The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf: Life, Letters, Lieder 
by Richard Stokes.
Faber, 602 pp., £30, September 2021, 978 0 571 36069 7
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It wouldn’t be difficult​ to construct a history of 19th-century Germanic music that left out the name of Hugo Wolf entirely. Part of the reason is the mixed reputation of Lieder, or solo song. Accounts of Beethoven afford a central place to his symphonies, concertos, string quartets and sonatas, but the status of his songs, with the possible exception of the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, is more equivocal. Schubert’s song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are recognised as the peaks of his output, alongside a handful of other Lieder, but these amount to only a fraction of the more than six hundred songs that he completed. The same goes for Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben. Brahms’s reputation is secure thanks to his symphonies, concertos, much of the chamber music, and some of the piano works. But very few of his 196 songs for solo voice and piano have achieved lasting popularity or a regular place in concert programmes. Of later Lieder composers, Mahler is admired for his symphonies and Richard Strauss for his symphonic poems and operas.

Wolf composed around three hundred Lieder, together with mostly minor orchestral works, the most significant being the Italienische Serenade (1892), several worthy choral works, and the opera Der Corregidor (1895). The musicologist Lawrence Kramer has compared him to Chopin, whose output was similarly dominated by a single medium. But Chopin’s piano music is a staple of the repertoire whereas Wolf’s songs, as Kramer points out, ‘are more often praised than sung’.

It hasn’t helped that Wolf’s Lieder present particular challenges for listeners. Schubert’s great cycles are based on texts by the poet Wilhelm Müller. Where necessary he supplemented the sometimes modest poetry with vivid piano parts and subtle vocal writing: in ‘Thränenregen’, for instance, Schubert turns Müller’s ‘wir schauten so traulich zusammen hinab in den rieselnden Bach’ (‘we gazed down in harmony on the rippling brook’) and subsequent lines into a startling premonition of the protagonist’s suicide, through descending vocal figures and a rippling piano interlude, as if the river were beckoning him. The piano in Schumann’s Dichterliebe is an ironic commentator on the vocal part, extending the ironies of Heinrich Heine’s poetry, but the vocal lines remain intact, perceptible as separate melodic entities in a dramatic dialogue. Some of Brahms’s songs are more subtle, not least because of his preference for tight development of small motivic fragments over freer and more expansive lines. But Brahms also looked to folk song as an ideal, and insisted on the primacy of textual comprehensibility and word-painting. His vocal lines can be appreciated on their own.

In Wolf’s mature songs, piano and voice are integrated to an unprecedented degree (though without precluding a dialectical relationship). Rather than existing as a separate character, the piano anticipates, echoes or modifies short fragments of the vocal line, or sometimes colours an otherwise unremarkable melodic passage with extravagant and unusual chromatic harmonisation. Sung without piano, many of the vocal lines of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms would still make musical sense. Most of Wolf’s lines would sound bare, fragmentary and incomplete on their own. He prized depth and layering over attractive immediacy.

Wolf, who was born in 1860, was a product – and in some ways a victim – of the ‘War of the Romantics’ that began raging in the mid-19th century. One faction, drawing on a tradition from Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, and in the second half of the century epitomised above all by Brahms, valued musical abstraction and a sense of historicism, sometimes drawing on earlier models, favouring instrumental music and established forms such as the symphony, concerto and sonata. The other, represented by Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, was associated with so-called Zukunftsmusik – music of the future. They valued musical depiction and programmatic works, music that invites the listener to imagine connotations beyond the self-contained logic of the piece. Their music often involves expansion of harmonic and orchestral resources – and, in the case of Wagner, radical new approaches to the relationship between music, text and theatre.

Both factions claimed Beethoven as their own, though each prioritised different aspects of his work. Their representatives among critics – Eduard Hanslick for the first faction, Franz Brendel and Richard Pohl for the second – wrote ferocious polemics, sometimes making the oppositions seem more absolute than necessary. Mendelssohn had been a major figure in the development of the pictorial or programmatic symphonic poem, and Schumann had explored experimental musical forms inspired by iconoclastic literary figures such as Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Liszt, despite being implicitly attacked by Brahms as the epitome of Zukunftsmusik, showed a historicist side in his transcriptions of works by Bach and Beethoven. It was only with the appearance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in 1899, marrying Wagnerian ostentation to Brahmsian intricacy, that it seemed possible to resolve the two approaches.

Wolf was educated in various places in Austria before moving to Vienna in 1875, where he attended performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. For the rest of the decade, as Susan Youens has traced in detail, he forged his own style while still under the powerful influence of Schumann (setting a range of Heine poems as well as work by Goethe, Nikolaus Lenau and Adelbert von Chamisso), but ultimately translating many of Wagner’s achievements into the Lied, as Bruckner was doing with the symphony. Wolf’s songs foreground the most advanced harmony of his time, necessarily a property of the piano rather than the monophonic voice, to an extent that hadn’t been possible when Schumann was composing in the 1840s. Viennese musical life wasn’t exactly open to such innovations: thanks to Hanslick, Bruckner was for a long time kept on its outskirts, his reputation overshadowed by that of Brahms.

In 1879, Wolf met with Brahms, whom he had previously admired. The encounter didn’t go well. Wolf took offence when Brahms recommended a rather conservative teacher, Gustav Nottebohm, whom he couldn’t afford and who anyhow wouldn’t have suited his temperamental resistance to authority. Following the meeting, Wolf became a staunch opponent of Brahms’s work. From 1884 to 1887, he wrote for the Wiener Salonblatt, in vehement opposition to Hanslick at the Neue Freie Presse. Wolf’s passionate advocacy of Wagner came to be matched by attacks on Brahms as vicious as Hanslick’s on Bruckner. Wolf asked why ‘these glue pots, these obscenely stale symphonies of Brahms, false and perverted to the bottom of their very soul, are hailed as wonders of the world,’ finding ‘more intelligence and sensitivity in a single cymbal crash in a work by Liszt’. Of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, he wrote: ‘There blows a draught so cold, so chilly damp, so foggy, that one’s heart can freeze, one’s breath be taken away. One could catch cold from it.’ He also complained that critics seemed to demand that performers play Brahms if they hoped to be reviewed.

