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Hugo Wolf: Hugo Wolf, in full Hugo Philipp Jakob Wolf, (born March 13, 1860, Windischgraz, Austria [now Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia]—died Feb. 22, 1903, Vienna), composer who brought the 19th-century German lied, or art song, to its highest point of development.
Hugo Wolf studied at the Vienna Conservatory (1875–77) but had a moody and irascible temperament and was expelled from the conservatory following his outspoken criticism of his masters. In 1875 he met the composer Richard Wagner, from whom he received encouragement. He met Johannes Brahms in 1879, and from him also he received encouragement and the urging to broaden his musical focus and his career. He was also a friend of Gustav Mahler as a young man. In the late 1870s Hugo Wolf apparently contracted the syphilis that was to cripple and kill him. In the repeated relapses of the disease, Hugo Wolf would enter deep depressions and was unable to compose, but during remissions he was radiant and highly inspired. In 1883 Hugo Wolf became music critic of the Wiener Salonblatt; his weekly reviews provide considerable insight into the Viennese musical world of his day.
His early songs include settings of poems by J.W. von Goethe, Nikolaus Lenau, Heinrich Heine, and Joseph von Eichendorff. In 1883 he began his symphonic poem Penthesilea, based on the tragedy by Heinrich von Kleist. From 1888 onward he composed a vast number of songs on poems of Goethe, Eduard Friedrich Mörike, and others. The Spanisches Liederbuch (“Spanish Songbook”), on poems of P.J.L. von Heyse and Emanuel von Geibel, appeared in 1891, followed by the Italienisches Liederbuch (part 1, 1892; part 2, 1896). Other song cycles were on poems of Henrik Ibsen and Michelangelo. His first opera, Corregidor (1895; composed on a story by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón), was a failure when it was produced at Mannheim in 1896; a revised version was produced at Strasbourg in 1898. His second opera, Manuel Venegas, also after Alarcón, remained unfinished.
Hugo Wolf's reputation as a song composer resulted in the formation in his lifetime of Hugo Wolf societies in Berlin and Vienna. Yet the meagre income he derived from his work compelled him to rely on the generosity of his friends. In 1897, ostensibly following upon a rebuke from Mahler but actually on account of growing signs of insanity and general paresis, he was confined to a mental home. He was temporarily discharged in 1898, but soon afterward he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide, and in October 1898 he requested to be placed in an asylum in Vienna.
Hugo Wolf wrote about 300 songs, many published posthumously. Of his first 100—from his early years—he only counted a handful worthwhile. But his output in the mature years was supremely original, in the finest tradition of the German lied. Hugo Wolf excelled at creating vocal melodic lines that express every emotional nuance of a given poetic text. The atmosphere of his songs ranges from tender love lyrics to satirical humour to deeply felt spiritual suffering. The vocal melodic line is subtly combined with strikingly original harmonies in the piano accompaniment, resulting in Hugo Wolf's remarkable fusion of music and speech. His instrumental works were more interesting for their underlying ideas than for their execution; they included the Italian Serenade for orchestra (1892; a transcription of the serenade for string quartet of 1887).
Hugo Wolf was born at Windischgraz, a small town in southern Styria, now in Yugoslavia and renamed Slovenjgradec. The area is basically Slovenian. But though Wolf's mother was partly Slav (also with Italian connections), his father was a German, Philipp Wolf, a leather maker and musician manque. Among other accomplishments, Philipp was a versatile instrumentalist, and Hugo was taught to play the piano and violin at an early age. Initially his parents' circumstances were reasonably prosperous. But in 1867 a fire destroyed Philipp's house and workshops, and from that day until his death Hugo was never to enjoy comfortable independent means. The position was aggravated by his own wayward and difficult temperament. Once music had taken hold of him he tended to treat all other subjects with some measure of contempt. In 1871 he was expelled from the Graz Gymnasium for inadequate school-work. He next spent two years at a Benedictine seminary in Carinthia, after which he was again rusticated for poor academic effort. Finally he attended the Gymnasium at Marburg (now Maribor) for two years. But here too his absorption in music, including his own first attempts at composition, drove his teachers to despair. In 1875, not without parental opposition, he was sent to Vienna to study at the Conservatory, living with his father's sister, Katharina Vinzenzberg.
