Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

4. BREAKDOWN AND TERMINAL ILLNESS (1897-1903). In March 1897 Wolf composed his last songs, to son­nets by Michelangelo in German translation – the Christmas gift of Paul Müller, the founder of the Berlin Hugo Wolf-Verein. In April 1897 a Vienna Wolf-Verein was inaugurated by the university professor Michael Haberlandt, a staunch support in Wolf's declining years. Meanwhile Wolf had pursued his plans for a second Alarcon opera on the story of Manuel Venegas.

   The theme is sexual jealousy and revenge, as in Der Corregidor, but with dark overtones of violence and tragedy. Perhaps Wolf's mind in its depressive phase was reverting to a febrile subjectivism. The Michelangelo songs, fine though they are, have evident personal application. By 1897 Wolf was clearly a very sick man, whose always unpredictable behaviour was now causing distress and alarm. A medical examination in the previous year had disclosed (though the know­ledge was withheld from Wolf himself) a characteristic loss of pupillary reflex, symptomatic of the incipient general paralysis of tertiary syphilis. Nevertheless he was again ready to compose at fever-heat. A Manuel Venegas libretto prepared by Rosa Mayreder was sum­marily rejected. Moritz Hoernes (a colleague of Michael Haberlandt) produced an alternative version which seemed to the sick Wolf to have a truly Shakespearean quality. In September 1897 he was again sequestered in his apartment working from dawn to dusk on the new opera. He completed some 60 pages of piano score in three weeks; then his mind gave way. He claimed to have been appointed director of the Vienna Opera; thenceforth only his own works (mostly unfinished or unwritten) would he performed. No doubt his madness took this turn because of a recent visit from his old friend Mahler, who had just been appointed opera Kapellmeister and who according to Wolf had promised to do his utmost to stage Der Corregidor in the coming season. The stress of the ensuing excitement, or perhaps the disappointment of a later change of plan, finally unhinged Wolf's already wrenched reason. He called a meeting of his sympathizers, played them his Venegas fragments, told them of his new appointment and his plans for dismissing Mahler and taking over. He was removed under restraint to the asylum of Dr Wilhelm Svetlin. His letters announce grandiose plans for world tours of his own operas with the support of the Weimar theatre. His overheated brain boiled over with insipid music. Some remission ensued and he was discharged on 24 January 1898. He paid inconsequential and disconsolate visits to various resorts and centres (including Semmcring, Graz, Cilli and Trieste) accompanied by his sister and the devoted Melanie Köchert. On 6 March he returned to Vienna, to a new home in the Mühlgasse. That summer he stayed with the KOcherts at Traunkirchen. In October he was seized by another gust of madness and tried to drown himself in the Traunsee. He entered the Lower Austrian provincial asylum in Vienna on 4 October 1898. There his sufferings were alleviated by the love and loyalty of Melanie, whose frequent and regular visits continued unflinchingly until the day of his death on 22 February 1903. Then she gave way to remorse and a slow melancholy. On 21 March 1906 she fell to her death from the fourth-floor window of her Vienna home.

   Wolf inscribed all his song manuscripts to her, as the one who understood him and his music best of all. She lies in the family grave at Hietzing. He is buried in the Vienna Central Cemetery beside Schubert and Beethoven.