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HUGO WOLF (1860-1903)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 772 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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HUGO WOLF (1860-1903), German composer, was born on the 13th of March 186o at Windischgraz in Styria. His father, who was in the leather trade, was a keen musician. From him Hugo learned the rudiments of the piano and the violin. After an unhappy school life, in which he showed little aptitude for anything but music, he went in 1875 to the Conservatoire. He appears to have learned very little there, and was dismissed in 1877 because of a practical joke in the form of a threateningletter to the director, for which he was perhaps unjustly held responsible. From the age of seventeen he had to depend upon himself for his musical training. By giving lessons on the piano and with occasional small help from his father he managed to live for several years in Vienna, but it was a life of extreme hardship and privation, for which his delicate constitution and his proud, sensitive and nervous temperament were particularly ill-suited. In 1884 he became musical critic to the Salonblatt, a Viennese society paper, and contrived by his uncompromisingly trenchant and sarcastic style to win a notoriety which was not helpful to his future prospects. His ardent discipleship of Wagner was unfortunately linked with a bitter opposition to Brahms, for whose works he always retained an ineradicable dislike. The publication at the end of 1887 of twelve of his songs seems to have definitely decided the course of his genius, for about this time he retired from the Salonblatt, and resolved to devote his whole energies to song-composition. The nine years which followed practically represent his life as a composer. They were marked by periods of feverish creative activity, alternating with periods of mental and physical exhaustion, during which he was sometimes unable even to bear the sound of music. By the end of 1891 he had composed the bulk of his works, on which his fame chiefly rests, 43 Morike Lieder, 20 Eichendorff Lieder, 51 Goethe Lieder, 44 Lieder from Geibel and Heyse's Spanisches Liederspiel, and 22 from Heyse's Italienisches Liederbuch, a second part consisting of 24 songs being added in 1886. Besides these were 13 settings of lyrics by different authors, incidental music to Ibsen's Pest auf Solhaug, a few choral and instrumental works, an opera in four acts, Der Corregidor, successfully produced at Mannheim in June 1896, and finally settings of three sonnets by Michelangelo in March 1897. In September of this year the malady which had long threatened descended upon him; he was placed in an asylum, released in the following January, only to be immured again some months later by his own wish, after an attempt to drown himself in the Traunsee. Four painful years elapsed before his death on the 22nd of February 1903. Apart from his works and the tragedy of his last years there is little in Wolf's life to distinguish it from that of other struggling and unsuccessful musicians. His touchy and difficult temperament perpetually stood in the way of worldly success. What little he obtained was due to the persevering efforts of a small band of friends, critics and singers, to make his songs known, to the support of the Vienna Wagner-Verein, and to the formation in 1895 of the Hugo-Wolf-Verein in Berlin. No doubt it was also a good thing for his reputation that the firm of Schott undertook in 1891 the publication of his songs, but the financial result after five years amounted to 85 marks 35 pfennigs (about b4, 1os.). He lived in cheap lodgings till in 1896 the generosity of his friends provided him with a house of his own, which he enjoyed for one year. Among the song composers who have adopted the modern standpoint, according to which accepted canons of beauty and of form must yield if they interfere with a closer or more vivid realization of dramatic or emotional expression, Wolf holds a place in which he has no rival, not because of the daring originality of his methods and the remarkable idiosyncrasies of his style, but because these are the direct outcome of rare poetical insight and imaginative power. He has that gift of vision which makes the difference between genius and talent. His frequent adoption of a type of song built upon a single phrase or leit-moliv in the accompaniment has led to the misleading statement that his work represents merely the transference of Wagnerian principles to song. In reality the forms of Wolf's songs vary as widely as those of the poems which he set. No less remarkable is the immense range of style at his command. But with Wolf methods of form and style are so inseparably linked with the poetical conceptions which they embody, that they can hardly be considered apart. His place among the greatest song-writers is due to the essential truth and originality of his creations, and to the vivid intensity with which he has presented them. These results depend not merely on musical gifts that are exceptional, but also upon a critical grasp of poetry of the highest order. No other composer has exhibited so scrupulous a reverence for the poems which he set. To displace an accent was for him as heinous an act of sacrilege as to misinterpret a conception or to ignore an essential suggestion. Fineness of declamation has never reached a higher point than in Wolf's songs. Emphasis should also be laid upon the objective and dramatic attitude of his mind. He preferred to make himself the mouthpiece of the poetry rather than to use his art for purposes of self-revelation, avoiding for his songs the works of those whom with healthy scorn he termed the Ich-Poeten. Hence the men and women characterized in his songs are living realities, forming a veritable portrait gallery, of which the figures, though unmistakably the work of a single hand, yet maintain their own separate identity. These statements can be verified as well by a reference to the simpler and more melodious of his songs, as to those which are of extreme elaboration and difficulty. Among the former may be named Das verlassene Magdlein in der Fruhe and Der Gartner (Morike), Verschwiegene Liebe and Der Musikant (Eichendorff), Anakreons Grab (Goethe), Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh' and Herz, was fragst (Spanisches Liederspiel), Nos. r and 4 of the Italienisches Liederbuch, and among the latter Aeolsharfe and Der Feuerreiter (Morike), Ganymed and Prometheus (Goethe). (W. A. J. F.)
End of Article: HUGO WOLF (1860-1903)
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