Today known primarily for his lieder, Hugo Wolf was born on
March 13, 1860. He was considered a child prodigy, and he was completely and
utterly fascinated with music. He learned violin and piano from his father at
the age of four. However, once he entered primary school, subjects other than
music were of no interest to him and he was twice expelled from two different
schools for this reason. He left a third school after a falling-out with a
professor. Following this last incident, he left to study at the Vienna
Conservatory. Yet, his time there was no less difficult. A whole-hearted
admirer and fervent follower of the ideals of Richard Wagner, Wolf was not
suited for the conservative disciplines of the Conservatory, and was later
Following a brief stint at home, Wolf returned to Vienna
again. Though he possessed a fiery temper, his music nevertheless attracted
attention and, more importantly, patronage. He set out writing lieder and his
earliest essays in the genre follow the models of Franz Schubert and Robert
Schumann. Despite his affinity for the form, he was driven to be successful in
the larger orchestral and operatic forms, believing them to be the key to true
compositional greatness. This drive was encouraged by Wagner and, later on, by Franz
Liszt as well.
After Wagner's death in February 1883, Wolf was devastated
and began to question his own future in a world without his fearless idol. He
continued to compose after this with notable examples being "Zur Ruh, zur Ruh," one of the best of
his early works and thought to be an elegy for Wager, and the symphonic poem Penthesilea, written with the
encouragement of Liszt. However, he also devoted more of his attention to
critical writing, fighting vehemently what he thought to be a wave of
mediocrity overtaking the musical world. Upholding the geniuses of Schubert,
Chopin and Liszt, he earned the nickname "Wild Wolf" for his fiery critiques.
His work as a critic ultimately won him several enemies, particularly when he
attacked Brahms on his own turf, which caused considerable backlash when he
tried to get his works performed in Vienna.
In 1887, Wolf abandoned his activities as a critic and
returned full-time to composing. He composed the Italian Serenade, originally for string quartet but later scored
for orchestra, and is considered one of his best works. Yet, his renewed
creative activities were cut short by the death of his father, causing another
period of severe depression for Wolf.
Nevertheless, the following two years of 1888-89 mark the beginning of
his mature style and an extremely productive period. The results were the Mörike-Lieder, the Eichendorff-Lieder and finally the Goethe-Lieder. Wolf recognized the strength of his efforts and
began actively promoting them to his friends. With these songs, Wolf's
reputation spread beyond Vienna and he gained the support of singers who had
performed in Wagner's operas.
This burst of creative output, however, was short-lived. In
1891, exhaustion coupled with syphilis and depression caused Wolf to once again
stop composing. Nevertheless, he continued to give concerts and his fame
spread, even drawing positive comments, mixed with constructive criticism, from
Brahms himself. He took up composing again in a few years determined to cement
his greatness in opera with Der
Corregidor. However, his determination blinded him to the weakness of the
libretto he had chosen. It was initially successful but
ultimately faded from the concert stage and has yet to be revived.
Wolf made his last public appearance at a concert in 1897.
Soon afterwards, he slipped into syphilitic insanity. During brief periods of
well-being, he tried to compose, leaving sixty pages of an unfinished opera.
However, by 1899 he was no longer able to write and even tried to drown himself.
At his own request, he was admitted to an insane asylum in Vienna. He died on
February 22, 1903.
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