In Vienna Hugo Wolf was at last able legitimately to expand his musical horizons. Above all he discovered Wagner, whose music was to remain an obsession with him for the rest of his life. When Wagner himself came to Vienna in November 1875, Hugo Wolf spent most of his time hanging round the great composer's hotel and eventually managed to gain access to the presence. Wagner seems to have behaved kindly enough, without taking the fifteen-year-old boy very seriously. At the Conservatory, meanwhile, Hugo Wolf survived for the by now traditional two years before be-coming involved in a contretemps with the director, Josef Hellmesberger, to whom he announced his intention of leaving the Conservatory, whereupon Hellmesberger expelled him in any case. Later on the director received a threatening letter ostensibly from Hugo Wolf, but actually written by a fellow student in his name. The whole episode is typical. All his life Hugo Wolf would wreck his own opportunities by impulsive, rude or malicious behaviour towards those whom he regarded paranoically as his musical enemies. Thus, finding himself more or less indigent in Vienna in 1877, he could still not bring himself to behave with consideration towards the more or less untalented children and aristocrats whom he undertook to teach music, as a result of which he soon found himself virtually without pupils. For many years thereafter he was only able to stay alive through the good offices of friends like the composer Adalbert von Goldschmidt and the conductor Felix Mottl, who seem to have recognised his talent on re- markably little evidence. In 1881, for instance, Goldschmidt got Wolf a job as assistant conductor in Salzburg. But within two months Hugo Wolf had rowed with the principal conductor and been forced to leave. Moreover, he had still hardly proved himself, even to himself, as a composer. Of his published works, only a handful of songs and the D minor String Quartet date from this period, though a larger number of songs survive in manuscript. In 1879 he called on Brahms with some of these, but Brahms advised him brusquely to get some lessons in counterpoint. Thereafter the previously admired master joined the ranks of Hugo Wolf's imagined enemies. During Hugo Wolf's three-year stint as music critic of the Wiener Salonblatt from 1884 to 1887 (another post secured for him through the influence of friends) it was Brahms who bore the brunt of his invective. A meeting with Liszt in 1883 was more promising. Liszt praised the songs Hugo Wolf showed him but suggested he should compose something on a larger scale. Hugo Wolf promptly embarked on his one and only completed orchestral work, the symphonic poem Penthesilea( 1883-5).
By 1887 Hugo Wolf may well have felt that his career was a failure. In his only real job, as music critic, his main achievement had been to make enemies, and this had actually hindered him in getting even such music as he had written performed. He had, admittedly, also made many friends, including respected and influential musicians. But he had hardly justified their faith. Of this period he himself supplied the epitaph in a letter to his sister Kathe written much later, in 1892. Speaking of his father, who died in May 1887, he wrote: 'Now he lies in the quiet churchyard and none of my songs can reach him ... he, who lived and breathed only in music, and for whom my music never sounded, to whom my song never spoke!'
But the tide was already beginning to turn. In May 1887 Hugo Wolf had completed his best-known work outside the songs, the Italian Serenade for string quartet (the orchestral version dates from 1892), and late that year a friend of his, Friedrich Eckstein, persuaded a small publishing firm, Wetzler, to bring out a dozen of Hugo Wolf's songs, including the very early 'Morgentau', written in June 1877. The effect on Hugo Wolf himself was amazing. In February 1888 he borrowed a friend's house in the village of Perchtoldsdorf, on the edge of the Wiener Wald, and settled down to composing songs with texts by one of his favourite poets, Eduard Morike. Suddenly music poured out of him at a rate, and of a quality, that even he seems to have been scarcely able to credit. This is borne out by his letters of the time, which, though superficially conceited, in reality suggest that he felt as if he were watching someone else write this wonderful music. In three months at Perchtoldsdorf he produced forty-three Morike settings 'of which each one', as he put it, 'surpasses the others'. After a break for the summer, he moved into Eckstein's house at Unterach am Attersee, and the flow continued: this time a further ten Morike songs and thirteen tone poems by Eichendorff. Back in Vienna in late October he took up Goethe and within just over three months composed all but one of the fifty-one Goethe Lieder. Then, in October 1889 he went back to Perchtoldsdorf and began what was to become the Spanisches Liederbuch, settings of poems translated from the Spanish by Heyse and Geibel. Forty-four Spanish songs were composed by April 1890. Finally, on a rising gradient, he produced six Keller songs (Alte Weiseri) and seven Italian songs in Heyse's translations, before breaking off in mid-November to visit Schott's of Mainz in order to conclude a new publishing agreement.
