Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

6. INSTRUMENTAL WORKS. These are brilliant concep­tions rather than finished works of art, and hence present difficulties of appreciation, evaluation and per­formance. The first was the D minor Quartet, begun in 1878. Wolf had recently contracted syphilis; his score bears the Faustian epigraph Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren’, which the opening motifs seem to declaim. The Beethoven influence is so manifest (e.g. Grosse Fugein the powerful leaps and dissonance of the histrionic Grave introduction, and the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso of the F minor Quartet op.95 in the Scherzo, marked `Resolut') and so unusual (it recurs only in the 1888 Mörike song Der Genesene an die Hoffnung, sig­nificantly about recovery from mortal sickness) as to suggest that this too is a consciously expressive device. It is as if Beethoven were being deliberately invoked, as another Faustian archetype of the suffering hero. (The claim, now largely discounted, that Beethoven was syph­ilitic would have been a recent talking-point among musicians in Vienna.) Wolf's lyrical slow movement (dated 1880) begins with a Wagnerian symbol of re­demption, an overt homage to the 'pardon' motif in Tannhäuser, as if the work were further designed as a Pilgrimage through despair by way of faith and fortitude to final recuperation. On that assumption the much lighter last movement of 1884 with its touches of ironic in­souciance is musically anticlimactic yet humanly convincing. The music was written as the experience was lived. By that time Wolf was 24 and had regained his composure and (as he thought) his health. On this auto­biographical interpretation the right order of move­ments in performance would be the logical time-sequence: Grave – Leidenschaftlich bewegt; Resolut; Adagio; and Sehr lebhaft (not, as in earlier editions, with the second and third movements transposed). Thus con­sidered, this extended and complex work has the unity and novelty which, as absolute music, it might be held to lack. On any analysis the genuine (if sporadic) power and expressiveness of its thematic details are undeni­able.

   The composition of this quartet overlapped with the even more ambitious orchestral work Penthesilea, begun in 1883, which also displays, though in differing proportions, the same admixture of derivation, self-expression, originality and poetic inspiration. This time the last of those qualities is paramount, and the music verges on greatness. There is ample testimony to Wolf's obsession with Heinrich von Kleist's drama of the Amazon queen who leads her warrior-maidens to Troy, becomes enamoured yet jealous of Achilles, and finally avenges her subjection to him, in both love and war, by inciting her war-hounds to tear him to shreds. Under the smooth classical surface of Kleist's blank verse rages an erotic turbulence. The appeal to subconscious motive anticipates Freud. Wolf at the time still had reason to be preoccupied with the idea of male vulnerability to the traumata of love. His scoring, including four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba and harp as well as a full complement of wind, strings and percussion, aims to re-create the epic scale of the conflict as well as the heroic stature of protagonist and antagonist. The music creates panorama (extremes of orchestral pitch and dynamics, with antiphonal trumpets on each side of the orchestra, like battle signals) as well as character, situa­tion and emotion (motifs for the passionate Penthesilea, the noble Achilles, war marches, love-feasts and snarl­ing hounds, interspersed with pleading recitative).

    Wolf had given much thought to the structural prob­lems of the tone poem. He ardently admired the sym­phonic poems of Liszt, who had inspired this work both by personal suggestion and by example. Wolf felt (Kritiken, p.52) that unity in this new genre was to be attained by deriving form as well as content from the poetic source. It is not immediately clear how this end is best subserved by Wolf's chosen structure. The two short preludes (Departure of the Amazons for Troy’; ‘Penthesilea's Dream of the Love-festival’) presumably depict the dual nature of the heroine, ferocious yet tender; their contrasting motifs derive from the same basic theme. There follows a long final development section (‘Conflicts, Passions, Madness and Destruction’) in which all the themes are freely metamorphosed, de­veloped and confronted so as to present the elements of the drama both collectively as mood-painting and con­secutively as narrative. The work may thus be con­sidered as an opera without words, condensed into an overture. Against the background of Kleist's drama re­enacted in Wolf's imagination the music can appear not only powerful but profound. Otherwise its construction may seem diffuse and even obscure (for example the main theme of the last movement is not heard in its entirety until bar 832), and its instrumentation (as Wolf himself came to acknowledge) not wholly secure. These factors could account for its rejection in both rehearsal and repertory and also help to explain, if not extenuate, the prodigious and unauthorized cuts imposed by its first editors.

