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The Songs of Hugo Wolf


Audiences still find Wolf difficult. They flock to Liederabende devoted to the songs of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann or Strauss; but Wolf, one of the greatest of all Lieder composers, they find difficult. Touring North Germany with the Italienisches Liederbuch, Helmut Deutsch once found the songs described by the press as „fast vergessene Lieder“ (‘almost forgotten songs’), and although complete performances of the Italian Songbook are relatively common in Great Britain, entire recitals devoted to Wolf’s other songs are rare. Fischer-Dieskau relates in Hugo Wolf. Leben und Werk (Henschel, 2003) how Georg Szell asked him after a Mörike-Abend in Lucerne: „Weshalb singen Sie so etwas überhaupt? Das ist doch gar keine Musik!“ (‘But why do you even sing such stuff? It’s simply not music!’)

Melody is the stumbling-block. The melodic line of most nineteenth-century Lieder composers is essentially cantabile. It’s possible – though scarcely recommended – to perform many songs by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann without the words, without a singer, but with an instrumental obbligato. Or as vocalises. The meaning of each song would, of course, go out of the window, but it would be possible – even pleasant. Think of the many wonderful transcriptions of Schubert Lieder by Liszt. 

With Wolf’s Lieder this is generally not the case. Exceptions such as ‘Fußreise’, ‘Verborgenheit’, ‘Der Gärtner’ merely prove the rule; and it’s significant that it was precisely these songs that Wolf began to criticize with some bitterness when they were so frequently performed. He wrote to Karl Mayr (15 March 1897) that he considered ‘Verborgenheit’ to be „abgedroschen“ – hackneyed. In a letter to Oskar Grohe of 16 May 1898, he referred to it, along with ‘Fußreise’ and ‘Der Gärtner’, as „Vorspeisen leichterer Kost“ – a rather light hors d’œuvre. And Grohe, in a letter of 26 September 1904 to Wolf’s first biographer Ernst Decsey, described Wolf’s fury at the way singers programmed ‘Verborgenheit’ rather than other songs of his: „Immer singen’s, als wenn ich nix Anderes geschrieben hätte. Einstampfen laß ich das Lied noch.“ (‘They always sing it, as though I had written nothing else. I shall have the song pulped.’). These wonderful Lieder became popular because of their melodic immediacy, but they were not, in Wolf’s view, typical of his art.


Wolf’s greatest Lieder are different. Take the Harper’s songs from Wilhelm Meister, for example. Schubert, Schumann and Wolf all approached these poems – the loneliest in all Goethe – in different ways. The pathological nature of the Harper’s character in ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’ is painted by Schumann with the help of manic splashes of sound, frenzied repetitions and virtuoso pianistic flourishes; Schubert’s way in his Gesänge des Harfners is simpler: plaintive, heartrending melodies all in A minor, his key of disenchantment and derangement that he was also to use in ‘Der Leiermann’. Wolf, on the other hand, portrays the Harper’s madness through intense chromaticism, daring dissonances and a seeming absence of tonality – not easy for the listener used to the cantabile quality of Schubert’s melodies. The main focus in Wolf’s songs, as he explains in a letter to Karl Mayr of 22 April 1897, is the piano, not the vocal line; and it is for this reason that the title-pages of his songbooks state that the songs were not written for ‘voice with pianoforte accompaniment’ but rather for ‘voice and pianoforte’. The influence of Wagner is unmistakable, not only in the quasi-orchestral piano writing, but also in the often tortuously chromatic harmonies that so disturbed some of his contemporaries, and that some audiences still find difficult today. Discussing the way in which Wagner and Wolf treat text, Ernest Newman writes in his biography of Wolf (1907): ‘The vocal music of Wagner and Wolf is ‘unvocal’ only for those who cannot understand it. They do not understand it because, whatever their musical culture may be, they are deficient in poetic culture; they can sing but they cannot think; they are musical instruments, not human beings.’ Put more gently: it is only possible fully to appreciate the power and beauty of Wolf’s songs through active engagement with the poem.

Time and again Wolf allows the vocal line (as in ‘Im Frühling’ and ‘Auf einer Wanderung’) to weave its way in and out of the piano accompaniment to highlight details of the poem. Vocal line and accompaniment both have their own raison d’être – the miracle is the way in which he fuses the two. And to express this lyrico-dramatic style, he preferred singers who did not sing too beautifully but also sought to interpret the poem. The baritone Theodor Reichmann, for example, is taken to task in two of Wolf’s reviews (13 February and 13 March 1887) for his bland renderings of Loewe’s ‘Edward’ and ‘Heinrich der Vogler’. „Eine Löwesche Ballade verlangt ebenso Auffassung als Stimme“, he writes (‘a Loewe ballad requires interpretation as much as a [beautiful] voice’).

