v. Manowarda, Hann, Eipperle and Keilberth, and on Dec 19 in Berlin with Alsen, Lemnitz and Berger.

Ludwig’s Tamino was also recorded twice in 1949 (Salzburg and Stuttgart) – Ludwig is most probably the only tenor who made five complete recordings of this opera.

In 1937 Luwig participated in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at Queen’s Hall, conducted by Furtwängler, in occasion of the coronation ceremonies in London.

“Both the chorus and the soloists are excellent and responsive to the ever-shifting moods of Beethoven and Furtwängler.” (John Ardoin)

Back in Berlin, he recorded Weber’s Oberon for the German radio, together with Teschemacher, Rosvænge and Schmitt-Walter, under the direction of Hans Rosbaud. In November 1937 he was part of the complete recording of Boildieu’s Dame blanche, again for the German radio – followed by another radio production: Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Perras, Bitterauf and Schmitt-Walter.

The year after he gave guest performances in Vienna (Die Zauberflöte) and Hamburg (Die Zauberflöte) where the audience already knew Ludwig from his earlier guest appearances as Lyonel (1937), Duca (1936) and Fenton (1934). In Berlin, he gave his debut in the role of Wilhelm Meister (Mignon) and Danilo (Die lustige Witwe), in a performance conducted by the composer.

In 1939 sang for the first time the demanding part of the Evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion and his first Tamino in Berlin. He also added the role of Barinkay (Der Zigeunerbaron) to his repertoire. Between 1932 and 1939 Ludwig had given the impressive amount of 80 recitals and recorded not less than 65 78rpms for Electrola. A representative selection has been reissued on CD by Preiser, including arias by Mozart, Nicolai, Flotow, Thomas, Bizet, Puccini, Kienzl and Graener.

What can be heard on these recordings? The first impression is the one of an extraordinarily healthy voice, soft and very agile, but capable of heroic attacks, a voice with a real core and perfect voix mixte, bright but with a clear dark undertone. The color of his voice has accurately been compared to an opal (Herbert Brauer). Italianità – appoggarsi in testa ed in petto – and nobility were striking qualities of his voice. There’s no recording in which Ludwig is shouting or screaming, pushing or forcing – Ludwig’s voice was rather a force of nature: what we hear is a singer who possessed an outstanding instinct for the right, the natural, the healthy singing. A lyrical tenor with a beautiful dark glint in the voice, soft and manly, noble and authoritative – in other words: the perfect Mozart voice.

It is no wonder that Ludwig was Glyndebourne’s choice in 1935, no wonder that he made as many complete recordings for the radio as no other German tenor of his time.

Ludwig was, along with his tenor colleagues Anders, Völker, Lorenz and Wittrisch a singer, whose prime time was overshadowed by the reign of the national socialists. Anders, Völker and Wittrisch collaborated more or less voluntarily, while Lorenz managed to avoid appearing in conjunction to Nazi happenings. How was Ludwig’s attitude?

Few facts are known about Ludwig’s political attitude. A big part of Ludwig’s recorded legacy dates from the years between 1933 and 1945, but that was more because of his date of birth than because of a political engagement. Statements in favour of the national socialists or Hitler can’t be found. But if one examines his discography one can find a dubious recording made in 1933, thus in the first year of the takeover by the Nazis. The 78rpm contains a recording of Ludwig singing Unger’s Deutsche Werkhymne (Anthem of the German worker – text by Heinrich Lersch), a propaganda song of harmless and not specifically national socialistic topic, praising nobility of work, freedom and dignity of man. In this respect, the recording was completely inconspicuous. Only the orchestra, that accompanied him, was not: it was, as the record label informs, the SS Musiksturm 15 III Ost (“SS musicstormunit 15 III East”), conducted by Robert Heger.

In 1941 Ludwig participated in a movie with one of Germany’s number one propaganda stars, the Swedish born actress Zarah Leander (“The Nazi Garbo”). The movie, entitled Der Weg ins Freie (The way to Freedom) and directed by Rolf Hansen, was one of the typical assumed unpolitical melodramas in which Ludwig played the classical role of the Italian tenor, a symbol for the ideal world of the fascist axis Germany-Italy. In this movie, Ludwig sang La donna è mobile and Bella figlia dell’amore from Rigoletto. One year later, Hansen and Leander produced the Third Reich’s most successful propaganda movie, entitled Die große Liebe (The Great Love) – this time fortunately without Ludwig.

During the last war-winter in 1944/45 Ludwig was employed at the east, west and south front, singing for German and Italian troops.