   Much the same characteristics might have been predicted of Wolf's projected incidental music to Kleist's better-known drama Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, where the conflict lies among love, duty and individual self-fulfilment, which again were questions much in Wolf's mind at the time. This music remained fragmentary; but the Penthesilea patterns are again discernible in the completed work Christnacht for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Here Wolf (as he wrote to Oskar Grohe, 26 February 1891) aimed to symbolize the duality of the Incarnation – innocent child, trium­phant hero. Again there may be some element of sub­conscious self-portraiture; little enough of such search­ing themes can be inferred from Platen's poem about the night of the Nativity, with its chorus of angels and shepherds. Wolf adds a chorus of believers, for good measure. The handling of such large choral and orches­tral forces (the latter much the same as for Penthesilea, but with the percussion scaled down to timpani only) is rather beyond Wolf's technical competence (again, as he later conceded), despite his natural flair for orchestra­tion; the published score contains revisions by Reger and Foll. The formal structure, however, is clearer than in Penthesilea because the words provide the necessary frame of reference. The music is again highly original in conception; and this time the Lisztian or Wagnerian influences are better assimilated. The work is Wolfian in its colourful interweaving of solemnity and simplicity. The latter is effectively symbolized by a traditional carol melody, recalled from a provincial boyhood, which is scored and presented with a lightness of touch that suggests a corresponding lightness of mood. By 1886, when the main thematic material of Christnacht was conceived, the sombre canvasses of Wolf's creative imagination were being replaced by bright miniatures, beginning with the Intermezzo in Eh for string quartet. Its main theme had been sketched in 1882 and left to germinate in a sunnier climate of mood. In summer 1886 it grew into a rondo with episodes and varied restatements all so cunningly derived from the main theme as to suggest different aspects of the same charac­ters linked by dialogue or colloquy with a hint of dance-measure. Nothing is known of any literary background, though a verbal source would seem prima facie plaus­ible. The effect is of expressive music written to an unknown programme; one clue is Wolf's later reference to his 'Humoristisches Intermezzo'. A comparison with his contemporary songwriting suggests Mörike as a possible source for this slight but spirited and engaging piece.

   The next instrumental work, also for string quartet, was the Serenade in G (later called by Wolf 'an Italian Serenade'; letter to Kauffmann of 2 April 1892). With this work Wolf at last attained expressive if not formal mastery. As with the Intermezzo, there is no avowed literary source. But the Italienische Serenade (2-4 May 1887) was composed during a phase of Eichendorff settings (7 March-24 May). It is thematically related to the first of them, Der Soldat I, about love for a lady who lives in a castle. The Eichendorff novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts has that same theme; central to its plot is an Italian serenade. The novella contains a lyric (Heimweh) which Wolf had certainly set by the following year, and perhaps sketched at this time. Its hero is a young musician, a violinist, who leaves his country home and his grumbling father, to seek his fortune. He soon charms everyone with his gifts, or antagonizes them with his inconsequence. Wolf could hardly have found a more congenial or compelling self-portrait in all German literature. The novella also con­tains a serenade played by a small orchestra, for which Wolf later arranged his work. The original string quar­tet however is preferable in the transparent lightness and delicacy of its texture; and though it is not without technical problems (e.g. of ensemble at the required tempo) the string writing is far more relaxed and as­sured than in the early D minor Quartet. The Serenade too, like the other instrumental works, is novel in both content and form. Its rather diffusely episodic rondo structure with ironic quasi-recitative passages gently parodying romantic love, again in conformity with the Eichendorff style, suggests an unspecified programme. Again there is a strong sense of motivic writing deliber­ately presented and developed so as to suggest character (the dominance of the solo violin), speech (the recitative passages), colloquy (the duetting melodies), scene-painting (the conspiratorial assembling and tuning in the prelude), gesture (the sweeping fiddle flourishes) and instrumentation (the thrumming guitar imitations). It may not be coincidence that Wolf's own description (to Oskar Grohe, 28 June 1890) of the kind of opera he would one day wish to write (the strumming of guitars, sighs of love, moonlit nights, champagne banquets) is closely paralleled in Eichendorff's Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (chap.8). This in turn may account for Wolf's ten-year preoccupation with the arrangement and development of hisItalienische Serenade music, in close parallel to his preoccupation with opera.

   In 1887 this dramatic lyricism brings Wolf's music in the Serenade and the Eichendorff settings on to a new and high plateau close to the summit of songwriting. The upward thrust may have two sources of impetus. First, the music seems to derive directly from words and ideas without any serious subjective intervention. Second (and perhaps the point is related), Wolf's two basic creative moods merge into a balanced integration. They may be described as gravity and levity or (as in Christnacht) sublimity and naivety; their tutelary deities are Wagner and Schumann. The early songs had tended to one extreme or the other, sombre or sparkling (com­pare Ein Grabwith Mädchen mit dem roten Mündchen, both 1876, or Zur Ruh, zur Ruh!, 1883, with Mausfallensprüchlein, 1882). A similar dichotomy is discernible in the instrumental music where the con­trasts of mood are linked by monothematic techniques which later appear in the songs. The polarities are separ­ately exemplified in Wo wird einst and Gesellenlied, both written on 24 January 1888. Thus these two strong currents converge only three weeks before the Mörike song outburst.