This is one of the great creative outbursts in history: 174 songs in two and three-quarter years. And such songs. Even Schubert in 1815 and Schumann in 1840 had not bettered it for sheer sustained intensity of inspiration. Hugo Wolf himself was never again to achieve anything comparable, though late in 1891 he completed the first Italienisehes Liederbuch (twenty-two songs in all) and five years later, in the spring of 1896, added a second book (twenty-four songs), not at all inferior to the first. Thanks to his network of friends and admirers, whom he occasionally summoned for impromptu performances, his songs began to be known almost as soon as they were written, and this naturally led to commissions from outside. Moreover, Hugo Wolf himself was ambitious to prove himself on a larger scale, particularly as an operatic composer. But in that field he was not destined to succeed. After years of agonising over the problem of finding a suitable libretto, he finally settled on one by Rosa Mayreder called The Three-cornered Hat, a comedy set in Spain. As Der Corregidor, his opera on this libretto was staged in Mannheim in June 1896, but was coolly received and had only two performances. Before this, in 1891, there had been music for a production of Ibsen's play The Feast at Solhaug. But in between Hugo Wolf's inspiration almost completely dried up. T could just as soon begin suddenly to speak Chinese as compose anything at all', he wrote to a friend.
Nevertheless by late 1896 his existence bore an altogether brighter appearance. Friends had installed him in a flat of his own in the centre of Vienna. Working on the proofs of Der Corregidor and on sketches for a new opera, Manuel Venegas, he felt at last optimistic about the future. When he was least prepared, fate struck him down.
One day in September 1 897 friends who met him in a restaurant found him obsessed with the idea that he had been appointed Director of the Vienna Opera. The new director in fact was Mahler. It seems that Mahler had promised to produce Der Corregidor, but then, after a row with Hugo Wolf over the merits of Rubinstein's The Demon, had withdrawn the promise. Hugo Wolf's mind, the victim for years of overwork and nervous stress, gave way completely under the disappointment and fury. He was taken to a private asylum in the city. For a time he recovered, and was able to spend much of 1898 at liberty', working again on Manuel Venegas. In October 1898, however, his mind went finally. He tried to drown himself in theTraunsee, where he had spent a long summer with friends. He was taken to the Lower Austrian Landesirrenanstalt, and there, after an agonisingly slow process of mental decline, accompanied in due course by general paralysis, he died, on the 22nd February 1903.
Hugo Wolf's final insanity sheds extraordinary light on the character of genius. Between 1888 and 189 1 he wrote a large number of inspired songs in an exalted state of mind which had some of the symptoms of madness. Later, when officially mad, he tried to compose but could produce only music of surpassing banality. In the whole history of music, there is no other example of genius flaring up and dying down so rapidly, like a supernova appearing suddenly in the night sky then as suddenly vanishing, leaving what only scientists know to be a faint, feeble star dying away to a lifeless husk.
Though Hugo Wolf's other music has merit, his name lives on in his songs. The range of these is extraordinary, from the pithy sketches in the Italian songs to the grander and more expansive pieces in the Morike and Goethe collections. Hugo Wolf is famous, above all, for the exact literary perception of his song-writing. The quality is Schumannesque (though Schumann lacked Hugo Wolf's literary taste). Where Brahms and Strauss concentrated on a vocal quality of line, Hugo Wolf followed Schumann in fusing voice and piano into a more subtle and flexible entity that endeavoured to penetrate directly to the psychological core of the poem. But Hugo Wolf was also a lyricist of genius, as well as possessing a surer command than Schumann of the bigger rhetorical style perfected by Schubert. In his own day he was dubbed 'the Wagner of song'. But though he idolised Wagner and certainly adopted harmonic ideas of his, and though the texture of his music has a Wagnerian fluidity, his world was really quite different. His great genius was for portraiture, for bringing the characters in a poem to life. In opera he consciously avoided the heroic mythological Wagnerian ethos. Yet his greatest songs certainly have an epic grandeur of their own, and he was perhaps the only German songwriter after Schumann (and possibly excepting Mahler) seriously to face up to and solve the problems of words-and-music, as opposed to the much simpler issue of music-to-words.
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