Wolf’s reputation as the wild man of late 19th century song – ‘der wilde Wolf’ – is borne out by many incidents in his life. He was thrown out of the Vienna Conservatoire at the age of seventeen for telling the director that he felt his time as a music student was making him forget more than he learnt. The critic Max Graf, in his memoirs of fin-de-siècle Vienna, characterised Wolf as a hero for the next generation of music students: ‘Hugo Wolf belonged to us and we belonged to him. We stared at the pale man who stood in the standing-room section of the opera house just like ourselves, while Brahms sat in a box like God sitting on the clouds’. Yet Wolf’s position outside Vienna’s musical establishment was not entirely by choice.
When the young composer first came to Vienna in 1875 from the small town of Windischgraz in lower Styria, he and his father were passionate that he should progress from his obscure origins to a place at the centre of Vienna’s musical life. On the occasion of Wagner’s visit to the Austrian capital in 1875, Wolf followed his carriage wherever it went and stood in the lobby of the master’s hotel until he was allowed to show him his songs. As Wolf said: ‘I conceived an irresistible inclination towards Richard Wagner, without having yet formed any conception of his music’; it was enough that this man had the reputation of being the greatest opera composer of all.
The polemics that surrounded Wagner’s cause – his battles with the Viennese critic Hanslick and other Brahmsians – clearly enhanced his status in Wolf’s eyes. But such polemics did not prevent him from seeking an interview with Brahms too in 1879. Unfortunately Brahms did not like Wolf or his songs, and suggested the young man should go back to the drawing-board and arrange counterpoint lessons forthwith.
Wolf’s search for musical sponsors continued through most of his life. He was obsessed with the need to find a sphere of action, an outlet for his creative impulses that could make a mark on those around him. Such anxieties were undeniably heightened by his natural tendency towards song, which was seen as an ephemeral art, partly tarnished by its associations with bourgeois domesticity or salon-style decadence. In his student years Wolf sketched parts of two symphonies and a violin concerto, and in 1880 he began work on a string quartet in D minor (completed in 1884).
However, these creative experiences were nothing compared with the flow of songs which came from his pen in 1878. Most of these were settings of texts from Heine’s Buch der Lieder, the choice of poet and musical style bringing Wolf close to Schumann. He later disowned such derivativeness, as well as the subjective associations of the songs with his early love affair with Vally Franck. With his mature Lieder, Wolf talked of being ‘an objective lyricist’, and of following what he called his ‘duty to the poet’. He felt it was his task to convince audiences of the ‘true content’ of a poetic text by every possible musical means.
He would often quote the philosopher Nietzsche’s thoughts on the purpose of art: ‘truth, relentless truth – truth till it hurts’. Like Wagner, Wolf saw poetry as the proper object of his musical eloquence, the end that motivated and justified all his explorations. Yet there was a crucial difference between them. Wagner wrote his own texts to his music dramas, so that in a circular fashion ‘Wagner the musician’ could always prompt ‘Wagner the poet’. Wolf welcomed a rather different aesthetic discipline, accepting the ‘otherness’ of the poet as a way of opening his music to constant re-evaluation.
A New Approach to Song
Most enthusiasts for German Lieder would agree that Wolf’s radical ways of approaching poetry have successfully heightened our perceptions of song. However, our appreciation of the clarity and effectiveness of his artistic vision is sometimes clouded by the fact that Wolf seemed so little in control of his life and circumstances. After being expelled from the Conservatoire, Wolf accepted the dubious patronage of Adalbert von Goldschmidt, a dilettante composer and noted socialite.
Wolf openly voiced his contempt for Goldschmidt’s over-heated Lisztian style of music, but in the difficult decade from 1877 he relied on him financially as he drifted from lodging to lodging and eked out a living giving music lessons. The young composer received much intellectual stimulation from Goldschmidt and his circle, but their influence did little to settle his musical or social habits. It was at this time that Wolf contracted the syphilis that led to madness in 1897. His only experience of regular employment was as music critic to the Wiener Salonblatt from 1884 to 1887.
In his reviewing, Wolf intended to make a significant contribution to the critical debates of his time, little realising that his passionate attacks on Brahms as a composer of a ‘dead-tired fantasy’ were hardly appropriate for a fashionable Sunday newspaper. He also underestimated the extent of the backlash such reviews would bring upon himself. In 1886 the famous conductor Hans Richter agreed to a public play-through of Wolf’s ambitious symphonic poem Penthesilea. It seemed that Wolf was about to achieve the break-through he was seeking. Yet in the event Richter made no effort to control the orchestra as it mangled the difficult score, and instead said loud enough for everyone to hear – ‘and that is the man who dares to criticise Brahms!’.
