Literary Sources of Hugo Wolf’s String Quartets


© The Estate of Eric Sams, 1974 [Music examples edited by the Centro Studi Eric Sams]


Wagner, so Bernard Shaw once asserted, “never wrote, or could write, a note of absolute music.” He would surely have said the same of Wagner’s most devoted disciple, Hugo Wolf, whose work is at least equally expressive of verbal ideas. Some 350 songs and 30 choral works speak for themselves-almost liter­ally. Other works and projects attest the range of Wolf's reading, whether of Byron (the planned Corsair overture), Kleist (the Prinz von Homburg music, and the tone-poem Penthesilea), Ibsen (the Fest auf Solhaug music) or Alarcón (the two operas Der Corregidor, and the unfinished Manuel Venegas). His own critical writings also display his literary gifts and interests - not only by their very personal prose style, but in their further evidence of wide and voracious reading, from Constant to Dostoyevski, from lean Paul to Nietzsche. In what follows I shall contend that Wolf's string quartet writing was inspired by verbal ideas and sources, just like all his other music. I do not of course claim that the quartets purport to illustrate or tell a story, like program music, or that they directly express or embody personal feelings; rather that they symbolize the composer's experi­ence of particular emotional states, just as the songs do. In the songs we have a guide to the ac­tual feelings involved, namely the text of the poems. I shall suggest that such a guide may be available for the quartets also; and that its use may lead to a better appreciation of Wolf's work in that form, in which he served a very important part of his long apprenticeship to the song-writer's trade.


The D minor quartet (1879- 1881)


   The first evidence is textual. The words Entbehren sollst da, sollst entbehren stand at the head of the score. They were intended by the nineteen-year-old composer as a guide to the work; indeed, an integral part of it. They are spoken by Goethe’s Faust in the crucial scene in his study (Studienzimmer) where he curses life and love and sells his soul to the Devil. One possible explanation is an indulgence in boyish heroics, the merest Faustian fustian. But the range and depth of the music suggest rather that Wolf was in deadly earnest with his “You must renounce.” Why?

   The other relevant information is that in the summer of 1878 Wolf had contracted the syphilitic infection that was later to drive him mad and then kill him slowly, after years of suffering. Thomas Mann's epic novel Dr. Faustus is about a German composer whose life and music are first inspired and then destroyed by syphilis. Hugo Wolf was his main model for the life. It was in August 1878 that Wolf surprised (and no doubt offended) the friendly family who had offered him a holiday home by his consistent refusal to eat with them at table. At most he would take fruit from a dish; the household utensils he would not touch. Nor would he consent to travel back to Vienna in the same railway-train as his hosts. We can now see that he was acting with creditable care and scruple, for reasons he preferred not to explain. At the same time he had been sadly constrained to forsake his boyhood sweetheart Vally Franck, again without the possibility of explanation. We can infer that Wolf had been taking medical advice and had been told inter alia that he would have to renounce love and companionship certainly for some time and perhaps forever.

   Again in August 1878, not long after the primary infection would have become manifest, Wolf began a setting of Gretchen’s prayer from Faust: “save me from shame and death.” So we know that he was already reading that work, and we can guess in what mood. The songs of that autumn are gloomy and life-renouncing settings of Heine (e.g. Mit schwarzen Segeln; Spätherbstnebel). This mood was no doubt the initial inspiration of the D minor quartet, the first movement and the scherzo of which are both dated January 1879. They sound like the outcome of several months' dark brooding. The work begins by bewailing its outcast fate. The words Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren are not only printed on the score but imprinted in the music. At the outset (Ex. 1) two violins audibly cry out those phrases in succession, just as two voices might sing thern. They then form the main themes of the work, in every sense. Even in moments of surface calm the attentive listener can detect the swirling undertow of melodies and rhythms derived directly from Goethe’s words.



Much more manifest is the massive presence of Beethoven. This must have been fully as evi­dent to Wolf at eighteen as to any later commentator at any time. There can hardly be any ques­tion of subconscious influence; nor is the writing derivative in any ordinary sense. The music is somehow about Beethoven. There is an evident explanation. Wolf felt, on abundant evidence, that all music was essentially expressive. He must have heard Beethoven’s music as a reaction to ill-health, and thus analogous to his own work. The convulsive leaps of the Grosse Fuge supply the vocabulary Wolf needed. The form of the Sonata Pathétique provides a musical frame on which to weave alternate strands of despair and resolve. Nor does one need to have Wolf's extreme verbo-musical sensitivity to hear those moods in the Beethoven quartets. The direction Resolut over Wolf’s scherzo-type movement and its evident af6nities with the equally serious scherzo of Beethoven’s Op. 95 in F minor (Allegro assai vivace ma serioso) offer further confirmation that Wolf had found significant parallels between Beethoven’s experience and his own. When we then hear Wolf's slow movement singing its own version of a Heiliger Dankgesang we feel that the parallels are being delved so deep as to suggest not only coincidental analogy but deliberate identification.

