March 13, 2017. Hugo Wolf, a wonderful composer of the German Lied, was born today in 1860. He lived a short life, dying of syphilis in 1903; he mentally deteriorated much earlier: his last song was written in 1898. What a scourge it was, syphilis, before the invention of penicillin! Schubert died of it at the age of 31, and so did Schumann, just 46. It is thought that Beethoven’s deafness was brought on by syphilis. Gaetano Donizetti died suffering terribly, Frederick Delius went blind and became paralyzed, and Niccolò Paganini lost his voice, probably of the mercury treatment, which back then was considered a treatment for the terrible disease. The notion of a great composer suffering from syphilis was so common that Thomas Mann made it central in his great novel, Doktor Faustus, but with a literary twist: he had the protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, strike a bargain with the Devil, the disease as payment for being a genius. Mann studied Wolf’s biography and used some episodes to describe Leverkühn descending into madness.
Wolf was born in Duchy of Styria, then part of the Austrian Empire, now in Slovenia. A child prodigy, he started studying two instruments, the piano and the violin, at the age of four. When he was 11 he was sent to a boarding school at the Benedictine abbey of St. Paul in Lavanttal, Carinthia. There he played the organ, performed in a piano trio and studied operas by the Italian bel canto masters and Gounod. In 1875 he moved to Vienna to study at the conservatory. There he composed his first songs and made many friends, one of whom was Gustav Mahler (they were born just three months apart). While in Vienna, Wolf became an avid opera-goer; in 1875 he heard Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, declaring himself a Wagnerian in the aftermath. He met Wagner in December of that year and showed him several compositions; Wagner was supportive but suggested that Wolf write more substantive pieces. His early compositions were noticed in Viennese musical circles and he found several benefactors, which allowed him to compose without having to seek additional income. That was fortunate as Wolf’s temperament made him ill-suited for teaching. As fate would have it, it was one of his patrons, a wealthy but minor composer Adalbert von Goldschmidt, who took Wolf to a brothel for a “sexual initiation”; it’s there that Wolf most likely contracted syphilis. Financial support being tenuous, Wolf tried to earn money as a professional musician, playing violin in an orchestra. That didn’t work out, so eventually he turned to musical criticism. He became known as a passionate writer who could be very hard on some composers (Anton Rubinstein, the author of the opera Demon, was one of his victims).
In 1888 Wolf dropped musical criticism and moved to Perchtoldsdorf, a suburb of Vienna, to a vacation home of a friend. There he immersed himself in composing. Thus commenced the most productive period of Wolf’s life: in 1888 alone he composed more than 90 songs. The two songs that we’ll hear are from that period. Both are performed by the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the finest interpreters of Wolf’s songs. Here’s Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land), based on Manon’s song from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and here – Nachtzauber, after a poem by the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. Gerald Moore is on the piano in both recordings. Wolf continued composing feverishly till 1891, when his habitual depression set in, probably aggravated by the early onset of syphilis. While he stopped composing, his fame grew, especially in Germany. Even Brahms, whom Wolf severely criticized in some of his articles, and therefore was not a big supporter, acknowledged Wolf’s talent. In the following years, Wolf composed an opera, Der Corregidor, based on The three-cornered Hat by Alarcón. It was staged in 1896 with some initial success but soon was dropped, not to be revived to this day. He started another opera, also after Alarcón. called Manuel Venegas but abandoned it after writing just several scenes. By 1898 his madness was obvious. He insisted that he was the music director of the Vienna Opera (Mahler actually was), attempted suicide, after which he was placed into an asylum for the insane. He died there on February 22nd of 1903.
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