Josef Traxel was a highly exceptional tenor. He was a tall and imposing figure of a man and looked rather like a bass singer. Traxel had had no regular vocal training, and yet as a singer did not perform merely from "intuition". In fact he knew so much about the human voice that he was a qualified singing teacher at the Stuttgart Academy of Music (Hochschule für Musik) in his last years. He was also exceptional in that he had command of widely differing roles in the tenor repertoire - Traxel was able to sing lyric parts as well as heroic ones, Verdi, Wagner and W.A. Mozart, Monteverdi and modernists, J.S. Bach and operetta, and one could never have said that the one extreme got in the way of the other. Finally we should mention another paradox which held true at least in former times, although-we are pleased to find - it is no longer a matter of course in our day: Traxel was both a tenor and an intelligent man. This explains the fact that Traxel was able to make a great name for himself as an excellent W.A. Mozart tenor. During the 1950's, when Traxel was at a peak of his career at least in vocal respects (a mature power of brilliant characterization was to be added later), he sang practically all the great tenor parts in W.A. Mozart. He was a striking and manly Belmonte who was able to render the two arias from acts I and III of The Seraglio (the latter, Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke, being an extremely difficult aria which is often omitted) both with powerful energy and with Mozartean beauty of cantilena. He was an Ottavio who sang the arias from Don Giovanni not as tearful lyric outpourings, but as intense adjurations.
The very personal colour of Traxel's voice, the somewhat nasal, yet brilliantly radiant and straightforward quality of it his timbre was brought to full effect in Ferrando's famous aria Odem der Liebe from Così fan tutte. Needless to say that Traxel was an ideal Tamino, too, who went through the trials of The Magic Flute both as a real "prince" and as a man of character. This is why Traxel's interpretation of the name part in W.A. Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito will also remain unforgettable. The despair of the kind-hearted ruler Tito on finding himself surrounded by lies and deception was expressed by Traxel with full dramatic vigour which did not, however, lack the linear straightforwardness of W.A. Mozart's melodic language either.
It was the combination of an accurately controlled vocal technique and a passionate, but always well disciplined power of expression which characterized his singing distinguished his interpretations, whether he was the Evangelist in J.S. Bach's Passions (a part which he had always loved best) or impersonated L.v. Beethoven's Florestan without pathos, Georges Bizet's Don José without any exaggerated display of strength. It is amazing indeed that Traxel was able to master both the extremely high running part of the postillon's song from Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau up to the D above the famous high C (which only few singers can do) and the part of Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata. His enormously high register which had clarity and individual colour alike, could cope also with other exceptional parts which normally confront any tenor singer with considerable problems - the part of Hüon in Weber's Oberon, for instance, as well as arias by Boieldieu and Ponchielli which demand Italian bravura more than anything else. It is strange - or maybe not at all - that this tenor, whose appearance struck one as essentially German, could be a very Italianate Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and could sing Calaf's aria Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot with particularly seductive refinement.
Traxel himself once said that it was only a maximum degree of concentration which made it possible to have command of so entirely different parts both technically and stylistically. He preferred to sing lyric roles anyway, or approached heroic ones from the lyric side. This was quite in accordance with his style of living - Traxel, who in his day was one of the most widely known tenors on the international scene, always remained the pleasant and modest man he was, never made a parade of his fame, and never thought or acted with a view to publicity, although his life was interesting enough. Interesting, that is, not in the way of the sensational, but with respect to the artistic side of his life, his versatílitv and varying activities, his world-wide successes and his career. It is characteristic, for instance, that in the Netherlands (where they know what this means) he was held in high esteem especially as a J.S. Bach singer, that he was invited to Paris, to Bayreuth (from 1953) and to many other international musical centres between South America and Edinburgh, Berlin, Vienna and Munich. He toured North America as well. That he remained so natural in his behaviour, so absolutely free of the grand airs of an international star, possibly was also due to the fact that his wife, a former singer - she had born him twins - helped him as an artistic counsellor and "manageress" in his professional career.
It was by no means a sure thing from the beginning that Traxel should become a singer. He was born in Mainz in 1916. He did receive a musical education - but "only" as a composer, conductor and music teacher. He studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Darmstadt. Scarcely had he finished his studies, making his his operatic debut as Don Ottavio in Mainz in 1942, when World War II broke out. Traxel was called up at once. In 1942, he was wounded and sent to the military hospital in Mainz. He had hardly recovered when he was asked to stand in as Ottavio at the Mainz opera house for a colleague who had been called up. Being well familiar with the part Traxel accepted, although he had never had any proper vocal training, let alone practical experience as a singer. What the critics had to say about this most unique debut was as follows: "Here is a young artist who definitely has a vocation for a life in music, for singing. Will Traxel attain this goal? Already there is much to be said for it, especially the self-control he puts on himself, a discipline which becomes evident not merely from his accurate approach to the vocal part."
After this first success it took Traxel some years to resume his career as a singer. To begin with, he had to go back to the war, was wounded again, taken prisoner, and brought to the USA. In the prisoner-of-war camp he set up and directed an orchestra. On returning home he came to Nuremberg - 1946, and the prospects gloomy. He worked as an interpreter until he was discovered by Rolf Agop who engaged him on the spot as a lyric tenor for the Nuremberg opera. He staved there for some years, singing all kinds of roles, until he began to receive more and more invitations for guest appearances and finally attracted the attention of the Württemberg State Theater in Stuttgart, which offered him a contract in 1952. He remained a member of the Stuttgart ensemble up till the end.
He came back to Mainz once again to sing in the first performance of Paul Hindemith's cantata Mainzer Umzug (words by Carl Zuckmayer) written for the bimillenary of the city. There had been other premières in Traxel's career earlier on - Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, for instance, which was given its first performance in 1952 in Salzburg. Until his death on October 8, 1975, he never tired of devoting himself to new and unusual tasks, occupying himself with trevival of ancient operas and advocating the production of rarely performed works. Seldom was there a tenor who had command of so wide a repertoire as Josef Traxel had. The fact that he "lent out" his voice even for the Vogelhändler (motion picture) and joined in the singing of Alt-Heidelberg and the Last Waltz was just another natural variant which could not collide with the tasks of a vocalist who normally sang Wagner's Siegmund and in Rosenkavalier. It was his self-critical judgment - which was aided by his wife, Mrs. Elli Traxel, who had to supervise his singing, and without mercy, if with charm, marked any minor flaw in his performance - and his intelligent approach to every role, every scene which enabled him to acquire his extraordinary versatility and convincing style of interpretation.
Traxel's hobby was typical of him: the writing of doggerels and satires. Some of his satires were published, others were not intended for publication until the persons concerned had died. It is sad that he did not live to see those satires published. The gramophone record helps to keep the memory of this amiable man and distinguished musician alive who not only made many friends with his voice, but also fascinated his audience through his art of using his vocal gift both with intelligence and musical feeling. Josef Traxel was a phenomenon - especially since in our period, with its extreme demands made by the music "market", his great versatility could acquire a particularly high degree of importance: on account of its convincing quality in every detail.