Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

7. MATURE SONGS. Wolf's Mörike songs were above all original. All the contemporary critiques had the word `new' in their titles – new springtime, new life, new songs. Wolf himself wrote of the novel aspects of his musical language. Yet he did not define them; and the evidence suggests that their essential originality was not wholly grasped, perhaps not even by their creator, much of whose songwriting is manifestly in the main lied tradition. He and his audiences felt that he was contin­uing the line of Schubert and Schumann, without radical departure. Wolf himself thought it worth pointing out (letter to Emil Kauffmann, 21 May 1890) that even his boldest harmonies were justifiable by reference to ac­cepted theory. Much of his mature work uses folk or popular song. His well-known solicitude for the choice and treatment of words is by no means invariable and in any event represents a difference of degree rather than kind from the practice of his predecessors. Well over half his texts have no pretension to poetic greatness or even excellence. Even the rest can be treated cavalierly: thus the accentuation can go astray (e.g. 'Leibrösslein' in Der Gärtner) and the subtler declamatory effects are quite often second thoughts inserted at proof stage. Er ist's has repeated phrases and Das verlassene Mägdlein uses an unauthentic text, no doubt under the influence of Schumann in both instances. On occasion Wolf could repeat a whole strophe without textual justification (Benedeit die sel'ge Mutter) or tacitly omit one (Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt). He could embellish his texts with his own insertions or inventions (Die Zigeunerin) or simply mistranscribe them (there are several textual errors in the manuscripts or even in the first editions). He could deliberately add a new meaning unintended by the poet ( Wer rief dich denn). Even his practice of calling his songbooks 'Gedichte von' Eichendorff, Mörike or Goethe was anticipated and perhaps prompted by Schumann. The same applies to his choice of transla­tions, for example, from the Spanish. Finally Wolf's notable spontaneity of composition was hardly different in kind from that of, say, Schubert in 1815 and Schumann in 1840. All three composers no doubt planned and sketched beforehand and revised after­wards.

   Nevertheless Wolf was original, and in four main ways. First, he seems to have planned in advance the contents of each volume (e.g. the Spanish songbook: letter of 12-November 1889 to his sister Käthe), rather as if the artistic unity is not the poem as such but the songbook considered as representative of the poet or source. Secondly, it was his practice to preface a perform­ance of each song by a recital of the text: the words were separately acknowledged as a vital part of the artwork's content as well as its form. Thirdly, Wolf was reluctant to set a poem which he considered had already been successfully composed – a view which presupposes that a musical setting is more like a translation or objective critique than a personal commentary. His songbooks are thus perhaps designed as anthologies, as homage, and also as critiques or translations. They make no sense, have no being, apart from the text which has breathed its life and essence into the music. Fourthly, this essence is dramatic.

   It follows that Wolf's art is a means of framing, embodying, presenting, enacting, the life of words. As a corollary, the piano has a more important role than with previous songwriters; and melody does not necessarily predominate. It is in this sense that Wolf compressed Wagnerian music drama, leitmotif, orchestra and de­clamation into voice and keyboard. Perhaps it was this feeling of historical mission that led to his lifelong obsession with large-scale composition even though the appropriate forms and techniques were among his own acknowledged weaknesses. He even felt himself stifled y Wagner – with whom he was never in serious conten­tion. He began to resent the title of songwriter. At the very moment when his true genius was first revealed to himself and the world he could still write (letter to Strasser, 28 March 1888): For the moment they are admittedly only songs'. On the very day when that inspiration had at last begun, he could still be preoc­cupied (to Lang, 22 February 1888) with extemporizing a comic opera at the keyboard. Even with three great songbooks completed he could still lament (to Grohe, 1 June 1891) 'I'm beginning to think that I have reached the end of my life. I can't go on writing songs for another 30 years'. Next (again to Grohe, 12 October 1891) comes the astoundingly anguished cry 'I really and truly shudder at the thought of my songs. The flattering recognition as "songwriter" disturbs me down to the very depths of my soul. What does it signify but the reproach that songs are all I ever write, that I am master of what is only a small-scale genre?'. Finally Wolf's eventual madness took the form of, and was probably provoked by, a megalomaniac obsession with operatic composition and performance.

