Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

(in Grove, 1980), © The Estate of Eric Sams



Wolf, Hugo (Filipp Jakob) (b Windischgraz, Styria [now Slovenj Gradec, Yugoslavia], 13 March 1860; d Vienna, 22 Feb 1903). Austrian composer. He inten­sified the expressive vocabulary of the lied to a pitch never since surpassed. By his musical sensitivity to poetic values and meanings, which he embodied in each separate aspect of song – vocal declamation, keyboard technique, harmonic nuance etc – he was able, like Schubert before him, to condense the dramatic intensity of opera into the song form.


1. Formative years (1860-83). 2. Years of uncertainty (1883-7). 3. Mastery and fame (1888-97). 4. Breakdown and terminal illness (1897­1903).


1. FORMATIVE YEARS (1860-83). Wolf was born in a German-speaking enclave of a Slovene region. His mother Katharina (1824-1903) was of Slovene yeoman stock (her paternal grandfather's name was Orehovnik, which he changed to its German equivalent Nussbaumer; her maternal grandfather's name was Stank or Stanko). According to a family tradition, she also had some Italian antecedents. She was strong-willed and energetic, four years older than her husband Philipp Wolf, whom she married in 1852. His family was German in origin; he inherited the leather business established in Windischgraz in the 18th century by his grandfather Maximilian. Philipp Wolf (1828-87) was a gifted musician who taught himself the piano, violin, flute, harp and guitar. His trenchant and colourful letters reveal him as the thwarted artist, moody and intro­spective. These gifts and temperament seem to have been inherited by Hugo, the fourth of six children (two others died in infancy). As he later recorded appreciatively, he was given piano and violin lessons by his father at a very early age. At the village primary school from 1865 to 1869 he was taught the piano and theory by Sebastian Weixler, who also played the viola in the Wolf house­hold orchestra (Philipp first violin, Hugo second, brother Max cello, an uncle as horn player).

   In 1868 Hugo saw his first opera (Donizetti's Belisario), which made an overwhelming impression. In September 1870 he was sent to the regional secondary school in Graz (where he was remembered as speaking German with a Slovene accent) but left after only one term with the general report 'wholly unsatisfactory', though with some praise for his musical gifts. In September 1871 he began two years as a boarder at the Benedictine abbey of St Paul, where he excelled as a musician, playing the violin and organ for school ser­vices and the piano in a trio (with a repertory including Italian and French opera arrangements). But he lagged at the compulsory Latin; and in the autumn of 1873 he was transferred to the secondary school at Marburg (now Maribor, Yugoslavia). There he absorbed the clas­sical repertory in score or performance, including Beethoven and Haydn symphonies in piano duet arrange­ment. But again he left after only two years. His wilful and passionate nature spurned compromise; he had time and energy only for music. His father received two placatory dedications, that of op.1, a piano sonata begun in April 1875, and that of the Variations op.2. It was decided that Wolf should go and live with an aunt in Vienna that September and study at the Vienna Conservatory.

   At first all went well. He studied the piano with Wilhelm Schenner and harmony and composition first with Robert Fuchs and then with the strict and pedantic Franz Krenn. He made many friends, including the young Gustav Mahler. The first fruits were an unfin­ished 'violin concerto' (in piano score) and more piano sonatas, as well as songs and choruses. Now Wolf began regular opera-going: Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots was a special favourite. But his deepest devotion was reserved for Wagner, then (November 1875) in Vienna for per­formances of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Wolf attended both, and became (as he told his dismayed parents) a dedicated Wagnerian – a term then synonymous with avant-garde turbulence. In December he visited Wagner, bringing his piano pieces, which he explained were in the style of Mozart. Wagner was indulgent and affable; he gravely agreed that it was best to model oneself on the classics, and counselled patience and practice. When he next went to Vienna, he said, he would look forward to being shown larger-scale works.

