Though he had several bursts of extraordinary productivity, particularly in 1888 and 1889, depression frequently interrupted his creative periods, and his last composition was written in 1898, before he died of syphilis.
A child prodigy, Wolf was taught piano and violin by his father beginning at the age of four, and once in primary school studied piano and music theory with Sebastian Weixler. However, subjects other than music failed to hold his interest; he was dismissed from the first secondary school he attended as being "wholly inadequate", left another over his difficulties in the compulsory Latin studies, and after a falling-out with a professor who commented on his "damned music", quit the last. From there, he went to the Vienna Conservatory to the disappointment of his father, who had hoped Wolf would not try to make his living from music; again, however, he was dismissed for "breach of discipline", though the often-rebellious Wolf would claim he quit in frustration over the school's conservatism.
After eight months with his family, he returned to Vienna to teach music. Though his fiery temperament was not ideally suited to teaching, Wolf's musical gifts—as well as his personal charm—earned him attention and patronage. This support of his benefactors allowed him to make a living as a composer, and a daughter of one of his greatest benefactors inspired him to write: Vally ("Valentine") Franck was Wolf's first love, with whom he was involved for three years. During their relationship, hints of his mature style would become evident in his Lieder. Wolf was prone to depression and wide mood swings, which would affect him all through his life. When Franck left him just before his 21st birthday, he was despondent; he returned home, though his family relationships were also strained; his father remained convinced that Wolf was a ne'er-do-well. His brief and undistinguished tenure as second Kapellmeister at Salzburg only reinforced this opinion—Wolf had neither the temperament, the conducting technique, nor the affinity for the decidedly non-Wagnerian repertoire to be successful, and within a year had again returned to Vienna to teach in much the same circumstances as before.
Wagner's death was another deeply moving event in the life of the young composer. The song "Zur Ruh, zur Ruh" was composed shortly afterward and is considered to be the best of his early works; it is speculated that it was intended as an elegy for Wagner. Wolf often despaired of his own future in the years following, in a world from which his idol had gone, leaving tremendous footsteps to follow and no guidance on how to do so. This left him often extremely temperamental, alienating friends and patrons, though his charm helped him retain them more than his actions merited. His songs meanwhile had caught the attention of Franz Liszt, whom he respected greatly, and who like Wolf's previous mentors advised him to pursue larger forms; advice he this time followed with the symphonic tone poem on Penthesilea. Wolf's activities as a critic began to pick up; he was merciless in his criticism of the inferior works he saw taking over the musical atmosphere of the time (Anton Rubinstein in particular he considered odious) and fervent in his support of the genius of Liszt, Schubert, and Chopin. Known as "Wild Wolf" for the intensity and expressive strength of his convictions, his vitriol made him some enemies. Though he composed little during this time, what he did write he could not get performed: the Rosé Quartet would not even look at his work after being picked apart in a column, and the premiere of Penthesilea was met by the orchestra with nothing but derision for the man who had dared to criticize Brahms.
He abandoned his activities as a critic in 1887 as he began composing once more; perhaps not unexpectedly, the first songs following his compositional hiatus are settings of texts by Goethe, Joseph von Eichendorff, and Joseph Viktor von Scheffel on themes of strength and resolution under adversity. Shortly thereafter Wolf completed the Italienische Serenade, which is regarded as one of the first works of his mature style as a composer. Only a week later his father died, leaving Wolf devastated, and he did not compose for the remainder of the year.
Wolf himself saw the merit of these compositions immediately, raving to friends that they were the best things he had yet composed (it was with the aid and urging of several of the more influential of them that the works were initially published). It was now that the world outside Vienna would recognize Wolf as well. Tenor Ferdinand Jäger, whom Wolf had heard in Parsifal during his brief summer break from composing, was present at one of the first concerts of the Mörike works and quickly became a champion of his music, performing a recital of only Wolf and Beethoven in December 1888. His works were praised in reviews, including one in the Münchener Allgemeine Zeitung, a widely-read German newspaper. (Of course the recognition was not always positive; Brahms's adherents, still smarting from Wolf's merciless reviews, returned the favor—when they would have anything to do with him at all. Brahms's biographer Max Kalbeck ridiculed Wolf for his immature writing and odd tonalities; another composer refused to share a program with him, while Amalie Materna, a Wagnerian singer, had to cancel her Wolf recital when allegedly faced with the threat of being on the critics' blacklist if she went on.)
Only a few more settings were completed in 1891 before Wolf's mental and physical health once again took a downturn at the end of the year; exhaustion from his prolific past few years combined with the effects of syphilis and his depressive temperament caused him to stop composing for the next several years. Continuing concerts of his works in Austria and Germany spread his growing fame; even Brahms and the critics who had previously reviled Wolf gave favorable reviews. Wolf, however, was consumed with depression, which stopped him from writing—which only left him more depressed. He completed orchestrations of previous works, but new compositions were not forthcoming, and certainly not the opera which he was now fixated on composing, still convinced that success in the larger forms was the mark of compositional greatness.
Wolf had scornfully rejected the libretto to Der Corregidor when it was first presented to him in 1890, but his determination to compose an opera blinded him to its faults upon second glance. Based on El sombrero de tres picos, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, the darkly humorous story about an adulterous love triangle is one that Wolf could identify with: he had been in love with Melanie Köchert, married to his friend Heinrich Köchert, for several years. (It is speculated that their romance began in earnest in 1884, when Wolf accompanied the Köcherts on holiday; though Heinrich discovered the affair in 1893 he remained Wolf's patron and Melanie's husband.) The opera was completed in nine months and was met initially with success, but Wolf's musical setting could not compensate for the weakness of the text, and it was doomed to failure; it has not yet been successfully revived.