   There are perhaps three main reasons for this fixation. Songs were still generally held to be an inferior art form; Wolf as an expressive composer craved the maximal audiences attainable only through opera and symphony; his genius was in fact for dramatic music, though in a condensed form. No wonder he aggregated his songs into composite volumes comprehensive enough to yield extended recitals and programmes of planned contrasts, with at least a potential appeal to a mass audience. Further, each major songbook contains linking motifs designed to relate the single songs to a larger conceptual scheme, as with Eichendorff songs 9­10, MOrike songs 2-3, Goethe songs 39-40, Spanish sacred songs 8-10, Italian songs 42-3.

   The songbook is thus itself the large-scale dramatic form. With the 20 Eichendorff songs (mentioned first because nearly half of them were written before 1888) Wolf lifted the curtain on his singing theatre of the imagination. There everything is made of music – con­struction, action, character, plot and sub-plot, narrative, gesture, mime, dance and song, costume, scenery, and even stage properties and effects, including lighting. Piano preludes set the scene or delineate character. The songs are conceived as tableaux vivants viewed through the proscenium arch of the song form. As Wolf told Emil Kauffmann, he always imagined a background to each of his songs, and the examples he gave (the goddess sitting on a reef in the moonlight, playing her harp, in Gesang Weylas; a chorus of wise men joining in the refrain of Cophtisches Lied I) go well beyond anything described in the text. So his submission to poetry was far from slavish. Yet the verse does in fact give each song a formal framework which the instrumental music is sometimes felt to lack. In a sense therefore Wolf's structural sense has certain defects which the poetry is called upon to redress. On the other hand the musical response is so varied and flexible that Wolf might as justly be hailed as a master of form. The poems are more often strophic than their settings, which strive towards free evolution and development. Even in stro­phic song, unchanged repetition is rare; more typically the melody, for example, is varied to highlight a par­ticular word, such as süsserin Um Mitternacht. Unity is usually attained by the main factor common to music and poetry, namely rhythm. This may reflect either the metre or the theme of the poem: thus in Jägerlied the rare trochaic pentameter appears as 5/4 time, while in Fussreise the piano maintains a steady walking rhythm.

   A repeated rhythmic figure may suggest an obsessive character or gesture (Rat einer AltenMühvoll komm ich und beladen) while changes of basic rhythm serve to imply (as it were by modulation) a change of mood or meaning (AgnesGrenzen der Menschheit). A piano melody or figuration may suggest words by its rhythmic shape (postlude to Komm, Liebchen, komm!). Regular piano rhythms can provide a patterned lattice for vocal melodies to curve and stray around, anticipating certain words or syllables, lingering over others, with the effect of a written-out rubato (e.g. stumm’ or ‘heilig’ in An die Geliebte), whether, as there, to enhance the poetic mean­ing or, as often in the Italian songs, to create a new one. Occasionally too Wolf would prolong a word that es­pecially pleased him (e.g. ‘geflügelt’ in Die ihr schwebet). Such devices are to be distinguished from their operatic or Wagnerian counterparts. The Wolfian vocal line con­veys a current of poetic feeling, deriving character from verbal inflection and not vice versa. His melodies vary from complex nuance to straightforward singability in folk or popular style, as the context requires. The coun­terpoints of voice against piano, already noted in the earlier songs, are greatly developed from 1888 onwards. A typical example is Lied eines Verliebten, where the isolated left-hand melody is a symbol of separation. This image is further intensified in such songs as Mein Liebster singt am Haus, where the independence of the piano part embodies the excluded lover. Thus Wolf could create not only decor (by distinguishing fore­ground from background) but also dramatic irony (by presenting two different levels of involvement simultan­eously, as in Bei einer Trauung). Autonomy in the piano part also permits a quasi-symphonic motivic develop­ment reflecting the changing moods of a poem (Auf einer WanderungIm Frühling). Piano interludes can link con­trasting sections of a song and so suggest continuous action, whether in narrative or ballad forms (Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt) or, more rarely, in lyric modes (e.g. in Fussreise, where a modulating piano interlude leads back to the original theme).

