Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)


 5. Early vocal works. 6. Instrumental works. 7. Mature songs. 8. Stage music. 9. Critical writings.

5. EARLY VOCAL WORKS. At first, Wolf had little inkling of his goal. He was even misdirected by his own refrac­tory temperament and a preoccupation with large-scale forms. As compensation, his extremes of mood commanded an analogously wide range of expression, while his obsession with opera concentrated his mind on musical techniques of characterization and atmosphere. Further, his self-willed and poetic nature constrained him to voice and keyboard rather than to such social or academic disciplines as chamber music or orchestration. So his strengths were early if unwittingly bent towards the compression of large-scale forms and ideas into the lyric frame. The essences of grand opera, tone poem and expressive symphony – as exemplified by Wagner, Liszt and Bruckner, Wolf's three most admired masters – were to be distilled and concentrated into song.

 lines themselves are keenly expressive of poetic stress, cadence and significance. From the first Wolf's word-setting has recitative inflections with touches of cad­ential pointing and plainsong repetition perhaps not un­influenced by his background of church school and choir. This thrust towards verbal expressiveness led him to explore choral writing for mixed- or male-voice chorus, accompanied or a cappella, at the same time as the earliest songs. Linear independence and significance are sometimes taken to the point of ungrammatical over­lapping (e.g. in Die Stimme des Kindes, 1876). There are also deliberate contrasts of texture, for example, of solo with half-chorus (Grablied, 1876) or full chorus (Letzte Bitte from the Sechs geistliche Lieder, 1881, the culmination of Wolf's work in this genre). Here too the basic idea is a quasi-dramatic presentation; voices in three and four parts are used as accompanimental back­ground for a solo voice, again with effects of isolation and contrast. One corollary is that the piano part of a song can be quasi-vocal; and this is another highly origi­nal and fertile source of expressive effect. Even the ear­liest songs (e.g. Du bist wie eine Blume, 1876) can show traces of the four-part (almost four-voice) texture that later became a staple style – as acknowledged by Wolf himself; a letter to Melanie Köchert of 7 July 1897 announces the discovery that the piano part of Führ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem is in effect a four-part chorus. This texture too may reflect the early environ­ment of the boy organist; it appears electively in songs of devotion, whether sacred (as in that example) or secular. Another possible influence was Robert Franz, who acknowledged his own indebtedness to the Protestant chorale. Any early imprinting would have been strongly reinforced by the strict grounding in four-part harmony that Wolf received at the Vienna Conservatory, and then by the simultaneous impact of Wagner's operas. Even without Wagner, Wolf's own bold linear independence of melody would have led him to poignant discords, striking modulations and fluctuating tonalities, as well as to effects of counterpoint and canon and other such melodic interplay whether between voice and accompaniment or within the four-part keyboard texture.

   Not surprisingly, Wolf's early attempts to cultivate what he later called 'the infertile ground of absolute music' (Musikalische Kritiken, p.50) proved fruitless or 'abortive. Even his native ground of musico-poetic ex­pression had to be prepared by deep reading. Goethe and Heine lyrics led him to their settings in Schubert and Schumann and thence to a study of expressive tech­niques in piano music as well as songwriting. Wolf ex­perimented by crossing all these strains into new hyb­rids. Thus his Heine setting Wenn ich in deine Augen seh (1876) has a piano part derived from a Schubert impromptu, while Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen (1878) uses the Brahmsian device of a vocal line related to the piano theme by augmentation or diminution. But the main influence was Schumann. Wolf's early works for piano (sonatas and variations) soon yielded place to Schumannesque genre pieces (Humoreske, 1877). At the same time he was composing equally Schumannesque piano songs, that is, a lyric piano solo the melody of which serves as vocal line. This style proved quickly viable, as in Morgentau (1877), the earliest song Wolf adjudged worthy of publication. Yet the influence was sometimes inhibiting. Thus a marginal note on the un­finished manuscript of Was soll ich sagen? (1878; a Chamisso text also set by Schumann) reads ‘Zu viel Schumannisch; deshalb nicht vollendet’. The essential lesson was soon learnt, by Wolf as by Schumann: the addition of a declamatory vocal line to an independent piano part yields a new stock of expressive device. For example the piano can depict a convivial scene, the protagonist's isolation from which is expressed in the voice part (Sie haben heut Abend Gesellschaft, 1878; cf  Schumann's Das ist ein Flöten and Geigen). The vocal

   At first all these devices tended to be used for their own sake, or for self-expressive purposes. But gradually they served to illustrate and enact a poetic mood. For example in In der Fremde I (1881) the contrasting melodic lines in voice and piano enhance the poet's theme of separation, as in some forms of operatic duet. The task of distilling an operatic essence into voice and keyboard was dramatically eased by the techniques of piano reduction used by Karl Klindworth and others, in their vocal scores of Wagner operas. Wolf's own Wagner paraphrases (c1880) presage the piano parts of his later songs, both in their part-writing and in their transcription of orchestral effects such as string runs or tremolandos. He could also call upon the melodic and harmonic vocabulary of French or Italian opera, or the popular styles of folksong or student song, all familiar to him from his own early music-making. Further, even the early songs already show abundant evidence of an innate and developing capacity for inventing vivid motivic equivalents for poetic ideas and using them constructionally, in the Schubertian lied tradition, as the building-blocks of the song form.

   But these apprenticeship years were far richer in promise and potential than in actual achievement. By Wolf's own stringent but not unjust criteria only a dozen of the 100-odd songs he wrote before 1887 were worth publishing. There is of course much to admire, as in the Reinick and Eichendorff songs of 1882-3; but the early works tend to be fallible both in form (e.g. the overemphatic postlude of Andenken) and in content (sometimes obviously derivative). Such flaws can be traced to a failure of objective concern for the poem as such. The outpouring of personal emotion often fails to fit easily into the miniature form. Wolf was more likely to succeed in larger-scale instrumental music, where the link with words, though still vital, was not a criterion of excellence. In this respect too he had much to learn which would later be of service to him as a song­writer.