   This encounter inspired Wolf, always a passionate hero-worshipper and famished for encouragement. He duly attempted larger-scale works, notably a Lenau set­ting for accompanied male-voice chorus, Die Stimme des Kindes. But the part-writing went awry, a blemish pointed out by Hans Richter, then director of the Vienna Opera, whom Wolf had also buttonholed and blandished. Technical shortcomings recur in further choruses written in 1876; but in one Goethe setting, Mailied, the contours of coming mastery are discernible in rhythmic verve and harmonic vitality. Also from this period date orchestral essays (an arrangement of the Moonlight’ Sonata), various chamber music fragments and sketches and a piano Rondo capriccioso which later became a symphonic finale. No doubt many of these were set as academic exercises, but their style testifies to a growing independence. Soon Wolf was again in con­flict with authority. In later life he would explain that he resigned from the conservatory in protest at its entren­ched conservatism. But he was also officially dismissed for 'breach of discipline'; and his cause was not helped by the prank of a fellow student who sent the director a threatening letter, signed 'Hugo Wolf. By March 1877 Wolf was home again in disgrace.

   There he worked on a symphony and composed the earliest song that he thought worthy of publication, Morgentau. He was allowed back to Vienna in November to earn his own living as a music teacher. On the journey he lost the score of his symphony. That start was symptomatic. Wolf never had the teacher's gift or temperament. His talents needed (and his charm secured) the patronage of generous households, such as those of the actor Ludwig Gabillon and Freud's early collaborator Josef Breuer.

   Wolf was already known in other cultured circles, notably that of the composer Adalbert von Goldschmidt (which included the critics Gustav Sch8naich and Hans Paumgartner, and the conductor Felix Mottl). They adopted the young Wolf, took him to concerts and operas, lent him books, music and money. But this fostering may also have proved fatal. For it was Goldschmidt who (according to Alma Mahler) took Wolf to a brothel; and there is no doubt that Wolf's insanity in 1897 and death in 1903 were among the sequelae of a syphilitic infection assignable with fair certainty to 1878. It was then, as members of the Gabillon and Breuer families later recalled, that he began to avoid their dinner tables and their company (eating only such food as could be conveyed direct to the mouth, and refusing to travel in the same railway carriage as his hosts). Such conduct then seemed merely eccentric or boorish; but Dr Breuer later came to be­lieve that it was founded on medical advice and consider­ation for others.

   The phase of sexual initiation and stimulus was also a time of spontaneous songwriting, the first signs of an intuitive mode of creativity that would later characterize Wolf's greatest work. Early in 1878 he was in love with Vally Franck, a relative of the Lang family, who were among his most generous benefactors. He later said that in that year he had written 'at least one good song every day'. This seems exaggerated (unless the works were atypically destroyed); but it testifies to a wealth of feel­ing in that year. Romantic love and `Weltschmerz' are explicit in the choice of 1877-8 song texts from such sources as Heine, Lenau, Chamisso, Riickert, Hoffmann von Fallersleben and Goethe's Faust.

   After the Schumannesque Heine settings of May and June 1878 a new and agonized note is sounded in the Faust setting of Gretchen vor dem Andachtsbild der Mater Dolorosa, begun on 22 August. The confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness, novel and uncharacteris­tic themes in Wolf, are expressed in anguished chromatics. He next wrote settings of gloomy and life-abnegating texts (also perhaps related to the inevitable if temporary separation from Vally Franck), closely fol­lowed by the first movement of the D minor String Quartet with its outbursts of impassioned declamation. The Grave introduction is prefixed by the words ‘Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren’ (You must renounce, renounce'), spoken by Faust when sealing his pact with the Devil and renouncing human life and love. Both this movement and the Scherzo (Resolut) bear the date January 1879.

