Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

8. STAGE MUSIC. Analogous difficulties inhere in Wolf s stage music. The brilliant pictorial writing of his first completed work of incidental music, the Elfenlied (a setting of 'You spotted snakes' from A Midsummer Night's Dream in German translation), aroused acclaim at its first performance, about which Wolf wrote (to Kauffmann, 11 January 1894) that the orchestration `so glittered and glowed in moonbeams that you could for­get to hear for sheer seeing'. The Ibsen play The Feast at Solhaug (again in German translation, as Das Fest auf Solhaug) presented fewer opportunities for quasi-visual effects, and the music was commissioned in an otherwise fallow phase; but the processional entrances and choruses are typically evocative. Whatever the quality of Wolf s invention, his stage music, like his song orchestrations, suggests the deliberate extension or enlargement of a smaller-scale original inspiration.

   The operas are no different. As Wolf told Potpeschnigg (9 July 1895) the piano score as it stood served as the orchestral sketch for Der Corregidor. Further, the Wagnerian texture and scoring (Wolf's orchestra is larger than that of Die Meistersinger, with­out which, as he wrote to Rosa Mayreder on 1 June 1895, his Corregidor music could not have been writ­ten) are possibly too inspissated for the sunny mood and milieu of the well-known storyEl sombrero de tres picos. Wolf told Ferdinand Lowe that Bizet's task in Carmen was far easier because of the comparative lack of orchestral polyphony; and perhaps a lighter texture would have worn better. In Wolf's treatment, the three-cornered hat is not only a symbol of universal authority but also has overtones of the eternal triangle (for instance when the power of the Corregidor's motif is heard dominating that of the supposedly cuckolded Tio Lukas). Wows well-documented obsession with themes of sexual jealousy and tension, which darken to stark tragedy in Manuel Venegas, may well have been highly personal in origin. The motivic techniques of Der Corregidor seem to reflect that obsession in their insis­tent repetition. The Wolfian lied motif inevitably becomes obtrusive when used as a Wagnerian leitmotif, serving narrative and dramatic ends as well as the lyric purposes for which it was designed. Thus the five-note Tio Lukas theme is heard nearly 100 times in Act 1, serving variously as character study, stage direction, cross-reference or general background. It is relevant that Wolf himself in rehearsal took little interest in stagecraft or decor: even in the operas, his musical world remains that of inward imagination rather than visual presenta­tion. It is thus not surprising that the dramatic structure of Der Corregidor has been much criticized, and with some plausibility: for example most of Act 4 is recapitulation of themes and events already familiar. Nor is the musical material always of the finest, perhaps partly by design (e.g. the Alcalde's banal motif may be intended as character-drawing), partly because not all the libretto was equally inspiring, and partly because of Wolf's deteriorating health.

   Such objections have far more force when levelled at the 600-bar fragment of Manuel Venegas than at the completed Der Corregidor. But the latter is rarely per­formed, and has never belonged to the standard opera repertory. It has been excluded because of disparity rather than inferiority; and it might more rationally be regarded as a success in a new genre than as a failure in an old one. Thus the often striking discrepancy (to which Frank Walker has drawn attention) between the characters as embodied in the music and as observed on the stage becomes both meaningful and effective when considered as a Wolfian equivalent for dramatic irony. The musical style too is novel. As always it derives from the German text, and is hence less complex and intense than the generality of Wolf's songwriting. The prototypes are the two songs orchestrated specially for inclusion (In dem Schatten meiner LockenHerz, ver­zage nicht geschwind) in a sweetened but refreshing dilution of the lighter Spanish songbook essence. Whatever the defects of dramatic structure, each separ­ate scene has a songlike vividness of invention.

   There are thus grounds for supposing that Wolf, had he lived, might have evolved new forms intermediate between song and opera. Both his operas are based on short stories; he could profitably have continued his exploration of Eichendorff, Morike and Goethe by quasi-dramatic presentations of their novellas for voices with piano solo or duet or with chamber orchestra; Der Corregidor too might prove viable in such a guise. Conversely, Wolf might have extended his Span­ish or Italian songs on similar lines, benefiting from the example already set by Schumann (e.g. in his op.138). Alternatively Wolf might have returned to songbooks inspired by the dramatic or plastic qualities of original German poetry (by Rilke for example), although in the light of Wolf's known views and traceable development this seems less plausible.