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Wolf, Hugo
1860 - 1903

Hugo Wolf 
Biography by writer and vocal coach Gordon Stewart

Windischgraz, in Styria, is now Slovenj Gradec, in Slovenia. It lies somewhat to the south-west of Vienna, on a line running through Graz to Trieste. If you are born in these middle regions of Europe, your nationality is likely to depend on where the frontiers are on your birthday. In 1860, Styria was a province of Austria, largely German-speaking (three-quarters so) and Windischgraz was thoroughly German, although in the middle of a Slovene area.

Hugo Wolf, therefore, had German parents, though there was some other ethnicity on his mother's side, maybe Italian, probably not. His father was, reluctantly, the third generation to be in the leather business, prosperous enough to begin with, until a disastrous fire, possibly started by a rival, in 1867, clipped away his success, not helped by the Austrian economy, which began to founder at about that time. Philipp Wolf loved music, loved and bought violins. Katharina Wolf was four years older than her husband. They married in 1851, and had eight children, of whom Hugo Filipp Jakob was the fourth, born on March 13th 1860.

All the children learnt the violin, some more industriously than others. Hugo was, from an early age, clearly gifted, taking to the piano readily, showing a sense of perfect pitch (he learnt to tune his instruments obsessively, which irritated his professional tuners) and a rare memory which made it possible for him to go to his first opera in Klagenfurt at the age of eight, and play swathes of it from memory afterwards. The opera was by Donizetti.

His wider schooling showed less aptitude. Private teaching at home, followed by comparatively short periods at different schools didn’t achieve a great deal. After a term in the Gymnasium at Graz, two years at a Benedictine school, at the school he went to in Marburg he progressed steadily down through the grades to reach the bottom of the class. There's a chance that this journey was deliberate, because in music he was making strides, writing a piano sonata, and variations, all untaught, and he wanted to go to the Vienna Conservatoire. His father wasn't in favour, but was persuaded (what else could the boy do?), and Hugo went there at the age of fifteen.

What he got at the conservatoire were lessons in piano, and harmony (a fellow-student in his class was Gustav Mahler), but not in composition, which is what he most wanted. He crammed his evenings with as much opera as possible – Mozart, and Weber, predictably, (and rather surprisingly Meyerbeer), all made impressions on him. But the greatest impact, even more predictably, was made by Wagner. Wagner himself was in Vienna for reasonably long periods at the time, the subject of immense adulation from those who took to his views on art and life. Young Hugo Wolf was proud to have held a door open for him, and even prouder to get an interview with him to show him his music – piano music, at that stage. Wagner wisely suggested that he should come back when he was older and had more experience. There was a Wagner society, and, inevitably, an anti-Wagner faction. The critic Eduard Hanslick was in the forefront of that, stoking up unnecessary anger, and promoting the composer Brahms to be the opposite ideal. Brahms was not eager to be pushed into this position, but it happened all the same, and he was to become an object of hatred in Hugo Wolf's book, even in the unhappy last days of his life.

The great song-writer of the future took his time: not many of the works he listed in 1876 were in fact completed, but they include the major part of three piano sonatas, a violin concerto, more piano music, works for male voice chorus. These were the pieces he gave opus numbers to, a practice he abandoned later. There was nothing remotely like the seventeen-year-old Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade.

His father ran into major financial difficulties, and Wolf had to earn money by giving lessons, and by playing dance music in a local inn. His talents as a teacher were not noteworthy, and though he needed the financial support of his pupils again and again through his life, his skills were never honed, and the pupils who lasted longest were those children of friends who had not much basic ability, but a compliant character, and were happy to hear him talk, or play his own music, or Wagner’s. Wolf had considerable charm when he wanted to exert it.

Naturally, he wanted to write an opera, and that yearning, backed up by the thought of the money it would bring, stayed with him almost to the end. Only one opera was going to see its way into the opera house, and that was some years ahead. Meanwhile, as most of those living or working in Vienna did, he got into the habit of leaving the city in the summer. As a student at the Conservatoire, it meant going home; later it would mean staying at country properties owned or rented by friends.

When he came back to Vienna, in October 1876, he quarrelled with the aunt and uncle with whom he'd been lodging. (In the next three years he lived at some twenty-one different addresses This gypsy style of life was a constant thread running through his life.)

