Hugo Wolf: a biography by Frank Walker*



I take the late Frank Walker's book on Hugo Wolf to be the best musical biography ever written. Its complete text is now available for the first time. He omitted several passages from the first edition “out of regard for the feelings of living people”. One has the impression of a man as scrupulous in courtesy as in scholarship.

    This publication is less meticulous. It is called a revised edition; but not even the additions have been adequately revised. One is a grotesque misquotation from a famous Wolf song (p. 353). Four bars enclose five mistakes (one of which has been promoted to adorn the cover, in gilt); the words are in the wrong place, and so is the reference number. The side and foot of each page have sprouted blank paper, making an enlarged book in two directions but only one sense. The author's foreword has been truncated, and misdated; the missing lines reappear in a “Publisher's Note”, which reads (rightly?) as if the “living people” or their feelings were now dead, and (wrongly) as if Chapter 13 were entirely new. No other attempt is made to say where the new material is to be found. I trust it is not indiscreet to say that pp. 168-9, 341-55, 357-60, 364-5, and 464 give the essence of the other sad story of this book, namely Wolf's own.

    Melanie Köchert was already married when they fell in love, in 1884. In 1897 the tertiary stage of an early infection sent him incurably mad. She visited him three times a week in his tragic and hopeless deterioration, until his death many years later; then tried to live without him, but finally failed and killed herself.

    It has been cogently argued that knowledge of a composer's life is not relevant to his art; and no doubt this is in theory true. But in music theory and practice are two very different things; and we need all the help we can get. This story surely helps. The official letters (published by Schneider, Tutzing, in 1964) begin to sound more in tune with the music as we know it; all good form on the page, all passion between the lines. The music itself takes on a new radiance in the tight of that signal lamp in the window, those coded messages in the newspaper advertising the chance of a few snatched hours. Think of Geh Geliebter, geh jetzt; indeed the whole Spanish songbook's intense bittersweet of sacred and secular might have been distilled from this tender and pitiful tale of an adulterous saint and a syphilitic martyr.

    Nor need any surviving member of the Köchert family be distressed at the chapter of revelations in which this good book now culminates. The secret was already published with the songs. There is no mistaking their overwhelming personal emotion whenever the words speak of the beauty of a woman's face or eyes; and their manuscripts were laid at the feet of Frau Melanie. No one who has read this book and overheard that worshipping love-music at its devotions will ever think of her with anything but reverence. As Frank Walker wrote in his first edition, “Does not this noble woman deserve the gratitude of posterity?”. As this edition now adds, and should do much to ensure, “Her name remains linked for ever with that of the splendid and tragic genius whom she loved so well”.     


The Musical Times, Jul. 1968 (p. 636) © the estate of eric sams