   This seems to call for special explanation: Wolf in his other music so rarely reminds us of Beethoven. I suggest that the use of this model is in effect an expressive compositional device (how­ever effective) for importing extra meaning into music. Wolf wishes to say that he is sharing the very same fate that burdened his great predecessor, and will bear it as bravely.

   The recent publication of Schumann’s early note-books provides clear and relevant evidence about how a creative mind of the same verbo-musical cast as Wolf's reacted to syphilitic infection. "O, Abälard!" was among the asides that the stricken Schumann confided to his diary at the time. Abelard was castrated as a punishment for illicit love. Schumann also noted, equally meaningfully, "Don Giovanni!". No doubt he had not for­gotten the sub-title, Il Dissoluto PunitoThe significant factor is his instinctive identification, at a time of emotional turmoil and crisis, with his own literary and musical heroes. The psychological burden was eased by sharing it with others, even only in imagination.

   Just so with Wolf. His instinctive reaction is to identify with Faust. We should expect him to find a musical as well as a literary surrogate­ figure, just as Schumann had. And in the Vienna of 1878-9 the self-evident choice would be Beethoven. It was in fact in 1879 that George Grove had announced (in the first edition of his Dictionary) that Beethoven was a syphilitic. Of course Grove's source of information would be his colleagues and friends in Vienna, where he was well known. No doubt Wolf, like all the other musicians in Vienna, would have heard that rumor (true or not) and believed it. Hence the emotional and therefore the musical identification manifest in the D minor quartet.

   Thereafter, for the whole of the rest of Wolf’s creative life, no trace of any serious Beethoven influence has been noted by any commentator - with one sole exception. That is the Mörike song of 1888, Der Genesene an die HoffnungIt de­scribes the onset of a mortal affliction, consequent despair, resolution and final recovery. I suggest that ten years earlier Wolf had embodied that same experience in his quartet. That work on that interpretation becomes a case-book of medico-musical history. This is admittedly strange; but it is not unprecedented. At the same time, Smetana was also writing an autobiographical string quartet, Aus meinem Lebenwhich even went so far as graphically to record, in the guise of a high persis­tent note, the secondary tinnitic after-effects of his own syphilitic infection -which would also prove fatal to mind and body in its due time.

   This viewpoint permits, for whatever it is worth, a process of cross-inference between Wolf’s early life and his early work. The first movement is marked first Grave and then Leidenschaftlich bewegt (appassionato con moto)The two moods suggest a shattering prognosis and a violent reaction to it. The two themes interact in the music as in the mind. Later comes a measure of relaxation in the following Resolut movement. All is not lost, says the music, least of all the singing voice - as conveyed by the contrasting melody, marked sehr ausdrucksvoll und sangbar.      

   All these initial reactions are part of the first shock wave, registered in 1878. The thematic mat­erial sounds contemporary, homogeneous and (even with the Beethoven influence) typical of the young Wolf. It is organized into dramatic first movement form and contrasting scherzo for the sake of coherent musical structure. Physical and mental events would continue to affect the music. Two years later time would have healed the wound; there were no overt after-effects. The intense inward feeling of relief, almost of redemption, is turned into music by assuming an air of Lohengrin or Parsifal, in a pious halo of high string tone (Ex. 2).



 There follows the Heiliger Dankgesang theme already mentioned (Ex. 3).



This changes to an ominous shuddering figure in thirty-second notes, above which the first violin quotes from the first movement, sollst entbehren (Ex. 4).


   These ideas alternate and recur in complex permutation throughout a long and intense slow movement, part of which is dated July 1880. The ideas clearly embodied in this much more mature music are surely those to be expected a year or two after the initial trauma; relief, thanksgiving and nagging doubt, each with its separate sonorous images which are then articulated as musical form. On this view as on the known dates, the slow movement is correctly placed third, not second as in the original edition. The suggested interpretation also highlights the problem, which Wolf himself found very perplexing, of providing a fitting finale. It took him four years of further development and maturity to realize that his first three movements had perhaps been unnecessarily over-reactive. Again, medical and musical motivations might have interacted, this time to produce almost complete return of self-confidence. There were no significant secondary symptoms as yet; the condition was apparently cured. Even of Faust himself it could be said that "when the devil was well, the devil a saint was he". The insouciant, almost insolent, man-of­the-world irony of the relaxed and tuneful main themes of the finale, written in 1884, is felt as in­congruous in comparison with the preceding tumult of remorse and despair. But it is entirely human, and entirely Wolfian. We hear that the composer is himself again; and himself, in a sense, for the first time. The voice, its tone and its com­ments, are now clearly his own and not his master's. What began as portentous other-worldly Beethoven in 1878 ends as ironic worldly Wolf in 1884.

