Hugo Wolf: The vocal music by Susan Youens*

Princeton 1992 



This magisterial work is aimed much more at academics than at amateurs. It assumes unquestioning acquiescence in feminist and Freudian attitudes (thus Heine’s “Du bist wie eine Blume” is seen as a “sneer at women”) which might at least have been argued, not just asserted as accepted fact. Its style and subject-matter tend to be taxingly technical, e.g. “completely isochronous narratives in an unchanging speed… do not exist [in opera] except as a hypothetical mental construct”… “the initial chain of thirds I-III flatted VI moves upward by interval of a major third/diminished fourth E-G#-C and then moves downward a semitone to dominant minor, thereafter to rise by intervals of a minor third B-D-F# major”. But all Wolfians, of whatever degree or qualification, will find much of absorbing interest in its 400 pages.

       It consists essentially of five major critical essays supplemented by more than 60 detailed musical examples (of which only about half are cited from Wolf) together with 50 pages of notes and some 200 items of bibliography. The theses selected for special study are Wolf’s juvenilia, his ballad-writing, his Spanish settings, his achievement as an opera composer and his sense of humour. These circles intersect, and the author’s approach to them sometimes seems more tangential than central. They certainly cover an exceptionally wide range of learning. As a result, however, they often extend far beyond the declared topic. Why for example devote a dozen pages, together with a photograph and copious music examples, to the so-called “ballad revival” of the plodding Plüddemann, whose productions Wolf despised? No doubt the latter gains immeasurably by such comparisons, which recur throughout the first four sections of this treatise; but not all readers will rate them necessary or relevant.

       They play almost no part in Chapter 5, “Wolf and the Dream of Opera”; so this topic is directly confronted. The result is the most insightful and best-documented account available anywhere of that ignored or misunderstood masterpiece Der Corregidor. Here too, however, academic comparison eventually obtrudes. After a detailed and sympathetic examination the work finally fails, or is failed, because it is allegedly “Wolf at war with Wagner all too audibly”, an inevitably unsuccessful “attempt to compress Die Meistersinger to lied dimensions, to retain Wagnerian dramaturgy and yet alter its substance in [Wolf’s] own ways” which “ultimately did not, and could not, work”. This severe verdict surely relies overmuch on musicological criteria. Many ordinary opera-lovers would welcome a chance of observing the endangered hybrid Wolf alone, on his own territory and his own terms, without worrying about better-protected species. If his profuse orchestral polyphony is really an impediment, his opera could readily be rescored, or even performed with keyboard accompaniment; the original piano part no doubt encapsulates the actual authentic inspiration, just as in Wolf’s opera-fragment Manuel Venegas, which has recently been recorded in its published piano version.

       By the same token, of course, this book is entitled to be treated on its own terms. It has earned deserved acclaim in universities and schools of music; it represents a powerfully impressive intellectual and aesthetic achievement. There has never been a better-informed and more perceptive commentary on its chosen musical subjects in this century; nor is there likely to be in the next. It reviews 100 famous Wolf songs and 50 of his juvenilia, and in doing so it analyses music and words severally in deep detail. Best of all, in my view, are its many insights about the mutually reinforcing effects of both together. These can only be described in non-technical language, because such musico-poetic aperçus are basically personal and intuitive. At this level, the essence of Wolf’s art is distilled and dispensed by Professor Youens with the deft and definitive touch of true authority.


The Musical Times, June 1993 (p. 339) [Eric Sams’s last MT review] © the estate of eric sams