   It was no doubt in a dejected mood that Wolf had called on Brahms early in that year. He was kindly received and given the same advice as Wagner's, namely to extend his musical horizons. From the blunt Brahms this seemed an affront, especially when coupled with the suggestion of counterpoint lessons from Nottebohm. The fee was well beyond Wolf's means; and the idea was dismissed as 'north German pedantry'. This note of antipathy soon swelled to an enduring diapason. As in Shaw's contemporary London, the younger musicians tended to brand Brahms as reactionary and hail Wagner as progressive. Wolf's immediate circle, a Bohemian fraternity comparable to the first Schubertians, were all fanatical Wagnerites, following their master to the point of becoming vegetarians – as Wolf did for a year or two, partly also perhaps because that diet was cheaper. His meagre earnings were eked out by parcels of food and clothes sent from home. He was constantly changing lodgings (on occasion sharing with Mahler, with whom he had remained on affable terms) in search of seclusion or economy. Life was hard, but intellectually and socially formative. Goldschmidt and Schönaich in par­ticular continued to be generous with help and introduc­tions: the circle of Wolf's friends and admirers gradually widened. In April 1879 he first met Melanie Köchert (née Lang), who later became his mistress and protectress. Her sister Henriette and her brother Edmund Lang also became close friends. Meanwhile Wolf's love for their quasi-cousin Vally Franck was rekindled; but the two were separated most of that year by her absence on holiday. Wolf's letters and music are alike passionate, as three Lenau songs testify. But his penury and misfortune kept the lovers parted if not estranged. His patterns of cyclic mood swing and unpredictably sporadic creativity were already clearly delineated. By 1880 his depression and illness were both apparently abating. Sweetness and serenity return to the song music, especially in Erwartung and Die Nacht, two Eichendorff settings inscribed to Vally and thought worthy of publication in the later songbook. The slow movement of the D minor Quartet, begun in July. has overtones of healing (recalling Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang) and redemption that suggest a mood of regeneration and thanksgiving, enhanced by an idyllic summer holiday in Mayerling. There Wolf's mature songwriting style continued its slow burgeoning, nur­tured by studies and transcriptions of Wagner. Two paraphrases (of Die Meistersinger and Die Walküre), probably made at this time, were presented to the lawyer Joseph Heitzes, another of Wolf's benefactors. His Mayerling home was rented to the Preyss family, who willingly agreed to look after Wolf and give him the tranquillity and independence he needed. By now he was sufficiently recovered to take his meals en famille. His high spirits and manifest genius captivated not only the Preyss family but their own summer visitors, including the Werners, expecially the seven-year-old Heinrich, who became wholly devoted to Wolf and later served his cause well as editor, critic and biographer.

   Summertime in Mayerling, then and later, brought out the radiant side of Wolf's nature, including his love of children and of the countryside. His small stocky figure, fair hair, and dark brown eyes fitfully lit by hilarity, were well described by a later friend, Edmund Hellmer, who added that to know him really well one had to hear him laugh and see him in the open air. But the sunshine regularly faded, and a darker side super­vened; then the Wolfian moods turned first to a daunt­ing wildness of speech and mien and thence sometimes to snapping and snarling, even at his devoted bene­factors.

Before Wolf's 21st birthday Vally Franck had broken off their attachment and returned to her native France. Despair resounded in the Sechs geistliche Lieder, chor­uses to words by Eichendorff; again secular human feeling was presented in the guise of spiritual agony. As ever when wounded Wolf sought refuge in Windisch­graz, composing a further Eichendorff song of soulful separation, In der Fremde I. Once again he was helped –by the devoted Goldschmidt, who in November 1881 found him a post as second conductor at Salzburg. As before Wolf's musicianship was applauded but there were jarring personal notes. He resented the trivial tedium of operetta rehearsal and quarrelled violently with the director. Again he left under a cloud; early in 1882 he was back in Vienna. His unhappy father compared himself, with some justice, to a Sisyphus forever doomed to push the same heavy stone uphill and behold it rolling ineluctably back, this time perhaps with crushing and fatal effect. For a time father and son were estranged. Wolf, though contrite, was helpless to govern the forces that determined his life and fate. It was apparently early in this year that he was conscripted for a short time into military service, then compulsory at 20. For unknown reasons, whether the influence of friends, or his own ill-health, or unstable temperament, or small stature (5' 11"), he was neither called up in 1880 nor long retained in 1882. His diary records this as the year of a 'terrible moral hangover'. But as usual the arid tracts were diversified by occasional oases, including the Mdrike setting ofMausfallensprüchlein, the fruit of another summer spent with the Preyss and Werner families in Mayerling. There was a further remission in late 1882 and early 1883 with a group of generally serene and sunny Reinick and Eichendorff songs. This time, when the darker mood returned, composition continued. It was as if two strands (bright and dark, lyric and dramatic, simple and complex, Schumannian and Wagnerian) were beginning to interweave in a new and essentially Wolfian pattern. His tense and dramatic Kerner settingZur Ruh, zur Ruh of June 1883 may have been his threnody on the death of Wagner four months earlier. In August he saw Parsifal in Bayreuth; then again he was at a standstill.