Wolf was not the first composer to call his songs Gedichte (Poems) instead of Lieder or Gesänge but he was the first Lieder composer who consistently designated his great song collections in this way; and as Detlev von Liliencron tells us in his poem ‘An Hugo Wolf’, Wolf also, out of admiration for Mörike, ‘set the poet’s portrait on the first page’:

Vorn im Mörike-Heft,
Auf erster Seite,
Hattest Du, Bescheidener,
Des Dichters Bild verehrend aufgestellt.
Welcher Tonsetzer that je so?

In the Mörike volume,
On the first page,
You, modest man,
Had set the poet’s portrait in admiration.
What composer ever did that?

Wolf was well aware that audiences might find his songs difficult. Describing a private recital of some of the Goethe-Lieder that he gave in October 1890 to a select group of friends, Wolf wrote a letter to Melanie Köchert (12 October 1890) which gives vent to his despair at ever being properly understood as a composer:

Im Ganzen gewann ich den Eindruck, daß ich nicht verstanden wurde, daß man zu sehr mit dem musikalischen sich beschäftigte u. darüber das Neue u. eigenartige meiner musikalisch-dichterischen Auffassung vergaß.

On the whole I gained the impression that I had not been understood, that people were concerned too much with the musical element & had thus lost sight of what is new & original in my musico-poetic conception.

There is, however, nothing forbidding about Wolf’s songs – he was capable of writing melodies that were as memorable as Schubert’s and there are, especially in the Mörike-Lieder, many passages of great diatonic beauty when he finds a remarkable number of ways to deploy simple triadic progressions, as in the chiming bells of ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ and ‘In der Frühe’, the harp-like arpeggios of ‘An eine Äolsharfe’ or the devout harmonies of ‘Gebet’ and ‘An die Geliebte’. And although in a letter to Oskar Grohe of 22 February 1896 he writes that he detests programme music („Ich hasse alle Programme“), his songs abound in the most delightful tonal analogues, every bit as beguiling as Schubert’s: birdsong in ‘Karwoche’, lutes in ‘Nachruf’, gunfire in ‘Unfall’, a donkey’s bray in ‘Schweig’ einmal still’, a spinning-wheel in ‘Die Spinnerin’, bees in ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein’, cuckoos in ‘Lied des transferierten Zettel’, a violin in ‘Wie lange schon’, alpine bells in ‘Abendbilder’, a guitar in ‘Deine Mutter, süßes Kind’, a tambourine in ‘Klinge, klinge, mein Pandero’, a harp in ‘Gesang Weylas’, a carillon in ‘Zum neuen Jahr’, gusting winds in ‘Begegnung’, cantering horses in ‘Der Soldat I’, thunder in ‘Der Jäger’, a river in ‘Heimweh’, the hiss of a snake in ‘Verschling’ der Abgrund’ and so on.


In other ways too, Wolf has much in common with the great Lieder composers who preceded him. Like them, he repeats text. Although there are only two examples of word-repetitions in the Italienisches Liederbuch and five in the Spanisches Liederbuch, his songs abound in repetition – of single words, of phrases and occasionally of whole stanzas. Repetition as a means of highlighting emotion is something that all the great Lieder composers employ and Wolf is no exception. Many of the songs in the Mörike-Lieder repeat phrases to memorable emotional effect. Consider the swooning repetition of „wie süß bedrängt ihr dies Herz“ in ‘An eine Äolsharfe’; the manner in which the repeated „doch in der Mitten“ in ‘Gebet’ mirrors the poet’s sudden realization that there IS a solution to his emotional problem; or in ‘Der Gärtner’ the repeat of „Nimm tausend für Eine/Nimm alle dafür!“ – to an altered dynamic – that speaks volumes about the gardener’s lascivious intentions. And like other Lieder composers, Wolf will sometimes use inauthentic versions of a poem (‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’), omit verses (‘Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt’), or add interjections of his own (‘Die Zigeunerin’). Nor is his prosody always faultless; like all Lieder composers he can on occasion be ‘guilty’ of false accentuation – the Mörike-Lieder, in particular, reveal a number of prepositions set as strong downbeats. When the shape of the melody demands it, as in the delectable curveting of the horse in ‘Der Gärtner’, he will sacrifice correct accentuation: „Auf ihrem Leibrößlein“ instead of „Auf ihrem Leibrößlein“ and „durch die Allee“ instead of „durch die Allee“ – with wonderfully expressive results.

