Hugo Wolf was an impetuous student, overshadowed by his friend Gustav Mahler, but one who still made a huge impact
Sometimes stepping out of my musical comfort zone — the Schubert symphonies, Beethoven’s piano concertos, anything at all by Mozart — to explore what’s down another pathway altogether, I come across an absolute gem.
That’s what happened when I found myself settling into an audience with Hugo Wolf after a random search suggested his Italian Serenade and I pressed ‘Play’.
His wouldn’t be a name that would leap out at you, but those who treasure songs of the Romantic era would be well familiar with him. The Serenade represents a rare foray into the world of chamber music, at a time when his verse settings had established him in musical circles and he felt free to try something a little different.
He had been busily setting the words of a German poet, Joseph von Eichendorff, to music. One of the verses, recounting a soldier’s crush on a young woman who lived in a castle, had been recycled into a short story, with an intriguing title, The Diary of a Good-for-Nothing.
Wolf was clearly intrigued himself, keen to investigate the musical possibilities of taking on a simple tale and expanding it.
Von Eichendorff turned his hero into a violinist who left home to seek fame and fortune. Wolf puts the violin right at the heart of his melodic adventure, adding “Italian” to the title as if offering his protagonist a goal to pursue.
Hugo Wolf was born in 1860 in part of the Austrian Empire that is now Slovenia. He was by all accounts a difficult child, unprepared to yield to the demands of conventional schooling, interested only in music. He was dismissed from secondary school for being “wholly inadequate”.
He convinced his father there was just one place he could learn and that was the Conservatory in Vienna. He was duly enrolled. There he met the young Gustav Mahler and fell completely under the spell of the music of Richard Wagner.
Wolf’s impetuous nature got him expelled. Well, that was explanation given by the school authorities. His signature had been on a threatening note to the principal, forged, as it subsequently turned out, by a fellow student. The reality was that Wolf had become bored by the rigidity of the regime.
Despite all of this, he and Mahler remained close, for a time at least. Then Mahler left Vienna to pursue his career as a conductor. Wolf stayed behind, concentrating on his songs.
He was hugely admired as a gifted interpreter who delivered melodies that perfectly matched the mood of the verse. But as a musical miniaturist, his legacy has drifted into the background, overshadowed by what Mahler delivered as a symphonist.
And yet his impact in his time was huge, setting the words of the most popular poets of the day, a hugely productive genius.
His life was blighted by the syphilis contracted most likely in his youth, the cause of the insanity that led to his early demise at the age of 42.
As a measure of the esteem in which he was held, he was buried in a “grave of honour” in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, adjacent to the final resting place of Schubert, alongside whom he is revered as Austria’s greatest composer of song.
George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.