   This long-range pattern of mood change, the graph of which can also be traced in the music as a whole, is again entirely Wolfian. It takes no special psychological expertise to infer from Wolf's life as from his art that his temperament (whether or not because of his physical illness) was cyclothymic if not overtly manic-depressive. His creative mind moved in phases of dark and bright, de­spair and elation. The D minor quartet on any in­terpretation moves from tragedy via courage and irony into relaxation and even amusement. That progression continues in the restrained but real humor of the Intermezzo in E flat (which for reasons to become apparent is left for later discussion) and culminates in the teasingly sensuous de­light and laughter of Wolf's next work for string quartet.



The Serenade in G (1887)


This is the direct precursor of the mature song writing which began with the Mörike Lieder in the following year. It conveys an immediate impression of freshness, originality and melodic appeal. But I find that, like the D minor quartet, it creates a lingering and disturbing sensation that deep below the sounding surface of the music there are puzzling undercurrents of ideas and images which have flowed in from verbal sources and somehow permeated the composer's mind and his music. This time however the added elements seem more objective and hence more accessible to analysis-a process also favored by clearer and more compact dating and the presence of many contemporary songs for comparison and collation.

   The Serenade in G was composed between 2 and 4 May 1887. The manuscript is headed simply Serenade. Three years later, in a letter to a friend, Wolf referred to the same work as his Italienische Serenade. In 1892 he arranged it under that name for a small orchestra (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, with strings and a solo part for violin, or English horn ad lib.). For the rest of his life, even in Dr. Svetlin's asylum, he sketched new movements, none of which was ever completed.

   It begins with what is evidently an image of tuning up, namely the fifths on open strings in the first violin part (Ex. 5).


Ex. 5




They would soon be heard again in the 1888 song Das Ständchen (The Serenade) with the same significance (Ex. 6).



Less clearly, we can hear Wolfian motifs which in the songs are associated with nighttime (the rocking alternation of two adjacent notes, as in Nachtzauber [Night's Magic]) and with mystery (the juxtaposition of two unrelated dominant sevenths, e.g., to illustrate the mystic song of the mermaid in Seemanns Abschied [The Sailor's Farewell] ). A little later in the Serenade (bars 41-4, Ex.7) the first violin has a two­octave upward flourish, which recurs as a gesture of salute as the singer proposes a toast to his lady-love in Der Schreckenberger (The Devil-May­Care). The decorative grace notes (first violin, bars 79 et seq., Ex.8) are usually a sign of amusement in Wolf, as in the song Der Soldat I.




The explicit re­citative passages declaimed on the cello at bar 303 et seq. Ex. 9) have obvious analogues in the (much later) opera Der Corregidor, where they are heard as speechless but expressive pleading to the heroine. In the Serenade they are accompanied by sixteenth note figures suggestive of mocking laughter. The effect is unmistakably one of irony, the mocking self-parody of a Romantic hero. It is perhaps the first idea of precisely that kind ever to appear in instrumental music - a consideration which might itself suggest some extra-musical source of inspira­tion.


Ex. 9



We have the impression from the outset that the hero, whoever he may be, is appearing in the guise of the first violin. In the first few bars he is, as it were, elected spokesman of the string quartet, after a murmured confabulation. The fiddler's tuning up and flourishes, his song-like melody, his self-mockery, and not least his vague flights of dreamy confusion (bar 180 et seq., Ex. 10)all somehow sound like close characterization. But the second fiddle also makes its voice heard at one point over a sustained guitar accompaniment, as if a different character were being represented.


Ex. 10



    We know from Wolf's letters that he very often imagined scenes and times, places and characters, when writing his songs. Perhaps the Serenade too has a verbal source. If that quest is not wholly vain, the date of composition should indicate at least where the search is to begin. What book was in Wolf's hands at the material time? The answer is that he was reading, and with evident excitement and relish, the works of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. His Der Soldat I, set on 7 March 1887, was followed by Die Kleine (The Young Girl) on the next day, by Die Zigeunerin (The Gypsy Girl) on the 19th, and by Waldmädchen (The Forest Girl) on 20 April. It already sounds like the plot of a romantic novel. Then there was a lull until 24 May, when Wolf composed Nachtzauber. This then was his fifth song in three months, all to words by Eichendorff. No other songs were written in those months; no further songs are recorded in that year. But knowing Wolf's penchant for setting poets rather than poems when the mood was upon him, it is hard to believe that no further Eichendorff songs were sketched in the second half of 1887. On any assessment, however, it is clear that the Serenade was entirely surrounded by Eichendorff lyrics; so a search for its source must begin with an exploration of that territory.

