Although thoroughly trained as a musician, Viennese tenor Julius Patzak had little, if any, technical schooling in the vocal arts. Yet, he became a favorite among audiences in his native city and second only to Richard Tauber as a master stylist in the Central European repertory. His voice, though not large, was plangent and somewhat hard-edged, capable of encompassing both lyric and dramatic roles. His forays into Viennese operetta were exemplary, full of character and knowing gestures, and sung with an immaculate sense of both elegance and forcefulness. His famous recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter directing the Vienna Philharmonic has achieved legendary status.
Patzak was born into a family whose heads of household had been schoolteachers for three generations. After schooling in Vienna, he served his military obligation in Serbia. Upon his return to Vienna, he entered a career as a civil servant, working for the city's Youth Council. By this means, he was able to finance his pursuit of music at the University of Vienna, undertaken to realize his dream of becoming a conductor. His studies brought him in contact with composer Franz Schmidt, musicologist Guido Adler, and Adler's accomplished student, composer, and musicologist Egon Wellesz.
During an amateur concert presented by the Vienna Schubert Society, Patzak's singing attracted the attention of several individuals with contacts in the operatic world. The result was a contract with Bohemia's Reichenberg Theater and in April, 1926, he made his stage debut in the demanding role of Radames. The following season found him in Brno, after which he was engaged by Munich and spent the next 17 years at the Bayerische Staatsoper performing leading roles. Following the death of his first wife shortly after his move to Munich, Patzak married Maria Walter, granddaughter of the famous Bohemian Wagner tenor, Gustav Walter.
Once WWII ended, Patzak returned to Vienna where he joined the Staatsoper, remaining there until his retirement in 1960. He became an important artist at the Salzburg Festival, taking part in several world premieres, Gottfried von Einem's Danton's Tod and Frank Martin's Le Vin Herbé in particular.
Patzak confined himself to primarily to Germany and Austria, although he sang in London in 1938. He returned with the Vienna Staatsoper company in 1947 to perform Herod and Florestan and was engaged directly by the Royal Opera House management for 1948, repeating Florestan and adding his fervid Hoffmann to London's production of Offenbach's opera. Patzak's pre-war Tamino, alternating with Richard Tauber's, was regarded as "manly," if slightly "reedy." In the post-war era, Patzak's London Herod was found "wonderfully characterized" and his Florestan was hailed as a great realization.
Only one engagement brought Patzak to America. He performed at the Cincinnati May Festival in 1954 when Joseph Krips was its director.
With his voice grown larger, Patzak was, in his Vienna years, able to do greater justice to roles wanting both expressive authority and sheer vocal power. Patzak became perhaps the greatest of all interpreters of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina. He was a superb Lohengrin, despite the absence of a truly sensuous sound. He was revered as the Evangelist in both of Bach's Passions and was the most celebrated of all singers who undertook the tenor part in Franz Schmidt's oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Sielgen.
Patzak became a respected teacher at both Vienna's Music Academy and the Salzburg Mozarteum.