Thomas Quasthoff and the Alchemy of Song

As a singer and a singing teacher, I have spent decades listening to voices. Voices meek, voices strong. Voices constricted by fear and insecurity, voices filled with exaltation, voices once robust but now vitiated by age or illness. While I’m not an expert on vocal anatomy, I can understand what’s going on inside the voices of anyone I hear.

I’ve listened to more different types of vocal music than most people know exist. Quiz me sometime and I’ll tell you about Sardinian quartets, about Tuvan throat-singing, about Ainu bear ceremonies. I’ve been knocked out by greatness in more genres than you can shake a stick at. I’ve heard vocal geniuses at close range and at a distance.

And today I’d like to tell you about one of them. This guy:


Like most internationally recognized celebrity performers, he has a generic “artist’s biography” available on a PDF file at his website. It’s pretty bland stuff — informative if you need that sort of thing:

German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff is recognized as one of the most remarkable singers of his generation. A frequent guest of both the Berlin and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras he appears regularly with the world’s leading orchestras under such renowned conductors as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Kurt Masur, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle, Helmuth Rilling, Christian Thielemann and Franz Welser-Möst.

Thomas Quasthoff’s début in 1995 at the Oregon Bach Festival laid the basis for his highly successful career in the USA. Having since returned numerous times for appearances with the most important orchestras and festivals, he regularly appears at New York’s CarneHall since his outstanding recital début there in January 1999 (WINTERREISE/Schubert).


Articles about him focus, as they must, on his musicianship, his charisma and his versatility:

To say that Thomas Quasthoff has a lively personality would be an understatement. The German bass-baritone positively fizzes with charisma: people stand to see him come into a crowded restaurant, students queue for his lessons and, at 49, he has spent years packing the world’s grandest concert halls, from Vienna’s Musikverein to the Hollywood Bowl.


What makes Quasthoff’s popular success so remarkable is that he has achieved it mainly in the rarefied and intimate world of devotional music and recital – traditionally far less glamorous than the high-profile opera stage and the antics of the Three Tenors.


But at some point any writer addressing this extraordinary singer’s lifework must come to terms with the other salient fact of Quasthoff’s life.


In the late 1950s this tranquilizer went on the market in Germany; it left no “hangover” the morning after, and became popular. It was only after some months went by that the true horror of the drug surfaced, as thousands of pregnant women gave birth to babies with severe deformations.

One of whom was Thomas Quasthoff.

Nine months old, he was taken from his parents and kept in quarantine for a year and a half. For four years he stayed in a plaster “shell” that supported his developing body. As a middle-aged man, he is just over four feet tall. He has no arms, only three-fingered flippers.

It’s an achievement, however, that he is fed up with being praised for. “I am not here as some sort of role model. Of course, maybe at first people would come to see a freak. But they come a second time so then I know it’s for my singing.”

However forcefully he dismisses it, though, Quasthoff shares with other Thalidomide sufferers an aura of danger, of seeking out impossible challenges. The drug’s effects are still an unknown quantity – no one can predict what may happen next week or next year, and this seems to push sufferers to live on the edge.

He acknowledges that he has sublimated into his performances this sense of risky improvisation and the rage he still feels at the barbaric way he has been treated.

“When I was little and waiting for my mother outside a shop, sometimes passers-by would say I was cursed by a witch. And that stays with you. But now I use that in my singing, so it’s actually a plus.”


As a young man, he wished to study music. But the conservatory to which he applied was unwilling to waive one of the admissions requirements: piano proficiency.

Quasthoff was denied admission to the music conservatory in Hanover, Germany, owing to his physical inability to play the piano, then a requirement for entry to the conservatory. In the early stages of his education as a singer, Quasthoff was promoted by Sebastian Peschko.[1] Thus, he chose to study voice privately. He also studied law for three years.[2] Prior to his music career, he worked six years as a radio announcer for NDR. He also did voice-over work for television.[3]


Reflecting on his past, he maintains an overwhelmingly positive attitude. He speaks of having no arms as a benefit: since he couldn’t gesture expressively, he had to accomplish expression with his voice alone.

“At the time I felt punished for a problem that I was not responsible for,” he says. “Looking back now, because I had to study privately it was a chance to involve myself much more deeply in the music. There would have been many distractions at music college. I had vocal lessons nearly every day; normally it is one and a half hours a week. Now I think it was a good thing, but at that time it was hard for me.”


He entered an international competition in 1988. And won.

When Quasthoff, crucially for his career, won the ARD international music prize in Munich in 1988, he wondered at first whether the jury were giving him the award out of pity. “But I will never forget what the jury chief told me,” says Quasthoff. “He said: ‘You can be absolutely sure you didn’t win the competition because of your disability. If you hadn’t earned it, that would be a much bigger problem for you.'” It would, the head of the jury explained, have been cruel to raise hopes and expectations that could not later be fulfilled. Quasthoff had won the prize on merit from a field of 315.


Enough talk.


Please listen to this guy sing. There are no words to describe the experience of hearing Quasthoff pour himself into lieder:

Schumann’s “Der Arne Peter”


I’m not a big opera buff, but I’ll make an exception:

With Bryn Terfel in a 2009 performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni


An Italian aria from Haydn’s “Orfeo and Euridice”

His handling of Bach is both Olympian and expressive, as in this rendition of “Herr, wie du willst, so schick’s mit mir”, BWV 73.


Okay, the guy’s got a beautiful voice. And he sure sings lieder and Bach and opera well. But did you know he can also do this?

Notice the playful allusion to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” toward the end of this clip.


Which brings me to this:

Very much a knowing homage to Paul Robeson, this rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is integrally American, showing off Quasthoff’s amazing ability to dissolve genres with the power of his voice.


Equally aware of Robeson is this rendering of “Old Man River,” which also includes a nod to Sinatra’s orchestral recording of this song at the end of the bridge. I enjoy the bluesy embellishments.


Most classical singers who attempt pop or jazz material sound a tad condescending. Never Quasthoff; he’s clearly in love with the material. Continuing on the “River” theme, here’s “Moon River” — a chestnut, but one that he renews ably:

And listen to his playful improvisation on “All Blues.” This guy feels it.


He’s been branching further and further afield…but, apparently, never losing a sense of the song, no matter how unexpected a choice:

Nothing he could do will surprise me. If I saw that he’d made an Indian classical album, I’d treat it with real seriousness.

How about this live concert performance of “Can’t Stand The Rain”? How ’bout that?


Ultimately, however, Quasthoff’s expression shines most purely for me when I hear him sing Schubert, as in these performances from the “Winterreise”

“Auf Dem Flusse”

“Gute Nacht”


His biography is called “The Voice.” His website is here. When I listen to him sing, I am struck anew by the alchemical power of music — the power to transform what could have been unbearably onerous life circumstances into soaring, effulgent, exquisite melody. Into joy.

I don’t have much more to add. Thank you for allowing me to share the work of one of the world’s greatest singers with you.

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