   We are looking not for a lyric poem but, on the contrary, for a work which, though evidently inspiring, was not suitable for setting as a song; a work, furthermore, which provided Wolf with a scenario containing sufficient character and interest to preoccupy his mind over a whole ten-year period, in the same way that he brooded over possible opera libretti; a work, finally, which is re­lated to the Serenade as Faust is to the D minor quartet, yet more directly and less personally, re­placing the earlier sulphurous and doom-laden atmosphere by sweeter airs and lighter moods of love and laughter.

   In the 1864 edition of Eichendorff, Wolf's likeliest source, the poems occupy Volume I. The next volume contains two novels, neither of which has any Serenade echoes. But Volume III begins with that famous Romantic masterpiece, the Novelle (or longish short story) Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts. The Geiger counter of musico­verbal coincidence and correspondence begins to click on the first page, and is soon firing like a machine gun. Here is a Romantic work of ironic self-parody. Its anti-hero is a violinist, just as Wolf was. Like Wolf too he quarrels with his father and leaves his country home to seek fame and fortune in the great outside world. Like Wolf, he finds neither; but he makes lasting friendships and finds lasting love. The identification must have been as deep and complete as earlier with Faust. But this time renunciation itself is being renounced.

   Before long the good-for-nothing hero is romantically enamoured of a lady who lives in a castle. The song most clearly remembered in the Serenade, Der Soldat I, is about a lady who lives in a castle. Its music, at the mention of being in love (“keine, die mir besser gefällt”, Ex. 11)


is practically quoted in the quartet (bars 425 et seq., Ex. 12).



But all the songs listed earlier as having. anticipations or echoes of the Serenade are settings of Eichendorff. Most are attributed to the following year, 1888. But in my judgment all the Eichendorff songs are likely to have been sketched earlier, very possibly as part of the general 1887 Eichendorff inspiration. Furthermore, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts isespecially memorable for its serenading scenes. The word Serenade is in fact unusual in German (to the extent of requiring a note of explanation); but it is the word that Eichendorff uses in this context.

   Interestingly, his “Serenade”, again like Wolf’s, is not “Italian” at first. The scene, however, shifts to Italy later in the book, where a further serenade leads to the recognition of heroine by hero which is the unsurprising yet de­lightfully contrived denouement of the plot. On the occasion the heroine sings to a guitar accompaniment (cf Wolf at bars 335 et seq., Ex. 13) During the jour­ney to Italy and his other adventures, the young violinist-hero is subject to strange dreamy fits (of the kind later called "fugue-states") to which Wolf's fugato episode at bar 180 et seq. provides what sounds like incidental music. The episode is hard to explain on purely formal grounds, even as part of an extended rondo-structure. Indeed, a serenade that recurs in different contexts and disguises with varied voices and expressive episodes itself strongly suggests some correspondingly extended scena in the composer's mind.

   In fact Wolf once described the ideal opera for which he sought all his life, as an amalgam of moonlit nights, sighs of love, the strumming of guitars and the quaffing of champagne. Admittedly these are not novel notions for a Viennese musi­cian in the time of Johann Strauss. But it seems more than coincidental, especially in the light of other correspondences, that all four ideas-guitar strumming,


Ex. 13


moonlight, lovesongs, and a wine party-should all appear in one and the same paragraph of Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (Chapter VIII) as well as in various permutations throughout the book. If Wolf had this text in mind, even subconsciously, as a prototype opera libretto (and it certainly matches his specifications) he might well have felt that one string quartet movement was inadequate. This suggests an explana­tion of the curious circumstance that he kept on trying to make it longer in time and larger in scale. The latter point in particular is puzzling at first. What other composer ever arranged a quartet he composed for orchestra? But in Eichendorff’s story, the relevant serenade actually is for orchestra. We are, furthermore, given some indication of the scoring. Only the bassoon is specifically mentioned. It was played by the footman at the castle. But other characters also play instruments; music and music-making resound throughout the book. Three travelling students are discovered playing oboe, clarinet, and horn; the hero joins in on his violin. Add a flute for the higher counterpoint and you have all the instruments that Wolf needed to turn his quartet into an orchestra. All these characters come together, students and all, for some more music in the final chapter; and both there and in the original serenade the bassoon player gets a special mention from Eichendorff -he twiddles away with great dexterity. In the orchestral version, Wolf writes in some rather tricky extra counterpoint for the bassoon (bars 63 et seq.)Such factual correspondences, read in conjunction with the strong similarities of feeling-­tone, seem to me beyond coincidence. I feel, further, that the congruence of Eichendorff’s masterpiece with Wolf's deepens and enhances our re­spect and affection for each singly and for both to­gether, just as Wolf's song-settings interact with their poetry. So it might be interesting and perhaps helpful if one could discover and explicate a verbal source for Wolf's only other essay in the string quartet medium.


