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Hugo Wolf
Hugo Wolf


Hugo Wolf elevated the song to an artform of unprecedented psychological power and dramatic scope. His songbooks became narratives, complete with characters, plot, counterplots, gesture and colour. He struggled, and ultimately failed, to master the large-scale forms of symphony and opera. But the epic qualities he sought in those genres shine through in his songs, making them a fitting conclusion to the tradition established in the song-cycles of Schubert and Schumann. Wolf was born in Windischgräz in what is now Slovenia. His father ran a leather business and was a gifted amateur musician who soon recognised his son’s talent. He was a moody, frustrated man, and Hugo would inherit his temperament along with his musical abilities. The future composer dreamed his way through school, and was an equally unsatisfactory student at the Vienna Conservatory. A ‘breach of discipline’ resulted in his dismissal in 1877. Wolf would later say the incident was caused by his contempt for the innate conservatism of the place, but his case was not helped when a fellow student wrote a threatening letter to the Director and signed it with Wolf’s name. While studying at the Conservatory, Wolf had approached Wagner with some of his work. The older composer was attentive but stressed the importance of studying the example of the Classical masters. Brahms said much the same when Wolf called on him four years later, and Franz Liszt, while expressing admiration for the songs Wolf brought to him in 1883, advised him to try his hand at larger works. Wolf nailed his colours to the Wagnerian mast and set his face against conservatism. From then on, his songs were aligned to the Musik der Zukunft (‘music of the future’) and characterised by dramatic dissonances, unstable tonalities and swerving chromaticism. In 1888 Hugo Wolf at last hit his stride as a composer. As a music critic, he had already notched up a list of powerful enemies in Vienna and beyond. An earlier unhappy love affair with Vally Franck had produced a handful of good songs. But this was behind him, and he was now sleeping with his best friend’s wife, Melanie Köchert. As a young man he had contracted syphilis in a brothel. The disease would eventually kill him, but for the time being the symptoms were in abeyance. In a whirlwind of creativity, he was writing two or three songs a day. ‘My cheeks are glowing with excitement like molten iron, and this state of inspiration is more a delicious torment to me than an unalloyed pleasure’ he wrote to a friend in February 1888. A month later he was setting the poems of Eduard Mörike at breakneck speed, ‘What I am putting on paper is being written for posterity… they are masterpieces’. By mid-May he had written 43 songs. A trip to Bayreuth followed, then a brief holiday and six more months of fevered activity. By February 1889, he had completed 13 songs to texts by Joseph Eichendorff, many more to texts by Mörike and all 51 of the songs that make up the Goethe Songbook. Although Wolf completed an opera, Der Corregidor, many choral works, chamber works and a popular orchestral version of his Italian Serenade, these songs are his masterpieces. As one commentator observed, Wolf’s special genius was for ‘dramatic music in a condensed form’. Each of the major songbooks is constructed around a sequence of motifs that tie the individual songs into a larger conceptual scheme. Another key element of his integration of songs into cycles is the way in which the drama is often transferred from the voice to the keyboard. Cycles often conclude with an extended postlude for piano, a device made all the more powerful by Wolf’s daring piano writing, which stretches traditional ideas about expressivity in ever new directions. Despite the admiration his work was inspiring, with even Brahms now expressing his approval, Wolf gradually fell into a deep depression. Syphilis was causing a marked deterioration in his psychological state. Wolf’s last concert appearance was in February 1897, and shortly afterwards he slipped into insanity. After trying to drown himself, he voluntarily entered a Vienna asylum, remaining there for the last five years of his life. Occasional periods of remission meant that he was able to continue composing until 1899, when he ceased work completely, leaving his opera Manuel Venegas unfinished.

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