It is strange that some audiences should still find Wolf so inaccessible, when in the realm of comic song he (and Carl Loewe) hold such indisputable sway. Wolf’s admiration for Loewe is well known: Gustav Schur in Erinnerungen an Hugo Wolf tells us that Wolf preferred Loewe’s setting of ‘Erlkönig’ to Schubert’s; and Heinrich Werner in Hugo Wolf in Maierling describes how Wolf would sing Loewe’s ‘Archibald Douglas’ over and over again. Wolf was only nine years old when Loewe died, and he was quite clearly influenced by the older composer, especially in his comic songs. There is an abundance of humour in almost all of Wolf’s great collections: the Eichendorff-Lieder are full of memorably earthy portraits of students, scholars, sailors, soldiers; the Italienisches Liederbuch bristles with weirdos, lascivious would-be monks, a dwarf lover, an impoverished lover, a nymphomaniac with 21 lovers; in the Mörike-Lieder Wolf gives full rein to his imagination to present us with cackling storks, a hungover poet, a critic who’s booted downstairs to the strains of a Viennese waltz, a nubile young girl holding a phallus-like fish in her hands, and a withered old woman dispensing didactic advice; while the Goethe-Lieder brim with witty bibulous songs.

The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf has been written in an attempt to make his Lieder more accessible. Books on Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert have been published which contain the texts and English translations of all their piano-accompanied Lieder: Paul Reid’s The Beethoven Song Companion (Manchester University Press, 2007), Eric Sams’s The Songs of Johannes Brahms (Yale University Press, 2000) and Graham Johnson’s encyclopaedic Franz Schubert. The Complete Songs (Yale University Press, 2014) with translations by Richard Wigmore. No such book exists on Wolf – only Eric Sams’s pioneering The Songs of Hugo Wolf (Methuen, 1961) which, despite illuminating comments on the music, merely prints English paraphrases of the German songs that were published in Wolf’s lifetime.

Birthplace of Hugo Wolf

The volume is also designed to give us a better understanding of Wolf the man. Rosa Mayreder writes in her Erinnerungen an Hugo Wolf how the composer, when asked by a music magazine to supply a portrait and a biographical sketch, answered: „Ich heiße Hugo Wolf, bin am 13. März 1860 geboren und derzeit noch am Leben. Soviel genügt Biographie.“ (‘My name is Hugo Wolf, I was born on 13 March 1860 and am still alive. That’s enough biography’). And elsewhere in the same essay she recalls how he once told her: „Wenn jemand bloß mich, meine Person, liebt und schätzt, so pfeif’ ich darauf. Meine Werke, meine Musik muß er lieben und schätzen, für die muß er sich über alles interessieren – meine Person ist dabei ganz Nebensache.“ (‘I could not care less if people just love and appreciate me as a person. It’s my work, my music that they must above all be interested in – my person is irrelevant.’). Although The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf contains no essay on his life, extensive biographical details can be found in the chapters on Chronology and Correspondents, in the numerous footnotes and the many quotations from his letters.

Wolf was one of the most gifted and prolific letter-writers in the history of music – for which reason all extracts are given in both German and English. Many of his letters were written in a rush. Two or even three letters a day were as common as two or three songs a day and he would sometimes write over 30 letters a month, to friends, relatives, lovers, publishers, patrons, singers, critics and impresarios. 1896 was the most prolific year with over 300 letters/cards. By liberal quotations from his correspondence a picture emerges of a man full of contradictions: arrogant, domineering, uncompromising, vulnerable, eccentric, loving, loyal, disloyal, witty, scatological, child-loving, childish, manic-depressive, euphoric, inconsistent, well-read, cruel, kind, grateful, selfish, unpractical, impetuous, megalomanic, irascible – and, at the end of his life, insane.  

The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf means exactly that: this volume contains the texts and translations of all the poems he set to music: piano-accompanied Lieder, a cappella songs, and songs with choral and orchestral accompaniment, such as ‘Elfenlied’ from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ‘Christnacht’, a setting of August von Platen’s poem about Christmas Eve. Fragments are listed under each poet but the poems are not included. Wolf’s rate of composition was erratic. When inspired, songs flowed from his pen at a rate that was almost unprecedented in the history of Lieder, comparable only to Schubert’s outpouring in 1815 and Schumann’s in 1840. Most of his great song collections were characterized by such frenzied bursts of activity, but when the mood was not upon him, he fell prey to a creative paralysis that caused him untold suffering, which he described in countless letters to friends, such as this outburst to Oskar Grohe on 12 June 1891:

Mit dem Komponieren ist es rein aus. Ich glaube, daß ich wohl nie mehr eine Note aufschreiben werde.