At the Conservatoire, in his second year, he was put into a composition class, with a professor who bored him. It didn’t last – whether he left of his own free will in 1877, or was expelled, isn’t clear. His skills as a composer were going to be acquired by the diligent study of the scores he admired.

He went back home to a highly disappointed father. He began to write songs, in admiration of Robert Schumann. He wrote a symphony, which he lost. He returned to Vienna to compose, and to earn a living by teaching. The Wolf charm stood him in good stead: he made friends, and kept them, for the most part, in spite of behaviour which was not always calculated to make them feel the more important part of the relationship. He continued a nomadic life, changing quarters too often to keep track of – once he slept in the archives of the Court Opera.

Good things happened from time to time. When he was eighteen, he fell in love. Exactly what Wolf's relationships with women were is a matter for speculation. His life was terminated by syphilis, which took a terrible course with him. It’s likely that he contracted it very early on – it wasn't, it seems, unusual for teenage boys to go to prostitutes. Artur Schnitzler, the novelist and dramatist, best-known for his controversial ten-dialogue play Reigen (1897) , filmed in 1950 as La Ronde, made his first trip at the age of sixteen. Wolf had been playing in taverns which may have doubled up as other centres of attraction. For what it is worth, Alma Mahler believed that Wolf got his disease at the age of seventeen.

The girl he fell in love with was Vally Franck, a highly sophisticated creature, and their relationship continued on-and-off for three years, until she ended it altogether. Marriage was not in question for Hugo Wolf, until, possibly, he was in his thirties. His nature, beyond the charm, was unpredictable, impulsive, shy, but at the same time self-centred. Songs became more abundant – settings of Heine were made in a burst of activity in late May-early June 1878. This was another Wolf pattern establishing itself: hyper-activity bursting out of areas of little achievement – he just had had to wait for what he called these days of the “Lodi”.

He was on the move again – six different addresses in something like seven weeks in the constant search for calm. When he was trying to compose, any sound but the ones in his head, and the ones he found at the keyboard (where he wrote) was a fatal distraction. Noisy children, cocks and hens, even finches, were enemies. It’s understandable that when at one time he shared a lodging with two other composers, two of them had to go out so that the third could get down to work. One of the others was Gustav Mahler.

These were the days before Wolf took against Brahms, and he went to consult him. Brahms, like Wagner, was not overwhelmed by what he saw, though his advice to get some good lessons was at least sensible. Wolf didn’t follow it, and in the long run didn’t need it.

In Wolf's day in Austria the young men were called up for military service. Wolf managed to avoid his service two years running, maybe because friends brought their influence to bear. On the third occasion, in 1882, there is a gap in his well-documented life of some weeks, which may well have been spent in the army – a term of service shortened, probably, because of his severe unsuitability.

When he was twenty he finished a string quartet; it has seldom been played. His literary tastes were settling down: Goethe and Heine, (though Heine was never to be a major source), the Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist, and the two writers who so influenced Schumann, Jean Paul and E T A Hoffmann. Schopenhauer's philosophical ideas came with the Wagner package when he became a committed Wagnerian. Wagner turned into something more than an influence, more like the centre of some sort of religious fervour. A debilitating one, to some extent: Wagner was like a huge tree – nothing much could grow under its branches. His shade spread wide: his concept of the Complete Work of Art infiltrated Viennese art and architecture when it fell into the hands of Hans Makart. Makart’s paintings were large and historically angled, if not accurately researched; his Wagnerite passion for history and mythology showed up even in the decoration of major new buildings in Vienna, and in the designs he produced for the annual carnival days.

For a moment in 1881 it looked as if Wolf was going to get the sort of permanent job which would take his money anxieties away from him – or, more accurately, from his friends. He went to work at the opera house in Salzburg, where he was quickly promoted to chorus master. He was expected to coach the solo singers in operetta. His father's anxiety that he had an unsuitable, fiery, temper was compounded by the fact that he had no experience in conducting. In one performance entrusted to him he broke down completely, and at one piano rehearsal, he broke off from what he was supposed to be doing to play Tristan instead. He services were no longer required after two-and-a-half months.

For some twenty months in 1881-2, he wrote little music, but searched actively for opera librettos – a game of hide-and-seek he played throughout his life. But away in the country at the house of friends, he wrote the first of his real Wolf songs – Mausfallensprüchlein, a little poem about a child putting a spell on a mouse trap, to a poem by Eduard Mörike. And with half-a-dozen other songs in his bag he tried to find a publisher.

