The Songs of Hugo Wolf
Methuen 1961, Eulenburg 2/1983, 3/1992, Faber Finds 4/2008 [pp. xii, 401; ISBN 0 903873 32 X]
Foreword by Gerald Moore
This is the most important book in the English language on the songs of Hugo Wolf since Ernest Newman proclaimed the composer's genius in 1907. It is the first time, so far as I am aware, that every single song (except the posthumous which the author has rightly omitted) has been translated, examined and elucidated between the covers of one single volume.
To the English‑speaking student this work is a treasure to which he will find himself returning again and again: it is indispensable to those of us anxious to gain a deeper knowledge of Wolf.
Through the author's penetration into and intimacy with this composer's style he is enabled to make clear to us how Wolf perceived the communicating function of music and its analogies with language. Yet it is this unique quality of inter‑relationship of his muse with that of the poet for which Wolf is condemned in some quarters. Schubert, it is true, sang his songs to all the poetry he could lay hands on; he transfigured an unworthy poem by putting the most glorious music to it. To Wolf, the seed was the word; words inspired him. The finer the lyric, the finer his conception in terms of music. He was generally more discriminating in his choice of poet than any composer before him: his failures, and they undeniably exist, can often be traced to poems that were not worthy of his attention, of the labour ‑ resulting in a 'contrived' composition ‑ that they caused. But the greatness of some of his settings cannot be questioned.
An ardent Wolfian finds himself turning again and again to the Attic type of song, chaste in conception, simple in construction, and holding it in ever‑increasing affection. He is seared by the sheer beauty of Herr, was tragt der Boden hier; Grenzen der Menscheit; Sankt Nepomuks Vorabend; Anakreons Grab; Im Fruhling; Um Mitternacht; Auf ein altes Bild, which Sams in moving language sums up as 'eternal grief in an eternal summer.' He is charmed by the discreet wit and compactness of Der Musikant; Das Ständchen; Begegnung; and marvels at some of the miracles he finds in the Italienisches Liederbuch. To have written these songs alone was to have lived to some purpose; one senses their greatness instinctively and finds with pleasure this feeling endorsed by so eminent an authority as the author. Eric Sams, however, is no euphemist; he does not overstate his case. Thus he tells us that one may prefer the strong sweetness of Schubert's Ganymed to the blissful masochism of Wolf's, that the latter's Philine loses by comparison with Schumann's, that the popular In dem Schatten meiner Locken by no means eclipses that of Brahms (a statement which must surely make Hugo turn in his grave). These are suggestions, however, not edicts and the reader will draw from them his own conclusions and, more often than not, find himself in complete agreement.
Our guide will not lead us astray for he is not blinded by his hero and claims for him, in Frank Walker's words, 'a modest place among the immortals'. His judgement is fair, unclouded but not arbitrary. He induces us to think for ourselves.
The fruit of deep study and sympathy with his subject, this book should be on the shelf of every man who professes or calls himself musical.
It is a masterpiece.
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