Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

2. YEARS OF UNCERTAINTY (1883-7). What trail Wolf should now follow was in no way clear to him or his family or friends. Hanslick had admired his songs, and thought them worth publishing. But first Schott and then Breitkopf rejected them, though in affable terms. Per­haps he was not destined to be a songwriter after all? At this impasse came his third encounter with a great com­poser, this time Liszt, at a meeting (again engineered by the faithful Goldschmidt) in April 1883. Although im­pressed with the songs Wolf showed him, which included Die Spinnerin, Liszt (like Wagner and Brahms) counselled further composition in the larger forms. This again chimed with Wolf's own mood. That winter he had drafted the libretto of a Spanish opera. Now he instantly began work on a symphonic poem based on Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, a drama which (like Faust, and perhaps for the same reason) had long been an obsession of his; its theme is the injuries inflicted by women on men through sexual passion. In Lisztian style it seeks to develop and integrate small-scale motifs into the orchestral tone poem frame. Wolf went again to Bayreuth forParsifal; he spent an agreeable holiday in Rinnbach visiting the Köcherts. But then the tides of inspiration again receded, leaving a barren and featureless shore. He found a new friend and admirer, the writer Hermann Bahr. But by the end of 1883 another depressive phase had set in. There are more sad stories of recrimination and parting, offence given and taken. Wolf quarrelled with his friends the Breuers because of his immoderate language about women. He stormed out of the hospitable house of the industrialist Fritz Flesch because his host passed him a pear on a toothpick not a trifling matter to a sensitive and fastidious syphilitic who had scrupulously spent his infectious phase in enforced isolation.

   The outbursts and estrangements of these and later years have to be viewed in the perspective of Wolf's artistic frustration, his mental and physical case history and the enduring love and solicitude shown by faithful friends. Supreme among them was Melanie Köchert, whom Wolf had been teaching and adoring since 1881. Her husband Heinrich KOchert was the Vienna court jeweller, and had influential friends. Under his aegis Wolf was appointed music critic of the fashionable Sunday Wiener Salonblatt. But there was nothing merely modish in Wolf's writing or in his readership, the new and growing public for music criticism fostered by Hanslick yet left dissatisfied by the latter's intran­sigent anti-Wagnerism. Into this vacuum Wolf rushed headlong. Notoriously, he did Wagner more than jus­tice, and Brahms less. But it would be wrong to see his outspoken critiques as merely partisan or their anti­Brahmsian thrust as merely retaliatory. They are not only a literate and lively mirror of the age; they have a special interest for the Wagner scholar, for there can hardly have been anyone at the time who was more articulately knowledgeable about the operas. Above all, they afford significant insights into Wolf's own creative mind.

   The three-year spell of criticism was useful as a voca­tion and a discipline, but it inhibited composition. Although Wolf took a long summer holiday in each of the three years 1884 to 1886, his comparative quietude was not matched by comparable peace of mind. The sardonic turbulence of his prose is well matched in his only song of this period, the Mörike setting Die Tochter der Heide, written during a sojourn with the Köcherts at Rinnbach in July 1884. It was probably at this time that he and Melanie Köchert avowed their mutual love. The last movement of the D minor Quartet was also sketched in the same summer. Some fragmentary sketches for another Kleist play, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, about the conflicts between love and duty, convention and temperament, date from August, when Wolf was visiting his sister Modesta and her husband Josef Strasser at Oblarn; this time love is a saving grace, not the destructive force of Penthesilea. On an outing with Strasser Wolf met the folk poet and singer Johann Kain, and was entranced by his songs. By October 1884 Wolf was back in Vienna writing reviews and vainly striving to arrange performances or publication of his own works. He resolved to devote the coming summer to completing, for submission to the Philharmonic Orchestra, his Penthesilea and Prinz Friedrich von Homburg music. The latter remained fragmentary, but in September he called on Richter with the score of Penthesilea and was promised a trial later that year. Wolf felt that he was at last gaining a foothold, and indeed he had been making a name for himself as a critic. Sadly, it was a hated name. Among those Wolf had mauled was Sigismund Bachrich, whose pretensions as an opera composer had been pointedly deflated. But Bachrich was the viola player of the famed Rose Quartet; so Wolf was naive in submitting his D minor Quartet to them for a hearing. It was returned with a woundingly worded note signed by Bachrich on behalf of his colleagues. Worse still, Penthesilea was put on trial in every sense. Its rehearsal on 15 October 1885 was (whether or not with Richter's connivance) a fiasco. Bachrich was in the orchestra, and Richter made some disparaging remarks (which Wolf overheard) about people who dared to criticize so great a master as Brahms. Such comments were wholly predictable and unsurprising. It was Wolf's turn to be lacerated. His critiques continued with unabated vigour; but his own music was aborted or stillborn. It was not until October 1886 while on holiday with the Strassers (now living at Murau) after some embarrassing contretemps, including a grave eye injury sustained while playing with the children's toys, that he completed his next viable work, the Intermezzo in Eb, for string quartet. At the turn of the year he began work on Christnacht, a setting of Platen for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Wolf himself described it as uniting two aspects of the Christ child: naive and childlike, yet conquering and redemptive. Again the impulse seems intuitively self-expressive. Similarly all three songs of 1886 (Der König bei der KrönungDer Soldat Biterolf) and the first three of 1887 (Wächterlied auf der WartburgWanderers Nachtlied,Beherzigung) have texts relating to various aspects of staunchness and resolution in the face of adversity. At last the music affirms a confident sense of purpose and vocation. Finally in 1887 Wolf attained a new plateau near the summit of mastery. The impetus was provided by a change of route from subjectivity towards the sonorous re-creation of imaginative literature, a concept frequently cited by Wolf the critic as a touchstone of excellence. So it proved for Wolf the composer. From March to May 1887 he was inspired by the vitality of Eichendorff's poetry about lightness in love (Der Soldat I) or the bewitching power of women (Die KleineDie ZigeunerinWaldmädchen) and of nature (Nachtzauber).Between these last two songs he composed the highly original Italienische Serenade for string quartet (2-4 May). Its relaxed and amused irony may also have owed its conception to Eichendorff. whose novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts offers many a textual correspondence with Wolf's life and music and includes an Italian serenade.

   There could now be no further doubt in Wolf's mind about the fact of his gift, though its actual nature remained unclear to him. He had written his first mas­terpiece, and his last critique. At that moment his father was suddenly taken ill, and died on 9 May, thus being denied his son's later triumphs but spared the final tragedy. Hugo, summoned by telegram, was a solace at the end, but then became himself inconsolable. Hardly another word was written or another note composed in that year. He needed affectionate support and encour­agement; a mainstay had gone. Help came from Friedrich Eckstein, whose library and conversation had enriched and influenced the young Wolf in his earlier Vienna days and who now performed the further signal service of persuading a publisher (perhaps with some financial inducement) to bring out two volumes of Wolf's songs. From among his manuscripts of many years Wolf selected six women's songs and six for male voice, to be inscribed respectively to his mother and to his father's memory. The project induced a tumultuous creative euphoria.