Hugo Wolf by Ernest Newman

With a new introduction by Walter Legge. Dover/Constable

Better be a critic than a musicologist. In the light of later research, facts fade; even dates date. It's opinions that survive, if they have been put in the right spirit; for that will preserve them, and may even one day reanimate them. At least, so it seems from this reissue of Ernest Newman's 1907 book on Hugo Wolf. It was magnanimous to praise a recently-dead composer, not to bury him. It was brilliant, after only a few years’ study of Wolf, to perceive what was new and durable in his work. But truths need more qualifications than they get in this book; and its author was content to let it remain out of print for many years. Now it is in many respects out of date. Its 164 pages of biography and catalogue have been superseded by Frank Walker's fine book (itself soon to be reissued with important new material); its 60 pages on the songs have been superseded by Ernest Newman’s own notes for the Wolf Society records, where the writing is 25 years more balanced and perceptive; so why should any­one want it?  

    Well, its 35-page section on the operas is still the best there is; and its other time-honoured features can still show us a few wrinkles. Thus, the section on the songs has survived to become the classic over statement of the case. It has what might be called the qualities of its defects. It goes too far for comfort, as befits a pioneer; it does more praising than appraising, as befits a man in love. Anyone else would surely have noticed the fallacy in an argument which seizes on certain musico-poetic aspects of Wolf’s style, exaggerates the extent to which they are typical of him and essential in song; and thus proves him not only a better songwriter than Schubert, but obviously superior, in some important respect, to Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, Jensen, Mozart, Schumann, Sullivan, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Weber et al. Understandably, this failed to impress those diehards who thought that songs ought to be judged as music. Crying Wolf is one fabulously effective way of arousing resentment, and decrying everybody else is another; so voices were raised on the subject of song, on both sides of the argument, the Atlantic, and the Channel. In the excitement some of the book's pronouncements, though no doubt intended only as rhetorical devices, seem to have strayed into the realm of accepted fact.

    Such nomads still need special reservations. For example, it is misleading lo assert that in Wolf “the melodic accent coincides with the verbal” without adding that it so coincides sometimes just by coincidence, and very often not at all. To refute the thesis one need look no further than the examples which are supposed to illustrate it (pp. 162, 252). Or try a random check in any songbook; the first five Mörike songs, for example, yield some 20 accentuations of the kind which in other composers is called “arrant falsity”. Nor was it in the least “essential for Wolf to choose the finest poetry if he was to Write fine music”, a contention also refuted by much of his work, including many of the examples cited. Again, if Wolf's essential art was really the exact re-creation of poetry, how could he also be “the supreme master of form in music”? Such an art, however exquisite, must be contingent-like that of, the music critic. who is rarely voted the supreme master of form in literature.

    He may nevertheless be adept at expressive writing; and that is Ernest Newman's art here. By rhetoric and metaphor he defines for us the impact made on him by the original beauty and brilliance of Wolf's music, striking in like lightning on a receptive mind left dazed and crackling with delight and excitement. Thus ho renders Wolf the service that Wolf himself is said to have rendered lo lyric verse; the re-creation of feeling. Thus too he exemplifies the belief that Wolf himself shared with many another great artist - what lives is what comes from the heart. This book is all heart; admittedly one-sided, yet central to its subject and all but indispensable. It should have a good circulation.


The Musical Times, Feb. 1968 (p. 143) © the estate of eric sams