Wolf is buried in the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) in Vienna, along with many other notable composers.
His true fame is his lieder; Wolf's temperament and abilities led him to more private and personal forms. Though he initially believed that mastering the larger forms was the hallmark of a great composer (a belief that his early mentors reinforced), the smaller scale of the art song provided an excellent basis upon which to develop basic compositional skills and later came to be his greatest strength. Wolf's lieder are noted for compressing expansive musical ideas and depth of feeling; his skill at interpreting and depicting texts musically is suited to the form. Though Wolf himself was obsessed with the idea that to compose only short forms was to be second-rate, his organization of poem settings into complete dramatic cycles, finding connections between texts not explicitly intended by the poet, as well as his conceptions of individual songs as dramatic works in miniature, mark him as a talented dramatist despite having written only one not particularly successful opera.
Early in his career Wolf modelled his Lieder after those of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, particularly in the period around his relationship with Franck; in fact, they were good enough imitations to pass off as the real thing, which he once attempted, though his cover was blown too soon. It is speculated that his choice of lieder texts in the earlier years, largely dealing with sin and anguish, were partly influenced by his contraction of syphilis. His love for Franck, not fully requited, bore the intellectual children of the Wesendonck Lieder: impassioned settings of works by Nikolaus Lenau. The others were as distant from those in mood as possible; lighthearted and humorous. Penthesilea, too, is tempestuous and highly colored; though Wolf admired Liszt, who had encouraged him to complete the work, he felt Liszt's music too dry and academic, and strove for color and passion.
1888 marked a turning point in his style as well as his career, with the Mörike, Eichendorff, and Goethe sets drawing him away from Schubertiana and into "Wölferl's own howl". Mörike in particular drew out and complemented Wolf's musical gifts, the variety of subjects suiting Wolf's tailoring of music to text, his dark sense of humor matching Wolf's own, his insight and imagery demanding a wider variety of compositional techniques and command of text painting to portray. In his later works he relied less on the text to give him his musical framework and more on his pure musical ideas themselves; the later Spanish and Italian songs reflect this move toward "absolute music".
Wolf wrote hundreds of Lieder, three operas, incidental music, choral music, as well as some rarely-heard orchestral, chamber and piano music. His most famous instrumental piece is the Italian Serenade (1887), originally for string quartet and later transcribed for orchestra, which marked the beginning of his mature style.
Wolf was famous for his use of tonality to reinforce meaning. Concentrating on two tonal areas to musically depict ambiguity and conflict in the text became a hallmark of his style, resolving only when appropriate to the meaning of the song. His chosen texts were often full of anguish and inability to find resolve, and thus so too was the tonality wandering, unable to return to the home key. Use of deceptive cadences, chromaticism, dissonance, and chromatic mediants obscure the harmonic destination for as long as the psychological tension is sustained. His formal structure as well reflected the texts being set, and he wrote almost none of the straightforward strophic songs favoured by his contemporaries, instead building the form around the nature of the work.
The Hugo Wolf Society was formed in September 1931 for the recording, under the aegis of English His Master's Voice records, a substantial proportion of the song repertoire, in limited editions for subscribers. The selection of artists was restricted to singers under contract to this company. Each volume consisted of six HMV red-label discs (unobtainable separately) and retailed new at $15.00 Am.
Volume I, entirely performed by Elena Gerhardt accompanied by Coenraad van Bos, presented a selection mainly from the Spanish and Italian songbooks and the Mörike songs. For many years this scarce set was regarded as a collector's prize, and forms a distinct corpus within her recorded art. Later volumes always included more than one singer. Volume II: 16 of the 51 Goethe songs, all (apart from McCormack) accompanied by Coenraad van Bos, but with Friedrich Schorr's Prometheus with the orchestral accompaniment. Volume III: A selection of 17 items, including three Michelangelo songs, three Mörike songs, four from the Spanisches Liederbuch and six from the Italienisches Liederbuch. All accompanied by Coenraad van Bos. Volume IV: 30 items from Italienisches Liederbuch. Accompaniments by Coenraad van Bos, Michael Raucheisen and Hanns Udo Müller. Volume V: A selection of 20 songs (mainly Mörike and Spanisches Liederbuch). Volume VI: Various. Artists included Alexander Kipnis (III, IV, V); Herbert Janssen (II, V); Gerhard Hüsch (II, III, IV, V); John McCormack (accompanied by Edwin Schneider) (II); Alexandre Trianti (II, III); Ria Ginster (IV, V); Friedrich Schorr (II); Elisabeth Rethberg (IV, V); Tiana Lemnitz Each volume was accompanied by a booklet containing a short essay by Ernest Newman (I: Words and Music in Hugo Wolf, II: Wolf's Goethe Songs, III: A Note of Wolf as Craftsman, IV: The Italienisches Liederbuch) together with German texts, English translations (by Winifred Radford) and notes on each song (by Newman).
A Hugo Wolf Lieder Edition was recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim during the 1970s for DGG, each volume containing three records. Volume I (1974): Mörike Lieder (Paris Grand Prix du Disque). Volume II (1976): Lieder on poems by Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Nikolaus Lenau. Volume III (1977): Lieder on poems by Eichendorff, Michelangelo, Robert Reinick, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Joseph Viktor von Scheffel, etc. The accompanying volumes include essays by Hans Jancik, texts of the poems, and translations by Lionel Salter (English) and Jacques Fournier and others (French).
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