b. March 13th 1860, Windischgraz
(now Slovenj Gradec
.) d. February 22nd 1903, Vienna
Hugo Wolf is one of the most enigmatic of the romantic composers. He is rightly regarded as one the most important composers of the German song form,
Lieder, alongside Schubert and Schumann.
Wolf's Lied settings are characterised by an unparalleled depth both of understanding of the song text and sympathy for it. A Lied is by nature a short work, usually only a few minutes long, but Wolf worked intensely at such a small scale, and as such, each Lied has overwhelmingly heightened emotional content.
Wolf's life is patterned by short, inspired bursts of incredible creativity, tightly focussing on a single poet's works, interspersed with longer spates of frustration and depression. The key years are 1888 - 1891, beginning with the setting of 43 poems by Edouard Mörike, between February 16th and May 18th 1888. He would often write two or three such Lieder per day, only very rarely spending longer than a day on any individual setting.
With the addition of 9 more Lieder in October 1888, the Mörike Liederbuch was complete. Wolf moved straight on to that most revered of German poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, setting 50 of his poems between October 27th 1888 and February 12th 1889: the Goethe Liederbuch.
Gradually, critical and public acclaim became his. Wolf's works had earlier been met with some disdain thanks to his opinionated column in the Wiener Salonblatt, in which he praised Wagner and Liszt while attacking Brahms, dividing his readership as he did so. Now, though, his musical works merited attention in their own right, and in January 1890 an article appeared in the German Münchner Allgemeine Zeitung in praise of the Mörike Liederbuch.
Acclaim in Germany delighted Wolf, and he began work on the Italienisches Liederbuch. This was interrupted by work on a commission which he could find no inspiration for, and which occupied him right through until February 1891. That work was finally performed, with several cuts, in November, and with that Wolf had one final fiery creative impulse, composing the final 15 songs of the Italienisches Liederbuch in just 25 days.
Over the next three years, Wolf's mental health deteriorated, and he became nervous and paranoid. He continued to work, scoring the Italienisches Liederbuch for small orchestra, and made several other minor changes to earlier works. It appears he was looking for a suitable opera libretto, for in 1895 he began work on Der Corregidor.
Wolf was often frustrated by attempts to write larger scale works. His opera was flawed by a tendency to overlook the large scale dramatic thrust in favour of individuals emotions, and although it premièred to some success, it has not achieved lasting fame.
Following his breakdown in 1897, in which he deluded himself that he was director of the Vienna Court Opera House, Wolf's mental health finally began to crumble.
On February 22nd 1903, Wolf died of pneumonia. He received a tomb of honour at the Wiener Zentralfriedhof (central cemetery of Vienna) near those of Beethoven and Schubert.
wrote a poem entitled When Hugo Wolf Went Mad