During the war years Ludwig was more active in the recording studio than on stage. Between 1939 and 1945 he only added four new roles to his repertoire: Nemorino in 1940, Alessandro Stradella and Idamantes in 1941 and finally, Georg from Dvorak’s Jakobiner in July 1943. In 1942 he was part of the first performance of Heinz Schubert’s Hymnisches Konzert, together with Erna Berger, the Berlin Philharmonic and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

In the studio he recorded Brahm’s Zigeunerlieder (1939), Wolf and Reger songs and operetta arias (1940/41), Mozart’s Requiem (1941), Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1942 with Briem, Hammer, Nissen and the BPO under Bruno Kittel’s direction).

For the German radio (Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft – RGG) he recorded a complete version of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1943 under the baton of Artur Rother), highlights of L’elisir d’amore (1942 and another version in 1944), the part of Walther in a complete recording of Tannhäuser (1942 with Max Lorenz as Tannhäuser and Maria Reining as Elisabeth), scenes from Flotow’s Martha (1940 and 1941), Mozart arias (1943-45), the duet from Butterfly (1943 with Cebotari), Scenes from La Traviata (1943 with Cebotari), Robert Ernst’s Kalendarium (1942), Richard Strauss’ Taillefer (1944 with Hotter and Cebotari), a big number of songs by Beethoven, Brahms, Cornelius, Dvorak, Grieg, Mozart, Reger, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss and Wolf  (1942-45) and several arias from various operas.

Ludwig’s choice of repertoire proves that he was an intelligent artist who knew exactly where his vocal limits where. Ludwig about his voice:

“It seems as if I innately have the right nose, the right features, the right throat for being a singer. I, for one, never had to squeeze or push, so that the voice could just run its course, could develop and stream as it wanted. Of course, everything was small and slender, but I have never tried to enlarge the sound artificially.”

Hitler is reported to have asked Ludwig several times to sing Wagner, especially the part of Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. Ludwig, aware of the fact that he was no Heldentenor, denied. He said: “Der Führer wants to hear my Stolzing? He can’t grow that old!”.

Ludwig was also offered spinto roles from the Italian fach, Verdi – and Puccini roles like Cavaradossi. But Ludwig refused. He was an artist to whom the German language was an inherent part of his art. Without a profound understanding of the language, no clear diction and no phrasing.

“My Gods are Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.”

Two weeks before the war in Germany was over, Ludwig sang for the last time under the Nazi reign: in Berlin, which then was not much more than a complete expanse of ruins, he sang the tenor part in Mozart’s Requiem – a programmatic choice before Nazi Germany drew her last breath. When the house-to-house fighting began, Ludwig left Berlin and took his family to a small house in Thüringen, close to Eisenach in the east of Germany.

But the peace and the safety in Thüringen did not last long: Stalin’s Red Army, which was notorious for its barbaric cruelty and which was about to occupy big parts of Germany’s eastern territory, was just around the corner. The war between Hitler on one side and the allied forces and the Russians on the other was over, but the cold war between the Sovjet Union and the western powers began right away. Ludwig and his family escaped to Hamburg, where the State Opera was just about to build up a new ensemble and where a singer of Ludwig’s qualities was desperately wanted. Unfortunately the housing situation in Hamburg was poor because of the devastating air raids, and an apartment for Ludwig and his family could not be found. For a while Ludwig and his family provisionally lived in a friend’s apartment. In Hamburg he recorded a complete Entführung for the North German Radio (NDR) together with Berger under the direction of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

In 1946 he moved to Munich where he became a member of the Bavarian State Opera, but just a short time after that, he was offered a contract by the State Opera in Vienna, where he stayed until 1951.

During his time in Vienna – which was for him as a Mozart singer more important than La Scala and the Met – he gave 123 performances, thereof 30 Taminos, 22 Belmontes and 19 Fra Diavolos. This is even more remarkable if one remembers that Ludwig was the third Mozart tenor at the State Opera in Vienna, which already possessed two other Mozart tenors of international fame: Julius Patzak and Anton Dermota.

