Fritz Wunderlich - The Great German Tenor

"Amico Fritz"
Hermann Prey on Fritz Wunderlich

from his autobiography "Premierenfieber" (First Night Fever), Munich 1981, pp. 252-263

Click here for the orginal German version!

We met while rehearsing the "Schweigsame Frau" in Salzburg in July 1959. Fritz was singing Sir Morosus's lively nephew. (...) The smart barber was my first part at the Salzburg Festival. Fritz, (born in Kusel in 1930) and I were about the same age. But he had already won his Salzburg spurs the year before; he had been initiated, while I was a newcomer. In the "Schweigsame Frau", the nephew and the barber join forces against the old uncle. From the very beginning, "conspiring" together with Wunderlich was a marvellous experience. He must have felt the same about me; we immediately took a liking to each other. A friendship began that was to last seven years, until Fritz's sudden death in September 1966. These were gratifying years of cooperation with dear and extraordinarily talented colleague who, in the brief period from 1958 to 1966, built up the reputation of being one of the best singers of his time.

He was incomparable as Tamino; his Don Ottavio had the virility I so often miss in this part; his Belmonte with the tricky Baumeister aria was fantastically secure. I have not heard it sung so well since. He was a moving Alfredo in "La Traviata", which we did together in Italian with Teresa Stratas as Violetta and the young Brigitte Fassbaender as Annina at Munich in March 1965 - August Everding's very first opera production, by the way. As to our all too few recordings - I especially like to remember Lortzing's "Wildschütz", recorded in May 1963 with the very charming Anneliese Rothenberger as Baronin Freimann and Fritz as a Baron Kronthal bubbling over with vivacity.

It was almost as if he knew that his days were numbered. He lived to the full, making the very most of every minute. Even today, whenever I meet friends and colleagues, one of us always starts talking about Fritz before the first half-hour is out.

Fritz was a passionate hunter. I am not, for I cannot shoot animals. Once when we were in Erding (near Munich), Fritz succeeded in persuading me to accompany him. He had a compelling way of making his hobbies attractive to others. Fritz slung three shotguns of various calibres over his shoulder and handed me a fourth. So we set off. We walked through the autumn forest for several hours, now side by side, now in line. Although I am forever singing about spring, autumn is my favourite season. I love the fragrant air, the red and yellow-brown tones. Fritz was likewise in good humour, but had he known that we would not even get to see a single tine of an antler the whole day long, he would not have been in such high spirits. We finally reached our raised hide and climbed up, took our seats and waited ... and waited ... and waited. Hours went by. Not a breeze stirred the air.

"Take the decoy whistle", Fritz whispered, "and blow it from time to time. Like Papageno in Sarastro's vaults. This will lure the deer." I did as he said. "Not so fast, you daydreamer!", Fritz hissed. "You have to take more time between the calls. Like a fawn calling its mother." So I lengthened the intervals - without any effect whatsoever. I was bored to death, and the slatted seat of the bench was soon playing havoc with my bottom. Suddenly, Fritz became alert. Tapping me on the shoulder, he pointed at a large beech tree. There was some movement there. Now something peeped out from behind the tree. Fritz aimed and shot. I only just saw an animal plunge into the thicket and disappear immediately. "Damn! A wildcat", Fritz said. Thank God you did not hit it, I thought. Fritz assembled his arsenal. "I will put some targets up", he explained sourly. It was already half past three.

Despite my aversion to the joys of hunting, I am not stupid when it comes to guns. When we children from Berlin were evacuated to a camp at Landsberg on the Warthe in 1943/44, I had even got a marksman badge at the compulsory target practices. So I was quite confidently looking forward to the competition with my friend Fritz.

We had descended from our tower. "Let's say about 130 yards", Fritz suggested. Then he took a roll of adhesive tape, a pocket-knife and a folded target from his rucksack. Finally, an automatic pistol appeared. "I bought it only a few days ago. Let's try it out. Here, take it!" I took the pistol and my hand closed round the pistol butt, my index finger moving automatically to the trigger. "Wait here. I will stick the target up", Fritz said. At that very moment there was a loud bang. The pistol had gone off.

I staggered. Fritz, the forest, the pistol in my hand - everything became blurred, swathed by swirling mist.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?"
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?"
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif..."