   Similarly Wolf's harmonic usages are attuned to his texts, whether as single words or whole poems. An example of the former is at froh und traurig’ in Alles endet, was entstehet, where a major and a minor inflec­tion speak respectively of joy and sorrow. Again, aug­mented 5ths mean increasing intensity (Das verlassene Magdlein) even to the point of parody (Nimmersatte Liebe), while second inversions at cadence points give an impression of peroration (‘da bin’ in Wohl denk ich oft). But such short-range or local effects are comparatively rare. More generally, Wolf's harmonic procedures provide a framework isomorphic with that of the poem, within which particular aspects can be highlighted; for example, successive mediant modulations convey the idea of increasing lightness, as in In der Frühe and Morgenstimmung. This is the sense in which it was important for Wolf that his harmonic language should remain, as he said, traditional. He needed chromaticism and dissonance in order to create new expressive intensity. At the same time the constraints of his song form require such effects to be readily relatable (whether in terms of affinity or contrast) to some recognizable tonal centre. Thus the modal harmony of Auf ein altes Bild sets that song apart from the rest of the Mörike volume and from contemporary music generally; the music is as it were seen, like the poem, through a haze of time. Within that song, the single acute dissonance at Kreuzes Stamm’ throws that phrase into high relief, again in parallel with the poetry. Conversely, chromatics or dissonance can be relieved by touches of diatonic harmony (as in Mir ward gesagt, among many examples) yielding effects of relaxation from tension, or simplicity within complexity. More specifically, the introduction or recurrence of the tonic major can be delayed, so that its eventual arrival brings a sensation of repose and fulfilment (Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen); or the major form of a minor tonic can restate an idea in a brighter mode (Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?). Such contrasts and juxtapositions are the essence of Wolf's songwriting, as of his mentor Schumann's. Among the corollaries are personal verbal associations with certain keys. Thus in Wolf extreme flat or sharp keys express nervous tension, in contrast with the bluff plainness of C major (Gesellenlied); A major suggests springtime (Frühling übers Jahr), and so on. Of course there are exceptions; but such associa­tions, usual in all songwriting, are especially manifest and significant in Wolf, and a study of them is relevant to interpretation and performance (e.g. the desirability of transposition).

   Such effects shade into overt musical depiction, at which Wolf was also adept. Examples abound, ranging from imaginative embroidery to frank onomatopoeia. Widely spaced chords suggest hollowness and reverber­ation (Der Feuerreiter); upward chromatic runs and bare 5ths convey disappearance into thin air (Der Rattenfanger); glissandos and other flourishes depict extravagant gesture (Der Schreckenberger); acciac­caturas mean laughter (Rat einer Alten). There is a lute in Nachruf, a harp in Gesang Weylas, a violin in Wie lange schon, a guitar in the Spanish and serenading songs. One hears a spinning-wheel in Die Spinnerin, gunfire in Unfall or Der Jäger, a carillon in Zum neuen Jahre or St Nepomuks Vorabend, whips in Gesellenlied and Selbstgeständnis, a donkey's bray in Lied des trans­ferierten Zettel, birdsong in Das Vöglein, bees in Der Knabe und das Immlein, horses' hooves in Der Gärtner and perhaps Auf einer Wanderung, and so on.

   In all this a major share of expression inevitably falls to the pianist, not only in the ballad tradition of pictorial interludes, in which Wolf was no doubt influenced by Loewe, but also in the newer vein of grandiloquent quasi-orchestral device found in Wagner transcriptions. The piano equivalents of string tremolandos express a pulsating intensity or a rapport with the moods of Nature (the thunder in Prometheus or Der Jäger). In general the upper reaches of the piano symbolize lofty thoughts, spiritual aspirations, the starry sky (An die Geliebte), while the low notes of the left hand sound out the depths of darkness or despair (Neue Liebe). Such symbolism is in the lied tradition of Schubert. Wolf's allusions are further enriched by directly Wagnerian resonances, sometimes deliberate (the affectionate al­lusions to Die Meistersinger in Gesellenlied), sometimes perhaps less so. An example of the latter is Die Geister am Mummelsee, where the poem speaks of a funeral procession (Totengeleit’); and the piano part is evocative of the cortege of Titurel (‘Geleiten wir’) in Parsifal. But far more characteristic and ubiquitous is the new-minted motif, again usually entrusted to the piano part, which serves both to express a poetic idea (e.g. sadness, love, isolation, mystery, freedom, sleep, among many others) and to create musical structure.