I have finished composing. I think I shall probably never write another note.

The first period of extended creative inertia lasted from 1883 (after his failure to interest a succession of publishers in his songs) to February 1888, when suddenly the floodgates opened with the composition of the Mörike-Lieder. It was during these barren years that he worked as music critic for the Wiener Salonblatt, a post procured for him by Heinrich Köchert, the husband of his mistress Melanie. The second period ran from the end of 1891 (after he had finished Book I of the Italienisches Liederbuch) to March 1895 when he began the composition of his first opera, Der Corregidor – three years during which he composed hardly a note of original music. When suffering from writer’s block, Wolf would often orchestrate already existing songs: he wished to reach a wider audience and harboured megalomanic ambitions of becoming a great orchestral and operatic composer.


For Wolf was not content to remain a mere song composer all his life. He became increasingly disillusioned by the small-scale format of his works, despite the perfection of his final songbook. The title of ‘songwriter’ became anathema to him. In a letter to his friend Kauffmann of 1 June 1891, he complains that he cannot continue to write songs for another thirty years:

Unmöglich kann ich doch 30 Jahre hindurch noch Lieder od. Musiken zu Ibsen’schen Dramen schreiben. Und doch wird es nie zur heissersehnten Oper kommen. Ich bin eben am Ende. Möge es bald ein vollständiges sein – ich wünsche nichts sehnlicher.

There’s no way that I can spend the next 30 years writing songs or incidental music to Ibsen’s plays. The fervently longed-for opera will never materialize. I’ve reached the end. May it come soon and completely – that is my most ardent wish.

Instead of being flattered by the increasing success of his Lieder, he saw in the public’s praise an implied reproach that he was master of what was only a minor genre, as he writes in this despairing letter to Emil Kauffmann of 12 October 1891:

Wahrlich, mir graut schon vor meinen Liedern. Die schmeichelhafte Anerkennung als „Liederkomponist“ betrübt mich in die innerste Seele. Was anders will es denn bedeuten, als eben einen Vorwurf, daß ich immer nur Lieder componire, daß ich doch nur ein kleines genre beherrsche u. dieses nicht einmal vollkommen.

Truly, I have come to dread my songs. The flattering recognition I’ve gained as a ‘song composer’ makes me sick at heart. What else does it mean, other than a reproach that I only ever write songs, that I am only master of a small genre, & do not even have complete mastery of that.

After Der Corregidor, he planned a second opera Manuel Venegas, but by 1897 tertiary syphilis had set in and his mind gave way. When Mahler, a friend of long standing, proved unable to stage Der Corregidor, Wolf claimed to have been appointed Director of the Vienna Hofoper in his stead. He was eventually removed to an asylum. The letters of this period describe plans to tour the world with his own operas, as we read in this unhinged letter from the asylum to Heinrich Potpeschnigg, dated Vienna, 6 December 1897:

Nach meiner Freilassung (vermutlich am 15. d. M.) übersiedle ich sofort nach Luzern, wo ich mein ständiges Quartier aufschlagen werde. Von dort aus will ich mich umsehen, um ein Opernpersonal samt Orchester zusammenzutrommeln, das unter meiner Fahne alle Staaten (ausgenommen Österreich) bereisen soll, und zwar zum Behufe von Opernvorstellungen und Konzerten, wobei natürlich nur meine Werke, die Opern: Corregidor, Venegas und Penthesilea, Fest auf Solhaug, Prinz von Homburg etc. aufgeführt werden.

After my release (presumably on the 15th of this month), I shall move at once to Lucerne, where I shall set up my permanent headquarters. From there I shall take steps to drum up an opera company, with orchestra, that shall under my banner tour every country (except Austria), giving concerts and operatic performances devoted exclusively of course to my works: the operas Der Corregidor, Manuel Venegas, Penthesilea, Das Fest auf Solhaug, Prinz von Homburg, etc.

Delusions of grandeur were followed by periods of calm. He attempted to drown himself in the Traunsee. The final years of mental and physical suffering in the asylum were alleviated by the regular visits of Melanie Köchert, to whom all his songs are dedicated. He died in the arms of his nurse Johann Scheibner, horribly wasted and shrunken, in 1903, and was buried in the Zentralfriedhof alongside Beethoven and Schubert.


By Richard Stokes, posted on 20 Jan 2021

The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf. Life. Letters. Lieder by Richard Stokes will be published by Faber in the autumn, and formally launched at a concert at the Wigmore Hall on 2 October 2021.   


Posted on:Tuesday 19th January, 2021