German tenor Karl Erb (1877-1958) was born out of wedlock in Ravensburg, Baden-Württemberg to a factory worker. He grew up quite poor and, apart from working with a local choir, never gave much thought to a career as a singer. Initially, Erb set his sights on becoming a civil servant and began working for the City of Ravensburg following his graduation from high school. The future tenor spent a decade as treasurer of the city’s gas and water departments but also found himself more and more involved with local choral and operatic productions. He was already nearly 30 when his voice was noticed by a visiting conductor from Stuttgarter Hofoper during a production of Cavalleria Rusticana in his hometown. Erb was brought before the company’s artistic director who agreed to use him as a sort of intern for a year. During this time, Erb sang numerous concerts and recitals (including an unprecedented 30 masterclasses) and made his stage debut as Mathias in Kienzl’s Der Evangelimann in Stuttgart in June of 1907.
In a stage career that lasted less than a quarter century, Erb sang some seventy roles in such works as Così fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, La Finta Giardiniera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Don Pasquale, Les Huguenots, Faust, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Euryanthe, Der Freischütz, Martha, Zar und Zimmermann, Die Fledermaus, Fidelio, Salome, Ariadne auf Naxos, Das Rheingold, Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Götterdämmerung, Alessandro Stradella and Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Erb also created the title role in the world premiere of Pfitzner’s Palestrina in Munich in 1917. He made frequent appearances in Lübeck, Cologne, Ulm, Wiesbaden, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Basel, Zürich, Bern, Brussels, London and New York. Many of these appearances were with Maria Ivogün, to whom Erb was married in 1921.
In spite of such a successful career, all was not well with Karl Erb. The traumatic circumstances of his youth had left him an introverted and downright unfriendly individual. This attitude affected the tenor’s personal life…he and Ivogün grew apart and eventually divorced in 1931…as well as his career. In 1925, after 12 years at the Munich Hoftheater, Erb was told that he would not be invited back. The following year, Erb suffered a broken leg in a fall on the hotel steps in Bremen. During the summer of 1929 he was seriously injured in a swimming accident (he was overcome by heavy waves and smashed into a rock) from which he never fully recovered. Erb returned to the stage six months later but was still in such great pain that performing was difficult. His final operatic appearance was as Florestan in Berlin in the summer of 1930 after which he reluctantly abandoned his stage career.
The mobility issues that brought a premature end to Erb’s operatic career were not a hindrance to his work on the concert platform. The tenor’s lieder and oratorio performances were much heralded in the 1930s and 1940s and his interpretation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is still considered unparalleled. Erb continued performing well into his seventies and passed away in the city of his birth on July 13, 1958…his 81st birthday.
The story of Karl Erb is a fascinating one. He managed to overcome the circumstances of his youth…including the stigma of being an illegitimate child…to become one of Europe’s leading tenors. He had no formal musical or vocal training, yet was able to master more than three dozen operatic roles as well as hundreds of songs. He was essentially a self-taught singer, but managed to cultivate a vocal technique that kept his voice intact until he was nearly 80 years old. Luckily, the phonograph was there to capture it all, from the earliest days in Stuttgart to his final years as tenor emeritus of the European arts world. Erb recorded hundreds of discs for such labels as Odeon, HMV, Telefunken and Electrola that showcase a tenor with a lyrical, well placed voice and an innate sense of artistry and taste. In this recording, Erb sings "Wehen mir Lüfte Ruh'" from Weber's Euryanthe. This was recorded in Berlin for Odeon in 1911.