Wolf, Hugo (with Work-List)

9. CRITICAL WRITINGS. Wolf as a critic shared with his contemporary Bernard Shaw the deliberately provo­cative and partisan stance of the standard-bearer. Both were notoriously fervent advocates of Wagner and browbeaters of Brahms; both have lasting value as the spokesmen and interpreters of their own musical times and trends. Prose was not a creative medium for Wolf, and he resisted republication of his reviews on the ground of their stylistic shortcomings. But his writing has enough of the trenchancy and immediacy of his music to render it readable and often memorable, affording further insights, both for him and his readers, into the nature of his art. First, regular reviewing and concert-going gave him much-needed discipline and ex­perience, as well as a new understanding of the nature of language and its relation to music, including his own. His critiques revealinter alia his own attitudes and criteria. Style and content alike are indebted to Schumann, whose conception of music as mood- or scene-painting (‘Seelengemälde’ or ‘Tongemälde’) Wolf wholeheartedly endorsed and adopted. Wolf envisaged music as essentially a transitive mode of expression using symbolic equivalents for human thought and feeling, whether directly or as. reflected in external nature. Both these latter aspects unite in Wolf's intuitive depiction of music in terms of organic life and growth. For him, absolute music was a waste ground choked with academic works like weeds. He hated any hint of the cerebral or the contrived (as in fugues and pedal points). Bodily malfunction or discomfort are recurrent metaphors for musical unacceptability. The following (on Brahms's First Piano Concerto) is typical – 'The air that blows through this composition is so icy, dank and foggy that it could easily freeze your heart up and snatch your breath away; you could catch a cold from it. Unhealthy stuff!'. Good music, however (including some by Brahms, such as the G major Sextet), is as regularly compared with nature, springtime, fresh founts of healing and many another such symbol of wholesome emotive life.

   Further detailed criteria are inferable from other obiter dicta. Wolf had a deep sense of commitment to his own time and place, his own society, class and nationhood (German rather than Austrian). He man­ifested a passionate concern for human values, as vested not only in individuals but in the whole nexus of social function and interrelation. The musical equivalent is opera, especially Wagner and Mozart. Wolf's criticism fastens on all aspects of stage spectacle and presentation considered as parts of the total musical artwork –action, costume, gesture, speech and stage-effects. Every page testifies to the visualizing and dramatizing mind at work in his own songwriting, in a ceaseless quest for vividness and immediacy of effect. His ancillary absorp­tion in language is evidenced by his unselfconscious recourse to metaphor and quotation from modern and classical literature. Finally Wolf's critical insight into his own expressive mode of music is predictably penetrative; thus he noted (Kritiken, p.52) that the forms and contents of the greatest symphonic poems (those of Liszt, in this context) are, no less than their thematic material, derived from the literary works that inspired them.

   That aperçu defines Wolf's own achievement. It was his mission as he saw it to compose in a new musical language expressing the closest imaginable relation to words and their gamut of visual, auditory or other symbolism. In this endeavour his declared aim was truth to life; as he wrote to Emil Kauffmann (5 June 1890)For me the sovereign principle in art is rigorous, harsh and inexorable truth, truth to the point of cruelty’. Here is the link between his four years as a critic and his lifetime as an artist. He expressed the truth about the human condition as he apprehended it, as keenly and as stringently as he could. It was his assigned task (letter to Schmid, 14 June 1891) to cultivate that gift to the furthest limit of his powers. When he could no longer compose, as he told Rosa Mayreder, he was fit only for the dung-heap.

   His sense of purpose and mission gave Wolf's life and art their fierce concentration, their characteristic burning intensity of expression. His vision was limited by its close focus on those points where words and music intersect or coincide. But within that specialized lyric field he has claims not only to greatness but to supremacy.