Wolf continued to develop his compositional style through a handful of new Lieder in the early 1880s, in particular his first settings of Joseph von Eichendorff, but composed little during his years as a critic. This pattern, of bursts of activity alternating with long hiatuses, may have been due in part to depression. During the winter of 1886-87, he found new compositional momentum with settings of Goethe and Eichendorff, and in 1888, inspired by his first critical publications, composed the 53 settings of Eduard Mörike that make up the Mörike-Lieder. The most astute commentator on Wolf’s relationship to Wagner, Amanda Glauert, has argued that Wolf self-consciously and systematically constructed them as responses to various features of Wagner’s style.

More Eichendorff and Goethe settings followed, and then the Spanisches Liederbuch, settings of Spanish poems translated into German by Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse. By this time, Wolf had encountered Nietzsche’s The Case of Wagner and began to distance himself from the Wagnerian influence in favour of a Mediterranean atmosphere. The texts of the Spanish book, from which Wolf set ten sacred and thirty-four secular texts, show a much sunnier sensibility than the introspection and nightmarish visions of Mörike. Wolf’s first Italienisches Liederbuch, from a further collection of translations by Heyse, was published in 1892.

His reputation had continued to grow, despite a backlash from allies of Brahms. The limitations of being associated with song, however, as well as the limited financial rewards, came to weigh on his mind. ‘Opera & always opera!’ he wrote to his friend Emil Kauffmann in October 1891.

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, since my songs only reveal the rudiments of a dramatic talent. So I am not even a decent songwriter!

Suffering from inflammation of the throat, which may have been a symptom of syphilis, Wolf fell into another depression, and wrote almost nothing between 1892 and 1894. When he resurfaced, he set his attention to the composition of Der Corregidor, which was performed in Mannheim in 1896. Then he went back to the Italienisches Liederbuch, which he completed in another furious burst of activity in March and April 1896, by which point he had achieved some financial security, in part through the ministrations of friends.

Wolf composed three settings of sonnets by Michelangelo in 1897, and began work on another opera, Manuel Venegas, which he never completed. His mental vicissitudes, together with further symptoms of syphilis, became increasingly acute, and later that year he was taken unwillingly to an asylum. Despite some respite in 1898, he voluntarily returned to another asylum the following year after an attempt to drown himself. He remained there until his death in 1903, visited regularly by his mistress, Melanie Köchert. She took her own life in 1906.

The standard​ reference point in English for those interested in Wolf’s songs has been Eric Sams’s The Songs of Hugo Wolf, published in 1961, which reproduced the texts of all of the songs, in chronological order, with commentary. Richard Stokes, a professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, has produced the first collection in English to rival Sams’s. Where Sams included only the English translations, Stokes has texts in German, English and, where appropriate, Spanish and Italian. Stokes structures his book not chronologically but by poet, as Natasha Loges did in Brahms and His Poets (2017). The choice seems more logical in Wolf’s case than Brahms’s, since Wolf made collections of his settings of individual poets or compilers (Stokes categorises the Spanish and Italian songs under their German translators). But because his comments are collected by poet rather than song, the musical detail in Stokes is less extensive and more generalised than in Sams. Stokes is better than Loges at considering the life and work of the poets, especially in a passage reconsidering Goethe’s relationship to music and relating it to Wolf’s settings. But there is almost none of the valuable technical analysis of the metrical and other stylistic features of the poems that features in Loges’s book, and Stokes’s commentaries remain firmly focused on content.

Stokes quotes extensively from Wolf’s letters. Many are unremarkable, but there are exceptions, such as the letter he sent to Kauffmann in March 1894 after reading Eichendorff’s novella Dürande Castle:

Eichendorff’s characteristic chiaroscuro atmosphere is simply not compatible with the bright lights of the stage. I would call his stories literary landscapes, in which all the delineated characters play a merely secondary role, resembling what painters call staffage. The reverse is true of the theatre: the decor is staffage & the characters must be placed in the foreground with the greatest possible clarity. Consider now a typical Eichendorff character. There’s hardly anything but his costume & a bit of make-up. Not a trace of portrayal or psychological perspective. Only vague shadowy silhouettes, without faces or personality; they suddenly appear like dreamy ghosts – no one knows from where – then vanish, no one knows where to. They drift along like clouds in the sky or, to use an Eichendorff image, like silent dreams, assuming now this form, now that. That’s all very well & highly poetic & agreeable for the imagination – but of no use at all in the theatre.

This explains much about Wolf’s approach in such Eichendorff settings as ‘Der Soldat I’ or ‘Nachtzauber’, in which bland vocal lines, sometimes within a limited tessitura, are transformed by the role of the piano.

Detailed studies of large bodies of musical work are not often attempted by scholars, perhaps fearful of their books being dismissed by fellow academics as ‘survey texts’. Most such work is done by musical practitioners or others outside universities. The books by the pianist Graham Johnson, for instance, or those of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who published on Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Debussy, don’t feature major scholarly insights or arguments, let alone contemporary academic thinking (as in the writings of Youens and Glauert), though they are perceptive in ways that only works by a performer can be. Stokes’s volume sits somewhere between these modes, without quite achieving an integration of the two. That account of Wolf is yet to appear.

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