It was fortunate for Wolf that his hounding by Richter and other establishment figures came to win him the unequivocal support of the Viennese Wagner Society, which could offer him venues for the regular performance of his songs. Wolf enjoyed the enthusiastic reception of such an audience, and the fruitful artistic partnerships that began to develop with the Wagnerian tenor Ferdinand Jäger and with the Society’s director, the pianist and critic Joseph Schalk. However, he also realised that much of the support was prompted by concern for Wagner rather than for himself.
The Viennese Wagnerians were anxious that Wagner should be seen to have left a group of composers to follow in his wake, otherwise it would be difficult to call his art the ‘music of the future’. Schalk believed Wolf’s music could be presented as a ‘healthy bloom from the master’s stem’, but this approach caused inevitable conflict . In 1889 Wolf walked out of the Wagner Society after one of his songs became the occasion for a pan-German nationalistic demonstration, declaring ‘vanity and inordinate ambition will not catch me by the forelock again. Let each seek to win through on his own account. So let us have no more apostles!’.
At this point in his life Wolf had every reason for self-confidence. His Mörike songbook was just about to be published, including fifty-three settings of this relatively little-known mid 19th century poet. The volume created a sensation in circles far beyond Vienna. The famous Bayreuth Wagnerian, Hans von Wolzogen, announced his astonishment at the songs’ depth and variety, saying they swung from ‘the cheerfully teasing, simple robust tunes of German folksong, to the strains of the Romantic ballad full of ghostly horrors and elfish apparitions … up to the heights of hymn and into the depths of mysticism.’
The Mörike songs were likened to music dramas in miniature or even to symphonic poems, with their declamatory vocal lines, motivic characterisation and quasi-orchestral piano textures. Some critics deplored these innovations as the end of song, but others welcomed Wolf as the ‘Wagner of the Lied’. He certainly made uninhibited use of Tristanesque harmonies, but their treatment was not always straightforwardly Wagnerian.
His setting of An den Schlaf (To Sleep) ends with a quotation from the final bars of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’, yet one hardly recognises the reference because Wolf weaves it into a much more delicate motivic fabric. The song traces its path from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’ through a careful network of harmonic progressions, which move in precise sequence from dissonance to resolution. Wolf once insisted that all his progressions, however radical, could be explained within the ‘strict laws of harmony’. The Mörike songbook was a landmark for Wolf, not only in its exploration of the language of Wagnerian chromaticism, but also in asserting his independence from any uncritical discipleship.
The speed with which Wolf completed the Mörike songs from February to November 1888, shows a remarkable release of creative energy. It overflowed into the Eichendorff and Goethe songbooks of 1888 and 1889. Eichendorff is another poet closely connected with Schumann, but on this occasion Wolf chose poems that invited him to paint character-portraits, rather than subjective moods as beloved by Schumann.
Wolf’s approach to the Goethe songbook was also consciously critical. He included many of Goethe’s more abstract and philosophical poems, ones that had previously been thought beyond the scope of song-composers – as well as reworking poems famously set by Schubert, such as Prometheus, Ganymed, and the Wilhelm Meister lyrics. Some Wagnerians attacked Wolf for looking back to Goethe; they argued that he should be turning to radical poets of his own generation. Yet Wolf was often surprisingly scathing about contemporary writers. He said the novels of Dostoyevsky were like ‘a hundred thousand fools speaking at once’. Goethe was even more merciless in condemning stylistic innovation if he felt it was pursued for its own sake.
He believed lyrical impulses should be subjected to formal discipline, even if this meant suppressing a certain Romantic immediacy. In his lyrics from the novel The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, the Harper and Mignon are heard voicing their frustration at what cannot be said, and so opening up whole new areas of feeling and experience. It was this paradox that invigorated Wolf’s own approach to the Lied. In his Goethe settings he largely avoided the tuneful lyricism that Schubert excelled in, and instead offered an abstract play of rhythmic textures and sharply delineated forms. Yet Wolf made the formal restrictions bring a new kind of expressive intensity to his lyrics, one that aimed beyond simpler Romantic evocations of mood.