In 1882 he went to Bayreuth to see Parsifal, in the hope of seeing Wagner. But not doing so. He was reading extensively, could recite pages by the dramatist who excited his imagination – Kleist, the Prussian soldier author, who died in 1811 at the age of thirty-four. He was particularly fired by Kleist's play about the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who breaks the rules of her society by falling in love with a man, rather than regarding him as the male object needed to produce the next generation of woman warriors. It generated in him a tone-poem that would occupy him on and off for three years. It would take yet more time for it to be performed, but it now has a respectable place in the concert repertoire.

While he was writing it, he fell into journalism, thanks to friends who put his name forward. He wasn't a wild choice, even though his experience of writing for money was nil, because the literary skills he showed in his prolific letter-writing provided their own strong recommendation. But he was a wild card, earning a nickname, “the Wild Wolf”. For three years he wrote about the musical life of Vienna for the Wiener Salonblatt, not approaching his task from an angle of Olympian critical principles, (though he was a devoted reader of the classics), but following his own caprices and ideas. This was the imaginative writing that fitted in with the times – a prose poem for Schubert's Octet, wide, fanciful approval for Wagner, and for Berlioz, Weber, Chopin, Schumann’s songs. Vitriol was reserved for the programmes put on by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (not a wise move when it came to getting his Penthesilea performed – they didn’t forget, let alone forgive), and unrelenting scorn for Brahms – “a relic, lacking in originality and ‘exultation’”, a “master of the bagpipe and concertina”. Other non-starters were Meyerbeer, Italian singers, Boito's Mefistofele (what would an Italian know about German literature?). It’s a fascinating list of targets, and he didn’t mind who he offended, even after his editor had done some prudent pruning. In all he produced nearly four hundred pages of criticism. His last article appeared just a couple of days before his father's death. It’s possible there was a connection: he may have been holding on to the job because he knew his father was pleased to see him settled, and gave it up only when he knew the end was approaching. He had had enough: being a full-time critic was not the same as being a full-time composer, and although he had written his serenade for string quartet (later called the Italian Serenade) in 1887, it was scarcely the rate of strike he was aiming at.

In 1888 came his first musical publication, privately funded: twelve of his songs. It triggered his inspiration. He went to stay in an empty house belonging to his friends, the Werners, half an hour from Vienna, in Perchtoldsdorf, a small town. It was winter inside as well as out, cold, ill-lit, the only comfort the coffee-machine without which life was not possible for Wolf. He wrote two songs in January. In February he wrote Der Tambour, the words by Eduard Mörike. Between then and the middle of May he produced forty-two more songs to words by the same poet. He sang them to friends at the weekends, and later in Vienna to the Wagner Association. He was an utterly convincing performer – he would read the poem out loud and then sing it, playing the piano part brilliantly, and using his dreadful voice to great effect.

The year continued with more songs: poems by Josef von Eichendorff – thirteen – and the rest of his Mörike settings – ten. Then Goethe – twenty-five, spilling on into 1889 – (with an odd one later in the year). It’s a remarkable achievement, a kaleidoscope of subjects and the music to make them into new works of art.

1888 ended with a public concert in which Ferdinand Jäger, a Wagnerian tenor just retired from the stage, sang a group of Wolf's songs, accompanied by the composer. Jäger had met Wolf through the Köchert family, whose rôle in Wolf’s life was crucial. He became an earnest advocate of Wolf’s songs, and the most professional of performers. Wolf was not. As long as the singer did what he wanted, he was fine – but there was always the chance that if he didn’t like it he wouldn’t come back for the second half. He hated taking applause, though he longed for approval.

But Wolf was running into the backlash of the criticism he’d doled out to others in his journalist days. He was causing a split in the Wagner Association, some of whose members didn’t want to hear Wolf songs at Wagner meetings.

He began to orchestrate his songs, and produced some two dozen of them over the years. Original songs appeared in dribs and drabs with a small publisher, slowly adding to his reputation. In October 1889 he began his Spanish Songbook, settings of translations made by Geibel and Heyse of poems by Spanish poets, many well-known, like Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Then, with only small pauses, he went on into six poems by Gottfried Keller, and to the translations Paul Heyse had made of anonymous Italian poems. And that was almost it, from a song point of view: just a sprinkling of songs before the last three, settings of Michelangelo in 1897.