   Examples are manifold; none is wholly typical; each belongs inseparably to its context. The following illus­tration exemplifies not only the Wolfian motif but also perhaps a connection between his creative inspiration and his personal experience. For many years he suffered from insomnia; and poetry about solitary wakefulness and movement at night evoked a definable though varied musical response. A repeated figuration in the piano right hand is underlined by a left-hand theme in single notes. This motif first appears in the Körner Ständchen of 1877. The opening words describe the silence of the night; lovers' thoughts alone are awake. At the following idea of being surrounded by nocturnal phantoms (mich umschleichen ... nächtliche Gespenster) the left-hand single notes surround the repeated right-hand chords, on both sides. In the 1888 song Auf eine Christblume I,Mörike's description of deer grazing at twilight evokes the analogue shown in ex.1.

The same music, decorated and transposed an octave higher, later depicts the activi­ties of an elf at midnight. InGutmann und Gutweib this motivic idea recurs at the words 'Im Bette liegen beide nun'. The old folk are lying in bed, deliberately keeping awake. In Lied eines Verliebten the whole song is about staying awake at night; the entire piano part assumes the basic shape described. The same is true ofAlle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh. The association persists in Act 2 of Der Corregidor (1895) as Frasquita keeps her nocturnal vigil (scene iii) or as Manuela gropes her way in the dark (scene x). The same Gestalt underlies each example. By such means (characteristic of the lied) Wolf could ex­press a wide-ranging diversity of mood, scene and char­acter. Human feeling is symbolized either directly or through images of external nature (the so-called 'pathetic fallacy').

   This is also the essence of Wolf's first source of inspiration, Eichendorff, whose works contain all the necessary elements of scenes and characters (soldiers, sailors, students, musicians) with their good or bad humour or fortune and their happy or unhappy loves, whether for God, man, nature or fatherland. Wolf's selection from these texts is, perhaps intentionally, more broadly representative than the nature- or love-poems already set by Schumann. A further constraint was Wolf's determination not to use poems which had already, in his view, been definitively set to music. Mörike's complex quasi-symbolic style and imagery needed a correspondingly advanced musical language; so Wolf's settings had few precedents and no rivals. His choice was accordingly unfettered; but again it con­centrated on themes of people and places conceived as actors and scenes. The difference is one of degree: Mörike's characters and landscapes are drawn with far more depth and definition than Eichendorff's (whose art Wolf later came to regard as somewhat superficial; cf his letter to Kauffmann of 7 March 1894). In particular the themes of humour, both broad and sophisticated, and the supernatural, whether in the context of orthodox religion or of fairy tale and folklore, are far more fully developed in the Mörike songs. The music is correspondingly more intense and diversified, for example with evocations of folksong (Das verlassene Mägdlein) and other popular strains (student song in Nimmersatte Liebe; Viennese waltz in Abschied). Styles and forms are more ambitious and panoramic, with Wagnerian as well as Schumannesque components, especially in religious songs (KarwocheWo find ich Trost). Some of the piano accompaniments seem orchestral in range and scope (Neue LiebeDer Feuerreiter). Elsewhere, themes and structures are designed to convey a sense of movement through vistas both spatial (Auf einer Wanderung) and temporal (In der Frühe).

   This sense of extended musical frontiers and horizons is even more manifest in the Goethe settings. The lyric style is just as intense (BlumengrussGleich and Gleich); but the ballad style has become more diffuse (Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt) and the piano writing even grander in conception (PrometheusMignon: 'Kennst du das Land'). Further, Goethe's poem offers a new rich source of quasi-dramatic background and effect. Both Eichendorff and Mörike had incorporated their lyrics into their novels; Wolf set several such examples. But these poems are separable entities, whereas the inter­spersed lyrics in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister are integ­rally related to plot and character, so that Wolf's music designedly sets context as well as text. Much the same is true of theWestöstlicher Divan poems. The characters of Hatem and Suleika are not merely costume parts assumed by the poet and his mistress; they also inhabit a whole secondary world, a notional orient peopled with other characters from cupbearers to sultans. From that world it is no great journey to the Spanish songbook, which not only contains fine poetry (e.g. by Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Camoens) in skilled translation (by Heyse and Geibel) but also offers the elements of national character and local colour that Wolf increas­ingly needed for his musico-dramatic projections.