For Wolf then, radical innovation and conservatism tended to go hand in hand, a trait that confused his critics even while it intrigued and captivated his audiences. Commentators had the most problems understanding the step he took after the Goethe songbook, since he immediately began setting what has been called ‘a series of rather flat lyrics’ from the Spanisches Liederbuch of Heyse and Geibel.
Although some of the poems are by great Spanish authors, Wolf’s shift to dealing with German translations raises important questions. Inevitably there is not the same sense of poetic imperative at work in these settings as there was when Wolf was responding to Mörike or Goethe. And yet Wolf still surrounded the formal details of his Spanish songs – their characteristic refrains and rhyming patterns – with a sense of heightened significance. It was as if, by this stage in his song-writing, Wolf had internalised his ‘duty to the poet’ and made an accepted virtue out of keeping tightly within the dimensions of his genre.
In 1888 Nietzsche wrote ‘today musical integrity is only possible in what is small’, a motto that might have been written especially for Wolf. Song had become his distinctive battleground, in a way that does not apply to any other 19th century composer. And yet there is evidence that from 1890 Wolf became increasingly dissatisfied with his specialist image.
During the heady days of the Mörike songs, Wolf told his friends he was always sketching out operatic scenes at the piano and thinking about possible opera libretti – usually on Spanish subjects. The Spanish obsession reflected his admiration for Bizet’s opera Carmen, except that Wolf intended to write a comic opera not a tragedy. He was aiming at a big popular success on the scale of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, or the verismo operas of Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Some would say his meglomania knew no bounds. However, there were serious issues at stake with Wolf’s operatic ambitions that bear on his complex relationship to Wagner. In 1890 he wrote to a friend: ‘Wagner’s excesses degrade one into a worm.
However you must not think that I have suddenly joined the anti-Wagnerians, an event which I have earnestly to guard against, if only to justify my own artistic existence’. In life Wolf could not afford to sever the links, but in art his need to assert a separate dramatic vision became increasingly urgent. Wolf knew the kind of opera he wanted to write, an ordinary opera about ordinary people – ‘without the sombre world-redeeming spectre of a Schopenhauerian philosophy in the background’. It took him five years to settle on a libretto, Rosa Mayreder’s adaptation of Alarcon’s novel El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat). And when he finally began work in 1895 his theatrical inexperience showed up at every stage of the compositional process.
However despite its shortcomings, there is still enough dramatic substance in Wolf’s Der Corregidor to underline his distinctive view of character and plot. In Wolf’s opera there are no larger-than-life heroes making momentous decisions for good or ill. Most of the dialogue remains conversational in tone, while the characters seem to change almost entirely according to circumstance in a disturbingly realistic fashion. It is hard to judge whether such a shifting view of personality would have been convincing to his audiences if Wolf’s stage techniques had been better.
His second opera Manuel Venegas (based on Alarcon’s novel El Niño de la Bola) was unfortunately left unfinished in 1897. One brave critic blamed Der Corregidor’s lack of success on the performers rather than the composer’s ineptitude. He claimed that ‘the German stage – under the sway of Wagner – was not yet free enough for such high-flying spirituality’, a spirituality which he identified with Nietzsche’s call for a new ‘Joyful Knowledge’.
Few would agree with such exalted claims for Wolf’s opera. But perhaps the references to Nietzsche’s Gaya Scienza might help us appreciate the significance of the Italian songbook which Wolf composed before and after Der Corregidor. Even compared with the Spanish songs, the length of each song is much reduced, and the poet’s glance is redirected to the smallest and most incidental details – the turn of a woman’s head, a word idly dropped into conversation.
These details become magnified, but they also hold their place in the ordinary things of life. Musically, Wolf builds his patterns out of ornamental details of rhythm or harmony that seem almost too transient to sustain the forms that grow out of them. Whilst the patterns capture our imagination they often leave little impression behind. One is reminded of the words in the last of Wolf’s three Michelangelo-Lieder, the final song he was to write. The poet feels a glimmer of light in his soul even though he cannot grasp where it has come from, and he asks if it is just a passing sound or dream.
The answer of the final verse might seem disappointing – it is the light that comes from gazing into his beloved’s eyes. Wolf leaves us with another trifle, not a philosophical statement on the nature of eternity. However, by drawing our attention to the power of the present moment the composer captures one of the glories of song, and reveals once more how it can take us into the most elusive realms of human experience.