Classical: The unforgotten vocal genius of Fritz Wunderlich

Life cut short: Erika Koth and Fritz Wunderlich in the 1959 TV production of Der Barbier von Sevilla

George Hamilton

It says something that an international career that lasted only seven years and ended in tragic circumstances half a century ago today should still be resonating. Yet, writing only a few short months ago about an up-and-coming Swiss tenor, the influential Neue Zürcher Zeitung felt it appropriate to suggest that the singer in question, Mauro Peter, "has the makings of a new Fritz Wunderlich".

Fifty years on, and there's no escaping the standard set by a golden voice from another age. Described by Jonas Kaufmann - at 47 the top German in the field right now - as "the last of a royal line", Wunderlich was considered "in a class of his own" by one who knew - the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with whom Wunderlich performed Mahler's song cycle Das Lied von der Erde.

There's a 1964 recording on Deutsche Grammophon. The fact that it went on international release only in 2011 is testament to the enduring appeal of both singers.

Tragedy marked both the beginning and the end of Wunderlich's life. He was born in 1930, in Kusel, a small town in the west of Germany not far from the border with Luxembourg and France, where there is a street named after him.

His father, who'd been seriously wounded in the First World War and lost his position as director of a community choir when the Nazi party replaced him with a local sympathiser, took his own life when Fritz was only five.

Hard times followed. The young lad worked in a bakery, and learned to play the accordion. He did well enough to earn himself a scholarship to study music in Freiburg.

His singing got him noticed. A performance in a student production as Tamino in Mozart's Magic Flute earned him his first professional contract, with the opera in Stuttgart.

There, Tamino got him his break, when he stood in for the indisposed tenor who was supposed to take the role. Frankfurt, Munich, and Vienna were his next ports of call before an appearance as Henry in Richard Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau ('The Silent Woman') propelled him to international prominence.

He was collaborating with top conductors like Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. But it wasn't just opera that engaged him. He was a masterful exponent of German Lieder. His Dichterliebe ranks as the definitive version of Schumann's song cycle.

There was church music, too. He sang Bach and Beethoven and was the tenor voice in recordings of the Requiems by Mozart and Verdi. But there was scope as well for lighter material - operetta, and popular song. His take on Granada is a thrilling adventure into High C territory. It's all brought together on a seven-CD set on Deutsche Grammophon - The Art of Fritz Wunderlich.

With a voice described by the New York Times as "one of uncommon purity, flexibility, and expressivity", he was much in demand. Von Karajan wanted him to sing Wagner at Bayreuth but Fritz reckoned his vocal chords wouldn't have had the maturity for those roles while still in his 30s. Instead, he stuck with Mozart.

He'd just sung Tamino in Edinburgh and was taking a few days off before heading for New York where he was to make his debut at the Met as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

He loved hunting and was staying at the lodge of his friend Heinz Blanc. Late one evening, he tripped on the stone staircase and fell, fracturing his skull. He died in hospital in Heidelberg the following day, September 17, 1966, nine days before he would have turned 36 - a vocal genius cut short in his prime.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.