I had recorded this Goethe ballad only short time before. For days I had not been able to get Schubert's melody out of my mind. This is something that happens to me from time to time and is quite terrible - the notes just stick in my head and keep whirling around. I almost fainted. "Bloody hell!", exclaimed Fritz. I came to myself quite quickly. "Are you crazy?", I cried. "Putting a gun in my hand with the safety catch off, so that I almost blow you to pieces!" "An oversight", Fritz declared.
"What's oversight mean? You twit!"
"Nothing happened."
"Nothing happened? I almost blew your brains out! That's what happened!"

I had to sit down to regain my equilibrium, to collect my thoughts. I was trembling all over and already having visions of breaking down as I did on stage in the role of Eugene Onegin over the dead body of my friend Lensky. I had almost thrown it all away - my family's happiness and my future as a singer. One or two inches to the left, and that would have been it! And what a feast that would have been for the press!

I could just see the headlines: "Singer murder in Erding Forest" or "Prey shoots Wunderlich!"

I often have to think about this adventure, in a dozy state in the morning or in the silence of a dressing-room.


I cannot sing Papageno without remembering Fritz. It was so exciting to rush to Sarastro's castle together with him. Our voices sounded especially well together. We even wanted to "sell" ourselves us as a duo specializing in "Cosi fan tutte", "Don Giovanni", "The Magic Flute", the "Barber of Seville", "Traviata", "Eugene Onegin" and many other operas.

Fritz had a very hard youth. He always wanted to show me his hometown Kusel in the Palatine Mountains, between Trier and Kaiserslautern. He said: "You have to see where I come from." One day, I accompanied him to his home. He showed me a tiny miner's cottage and shoved me up a ladder. This had been his bedroom as a kid. Unplastered walls, two wooden beds, a wash-stand with a metal water jug. (1) "I didn't own anything but a stray cat", he told me. "Now you know why I sometimes act a bit crazy." We went to an apple tree. "What's with this apple tree?", I asked him. Fritz: "They killed the cat, and I buried him here."

[...] (Prey writes about a week full of mishaps, during which he was plagued by tragic premonitions. Then he got the message of Wunderlich's death.)

When our last joint recording "Eine Weihnachtsmusik" was released the following month, I wrote the following for the sleeve notes:

"My friend Fritz is dead. This simple sentence becomes more incomprehensible to me with every day. Our friendly and artistic collaboration developed into something very rare in the last few years. We shared many amusing adventures and spent many contemplative hours together. He could discuss life's problems and musical issues for nights on end. The most beautiful hours of my career were those spent together with him on the stage or in front of a microphone. We never discussed phrasing in advance or how we would colour certain passages - the sympathy was simply there. We used to play piano duets for hours, or roamed the forests making plans for the future.

When we first mounted the stage together during the "Schweigsame Frau" rehearsals at Salzburg in 1959, we knew that our paths would converge then on. In those brief years we learned how to complement one another. He knew a tremendous amount about singing. I learned a lot from him. With his immense natural musical talent, this son of the gods was still at the beginning of a meteoric career. What might he not have achieved, given the time? At Schubert's graveside Grillparzer said: "Here Death buried a rich treasure, and even richer promise." How this statement applies to Fritz too! When we were last together he told me: "The best years are yet to come; a singer only gains command over tears at forty." He did not know that he already had it.

Our dreams were truly boundless. We wanted to become the heavenly twins of song. Fate decided otherwise, decreeing that I be left alone, a deserted twin. We virtually improvised this record, our last one, together with Fritz Neumeyer and his musicians. Listening to it today, there are points at which I cannot really tell who is singing what. Our voices melted together to form one. The world is mourning for a gifted singer of his generation. I mourn for a friend and brother in song the likes of whom I will never find again."

(1) Fritz Wunderlich's sister, Marianne Decker, claims in her reminiscences "Mein Bruder und ich" that Hermann Prey never went to Kusel during Wunderlich's lifetime. According to her, the description of the rooms and the vicinity is rather exaggerated. Although the family was not rich, they did live in a house which was quite up to the standards of the early post-war years in Germany. (AP)
Translated from German by Andreas Praefcke, 1997; revised by Gwynne Stanley Newton, 1998 (Many thanks!). Original version © by Kindler Verlag GmbH 1981. The "Eine Weihnachtsmusik" LP sleeve notes, which are only partly featured in "Premierenfieber", are quoted in their entirety here.

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