Ludwig’s performances at the State Opera in Vienna:

Entführung aus dem SerailBelmonte
Don GiovanniDon Ottavio
Barbiere di SivigliaAlmaviva
Lustige Weiber von WindsorFenton
Verkaufte BrautHans
RigolettoDuca di Mantova
Hoffmans ErzählungenHoffman
Evgeni OneginLenski
Madama ButterflyPinkerton
Fra DiavoloFra Diavolo
Tristan und IsoldeSeeman


In 1948 Ludwig participated for the first time at the Festspiele in Salzburg, the accolade for every Mozart singer. In 1948 he sang the role of Belmonte and participated in a concert performance of Rossini’s Stabat mater – in 1949 he returned in the role of Tamino (with Seefried, Lipp, Grob-Prandl, Schmitt-Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler) and sang the tenor part in Beethoven’s Ninth with Christoff, Seefried, Höngen and Herbert von Karajan.

Ludwig’s Tamino under Furtwängler from 1949 exists in broadcast performances and has been reissued on compact discs. Furtwängler’s tempi were very slow and broad, heavy and Beethovenesque. In the rehearsals Ludwig is reported to have asked Furtwängler to conduct his aria in a quicker tempo, but Furtwängler just replied: “Why should I? You have no problems doing it in my tempo!”

The critics concerning Ludwig’s Tamino were not unanimous. Hermann Ulrich wrote:

“Walther Ludwig’s famous Tamino is a vocally glorious performance that reminds us to the Tauber era. His Bildnisarie is a jewel.”

John Ardoin, the Furtwängler specialist, wrote on the other hand:

“The 1951 Zauberflöte has a decided edge over the earlier performances (…) also because of Anton Dermota’s suave Tamino’s replacing the intelligent but dry one of Walther Ludwig (…).”

Ludwig’s years as a member of the Viena State Opera were a very fruitful and eventful time. With the Viennese ensemble he gave guest performances in Venice and Rome, Firenze, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. He sang at the Maggio Musicale in Firenze, and La Scala experienced him in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, together with Ferrier, Schwarzkopf, Christoff and Karajan.

Back in Vienna he sang the tenor part in Verdi’s Requiem, with Welitsch, Höngen and Weber and sang Belmonte in a complete recording of Die Entführung for Decca.This recording was Decca’s first releae of a complete opera on LPs. It featured singers like Wilma Lipp and Emmy Loose under the direction of Josef Krips. This recording was followed by a recording of Mozart’s Requiem, again for Decca, and again under the baton of Josef Krips.

In 1950 Ludwig became part of an unusual project: a filmed version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The film starred Ludwig as Evangelist, Seefried and Ferrier, Schöffler as Jesus and Edelmann as Judas. Herbert von Karajan was the conductor.

The year after Ludwig gave guest performances at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, singing the role of Stewa in Janáček’s Jenufa and Belmonte in Mozart’s Entführung. The critics were splendid. In Germany he recorded Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Winterreise with Michael Raucheisen for Deutsche Grammophon. These recordings soon became classics and remained reference recordings which even in our days have not lost anything of their actuality.

In 1955 Ludwig suddenly declared his retirement from stage. His voice was still in outstanding condition and as fresh and agile, yet as youthful as in 1932. But Ludwig had other reasons:

“A lyrical tenor must not get old. Otherwise he will just look like a clown.”

Later he said:

“For me as an artist it was a time when my schedule was not full anymore. I felt under-worked. My time as a singer was over. Suddenly something happened that never happened before: I had more time for myself. For some that might be the moment for twiddling the thumbs, but I started to think about my life, about things I might have missed. I don’t like to have half-finished things lying around on my path of life.”

On April 1969, at the age of 67, Ludwig made his degree and finished the one half-finished thing in his life: his studies of medicine. In 1971 he did a doctor’s degree. His dissertation was about “Musik und Medizin, Musik und Mediziner” (“Music and medicine, music and medics”). And even if the topic of his dissertation had to do with his past as a musician – after having done the doctor’s degree, Ludwig was

“a doctor, nothing but a doctor. I am not a singer anymore. I am glad I am a doctor, I am glad I can be a doctor. (…) I work as a doctor and I find a lot of satisfaction in my new profession.”

But that did not mean that he did not carefully observe the young generation of singers:

“It is concussive that so many young people don’t know anymore the meaning of the words ‘duty’ and ‘diligence’. They feel like stars at once, they have airs and graces and only think about super-salaries… By the way: the whole business of opera is going through an alarming development. We are not able to stop it. The technical achievements have made it impossible.”

Walther Ludwig died on May 15, 1981.


[fancy_box title=”References”]
  • Ardoin, John: The Furtwängler record. Portland 1994
  • Augustin, Siegfried: Walther Ludwig; in: Stimmen, die um die Welt gingen 9/94
  • Höslinger Clemens: Walther Ludwig  (Preiser LP “Lebendige Vergangenheit LV 232”)