   In consequence his own musical style is again in transition. Wolf had now exhausted German poetry of the necessary quality and quantity, and the translations to which he turned were no longer, despite their tech­nical excellence, the source of direct verbal inspiration. With the Spanish songbook, therefore, it is not the lyric as such but its substructure of ideas and concepts that serves as the foundation for musical setting. The result (already foreshadowed by some of the Westöstlicher Divan songs, such as Was in der Schenke waren heute) was a new autonomy for the composer, who now became less dependent on an intuitive response to poetry. Wolf the partial poet was gradually supplanted by Wolf the complete musician. Rhythmical motifs, dance patterns, accompaniment figures, recurrent refrains, formal structures, begin to dominate the musical expression. Folk music, nature studies, humorous songs, ballads, all disappear. The themes and styles that persist in the Spanish volume are the religious (the first ten songs) and the erotic (almost all the rest); and these become more personal and more intense.

   The six Keller songs of 1890 revert to the earlier themes of character study and psychology, with oc­casional symbolic allusions to nature (as in Wandl ich in dem Morgentau): here, as before, poetry is the main source of inspiration. But in these songs Wolf was work­ing against the grain of his own development, which may account for the sometimes perceptible effort entailed in their composition. With the Italian songbook, begun at the end of the same year, the established trend was resumed with increasing momentum. All the lyrics are anonymous; all have the same translator, Paul Heyse (as compared with only about two thirds of the Spanish songbook, in each respect). Wolf was now con­fronted with a polished and uniform poetic style with no creative personality of its own; the lyrics were thus a blank page on which to inscribe his own know­ledge of human feeling. There are no religious themes as such; all the poems are in some sense love-songs. In consequence the style becomes totally unified and inte­gral. Previous songbooks had contained the separately identifiable strains described above as Wagnerian and Schumannesque. This still applies in part to the Spanish volume (thus Bedeckt mich mit Blumenis Tristanesque, while the lighter songs, as well as the textual source as a whole, recall Schumann's Spanish vein). In the Italian songs all such sources merge into Wolf's basic four-part style. The forms are further concentrated by the brevity and metrical pattern of the lyrics. Here Wolf finally succeeded in compressing the universal picture into the miniature frame; so these songs are the epitome of his art.

   Wolf may well have sketched in 1890 many more of them than he then completed. The Italian settings of 1896 maintain the same style; perhaps not all were newly composed in that year. The 'manuscripts of two of them, Gesegnet sei das Grün and O wär dein Haus durchsichtig, bear the marginal annotations Phönix no.1’ and ‘Phönix no.2 respectively, suggesting that these at least were new inspirations. Other late songs however seem lacking in fresh invention. Thus the Michelangelo songs of 1897, though they contain much fine music, are in part palpably indebted to earlier songs (compare for example the postlude of Fühlt meine Seele with those ofPeregrina I and II); texts and treatment alike suggest that despite the ostensible character-drawing Wolf was reverting to the self-expressive subjectivism of his early songs. His mental breakdown and terminal illness (1897-1903) were only six months away.

   Wolf completed some 20 separate song orchestra­tions as well as two for incorporation in Der Corregidor. The form is intermediate between what might be called the compressed opera of his songbooks and the expanded songbooks of his operas. The hybrid has not proved fertile: the works are rarely performed. Yet Wolf himself thought tflem important; and most of them date from 1890, one of his most prolific songwrit­ing years. Their purpose was not only to reach a wider public but also to deploy even greater expressive power and device, whether to broaden the scene-painting (e.g. the thunder and lightning effects in Prometheus) or to brighten the sound-painting (e.g. the chromatic runs in Der Rattenfänger). But Wolf also invoked the orchestra for depth of feeling. Thus even the tiny but intense lyric by Lenau, Scheideblick (?1876-7), was sketched in an orchestral version. Similarly Gesang Weylas remains lyrical in conception even when scored: its added horn counterpoints aim at enhanced intensity. But in general Wolf's aim was to convert his miniatures into oil paint­ings suitable for wider exhibition, whether in the concert hall or (in his own works) the opera house. The trans­ition is perhaps most convincing in static tableaux such as Prometheus or Auf ein alter Bild. Where motion is to be depicted, the heavier textures tend to slow down the action: thus in Der Feuerreiter the articulation of added voices both choral and orchestral, at the required speed, presents grave problems of ensemble. Similarly the grace and fire of the Italienische Serenade are harder to achieve in the orchestral version.