A Wolf society was formed in 1890, and it did him good, but the clouds that he had raised at the Wiener Salonblatt began to storm around him. Singers who wanted to include his songs in recitals had to withdraw them when the newspapers threatened to boycott them. In spite of everything, by the end of 1890 things seemed to be going his way.

The next stage was facing up to opera. He had been looking for subjects for years. He’d asked Detlev von Liliencron, another of the colourful poets of the time, to produce a libretto on Shakespeare’s Tempest. Then Wolf suggested he should make over his own drama on Pocahontas. But eventually he settled on The Three Cornered Hat, the novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, published in 1874, later to made into a ballet by Manuel de Falla. Wolf’s title was Der Corregidor. But he was in a composer’s block: after the Italian songs, he’d written no new music, slowly coming to believe that he had lost the ability to do so.

He made tours to promote his compositions. He wrote some incidental music for an Ibsen play (mostly discarded because the orchestra he wrote for was much larger than the theatre orchestra), and orchestrated his Italian Serenade for small orchestra. He finished Christnacht for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which was performed in Mannheim – and earned a succès d’estime, and no further performances. He re-wrote his song Der Feuerreiter for chorus and orchestra, and had it premièred in Berlin, where it caused a sensation.

There were private problems. For ten years since 1884, Melanie Köchert, wife and mother, had been a close companion. Their letters read like love-letters, whether they were lovers or not. Her husband found out, but seems to have taken a complaisant line. Melanie was a devoted visitor during Wolf's last, long illness, and took her own life on the third anniversary of his death.

But in 1894, he fell in love with another woman; how serious he was about wanting to marry her may have had something to do with her wishful thinking. She released him from any obligation to her before it came to the proof.

More importantly, in the same year the first concert devoted entirely to his songs was given in Vienna, and later two of his chorus-and-orchestra pieces were given at the Musikverein: Brahms was there, and seen to applaud. Wolf finally, and almost too late, had some standing in Vienna.

The next year was the year of the opera Der Corregidor. The writer’s block disappeared, and he wrote the music for it, apart from the Prelude, in fourteen weeks. He worked diligently at the orchestration in the days that followed, and finally wrote the missing prelude. He was hoping to be a rich man on the strength of it, as had happened to his friend Humperdinck with Hansel and Gretel. But neither Vienna nor Berlin was interested in giving the first performance, and somewhat reluctantly he accepted the offer of a première in Mannheim, in June, 1896. It was a “great success”, but it was repeated only once, and then withdrawn. Wolf had learned nothing, it seemed, about opera companies since his days in Salzburg. Its history has been decidedly patchy ever since, though there have been modern recordings which show its musical strengths. The general view is that the opera is more like a “song-book” than a drama... Talks with Mahler, by now Kapellmeister at the Vienna Opera, about a production there, came to nothing.

By 1897 some debilitating symptoms of the final stage of his syphilis were beginning to kick in, and he made his last concert appearance in February. Nevertheless, he went on planning another opera, on another Spanish subject, and even wrote some of it. Ironically, his finances were in much better order. The new Hugo Wolf Association made him an allowance, which met the bills for his hospitalisation after September 1897, when his mind began to go. There was a time of remission from his insanity, long enough for him to enjoy some freedom for nine months, and even to have a brief holiday in the Istrian peninsula (still a part of Austria). But in October 1898 he tried to commit suicide, failed, and asked to be put in an asylum. He spent the weary rest of his days there until his death on 22nd February 1903.

Hugo Wolf was buried not far from the graves of Beethoven and Schubert. In a scene not unworthy of one of his songs, the coffin was drawn through the rejoicing carnival crowds of Vienna’s Shrove Tuesday . Most of the city's artistic colony attended his funeral.

Hugo Wolfborn March 13th 1860 Windischgraz, in Styria
died 22nd February 1903 Vienna

The dates of his most important compositions, :

  • Penthesilea,tone-poem 1883 - 5 Mörike songs 1888
  • Italian Serenade for quartet 1887 Eichendorff songsmostly 1888
  • Italian Serenade for small orchestra 1892 Goethe songs 1888-9
  • Der Corregidor, opera in 4 acts 1895 Spanish song book 1889-90 Italian song-book the first part of 23 songs 1890-1 the rest: 24 songs 1896 Michelangelo songs 1897
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