Intermezzo in E flat (1882-6)



As before, the quest for any specific verbal source may prove illusory. On the other hand all Wolf's other mature works have close literary affiliations, and there seems no compelling reason why the Intermezzo should be exceptional in that respect. It too is relaxed and ironic, in a style intermediate between the Serenade and the last movement of the D minor quartet. The complete manuscript is dated October 1886, but it had also been worked on extensively in April of that year. As with the Serenadethe original title was later extended this time to Humoristisches IntermezzoThat may suggest an echo of Heine's Lyrisches IntermezzoBut there are no Heine settings between 1881 and 1888. In the given year of 1886 we find few compositions of any kind. The first (written on Wolf’s 26th birthday, 13 March) was a rather solemn Mörike setting about royal vows of self-dedication, Der König bei der Krönung (The King at his Coronation). It sounds like Wolf dedi­cating himself anew to the service of music. In vain; there was silence until 14 December. This brought the Eichendorff song Der Soldat II, which is in deadly earnest. Next came the rather devout setting of Platen's Christnacht, begun on Christ­mas Eve. On 26 December and again on 24 January 1887, Wolf wrote songs to words by Scheffel - Biterolf (a crusader) and Wächterlied (Watchman's Song).

   Again, both are solemn and earnest; indeed, rather tiresomely so. The mood of the Goethe song Wanderers Nachtliedwhich fol­lowed on 30 January, is even sombre. But then, in a typical cyclothymic progression beginning with the vigorous Goethe setting Beherzigung (Encouragement) of 1 March 1887, that mood gradually swung over into an upsurge of tenderness and elation that swelled into the Eichendorff songs and crested in the Serenade.

   I can discern no clearly indentifiable literary source for the Intermezzo among Wolf's known reading in 1886. But perhaps in any event the search should have begun elsewhere. For it seems prima facie odd that a work which could at any time have been called Humoristisch should have taken its rise among the solemn and somber moods evinced by all the other known works of that year. And sure enough, there is the pointer that the first sketch of the opening theme is dated 3 June 1882. That same month later saw the conception of the famous Mörike setting of the Mausfallen-Sprüchlein. Nascitur ridiculus mus, so to speak. This was the outcome of a mighty talent in a relaxed and generous mood. But it was the first. song for a long time; nor were there any others for a further six months. Additional Intermezzo sketching can be dated to no later than July 1884. Wolf's only song of that year was writ­ten in July - the grimly humorous Die Tochter der Heide (The Daughter of the Heathlands). It was a setting of Mörike, whose name has now appeared thrice in this context.

   To make even a tentative identification, however, one has first to be entirely familiar with the music in actual performance, preferably in many different versions. Wolf's Intermezzo,despite a charm evident even on the printed page, is never performed, let alone recorded. On the musical evidence, any literary source would have to be less complex in structure, less fertile in ideas, than Faust or even Aus dem Leben eines TaugenichtsIt would be expected to contain in some form the idea of a spoken dialogue (first and second violins, opening bars, Ex. 14)



which later becomes emphatic (bars 47-9, Ex. 15). Accented acciaccature are elsewhere indica­tive of suppressed laughter with a touch of malice, as in the Mörike song Rat einer Alten (An Old Woman's Advice) of 1888. Here they are found bracketing a heartfelt sigh (bars 22-4, Ex. 16), in a way that seems very characteristic of Wolf’s expressive language. The later trill passages are surely also meaningful; the varied rondo form gives, as in the Serenadethe impression of an extra-musical idea being converted bodily into musical form.


 Ex. 15

Ex. 16




It seems that such inconclusive pointers as there are, for what they are worth, are rather indicative of Mörike. And that would certainly provide a fitting pendant to previous identifications of Goethe and Eichendorff, thus completing Wolf’s trilogy of tribute to German literature. My own hypotheses are entirely tentative, and would benefit from supplementation. Is it possible that the literary sources of Wolf's Humoristisches Intermezzo may prove identifiable by some reader in the United States of E. Mörike?