It is hard to believe, but Hugo Wolf is still an underrated composer. Known for his songs, he is seen as the province of the aficionado, a minority taste, a footnote to late Romanticism. It’s true that his opera, Der Corregidor, rejected for the Vienna Opera by its director Gustav Mahler, is a curiosity; that the symphonic poem, Penthesilea, with its ever so fin-de-siècle woman-fearing tale of an Amazonian queen, is flawed; and that only the Italian Serenade is much played. He didn’t write successfully on a grand scale, or without words. Yet, in the lieder repertoire, he is every bit the equal of his great predecessors, Schubert and Schumann. The self-conscious mastery of a miniaturist form – in the age of Japonisme or of Chekhov’s short stories – may well have been a response to Wagnerian gigantism. As Nietzsche put it, while recovering from his intoxication with Wagner: “What can be done well today, what can be masterly, is only what is small.”
Wolf, too, had been drunk on Wagner, and in the culture wars of his day it was clear where he stood: with the Wagnerians. Yet if many of the songs are harmonically full of Wagnerian sensuality, some of them dominated by the sort of declamation which Mahler, for one, hated, others are tuneful, simple and essentially lyric. In the best of them, Wolf fused together Wagner’s ineffable evocation of longing with Schumann’s genius for what he called Seelen – or Tongemälde (mood or scene painting). In a song like Nachtzauber (Night Magic) we have all the sensuality of Wagner’s endless melody, without the endlessness. When, after a two-year period of creative sterility, Wolf went back to writing songs in 1895, his motto was encapsulated in the first song of the Italian Songbook – Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken (Even Small Things Can Delight Us).
The outline of Wolf’s composing career is a distillation of the manic creativity and Romantic attraction to extremes which one sees in the songwriting careers of Schubert and Schumann. Schubert wrote songs in bursts, on the back of restaurant menus, when the mood took him, or when a particular poet’s work seized him; it’s probably true to say that all Schumann’s most famous songs were written in one emotionally momentous year, that of his marriage, 1840. Wolf, similarly, composed songs like one possessed. Between 1888 and 1891 he wrote more than 200, including the Mörike, Eichendorff and Goethe songbooks, which strive to encapsulate in music the word-hoard of those three poetic masters. In periods of creativity he could write two or three songs a day. The opening song of the Mörike set, Der Genesene an die Hoffnung (The Convalescent Addressing Hope) is an overt recognition of composition as pathology, a celebration of a release from artistic incapacity but somehow, also, an anticipation of the Wolf who stares at us, terrifying and terrified, in a chilling photograph taken in the mental asylum in Vienna where he died in 1903 at the age of 42.
In the days of optimism before his breakdown, his enthusiasm was infectious. Letters to friends bubbled over with the sheer excitement of having found a musical language and of writing at full tilt. “Eventually, after a lot of groping around, the button came undone”; that’s how Wolf himself expressed the sense of release. We hear his joy and the excitement in much of the music. There’s the light hearted, syncopated tread of Auf einer Wanderung (On a Journey) as the poet arrives in town ready for love; the critic being kicked down the stairs in Abschied (Farewell) to the strains of a drunken, ecstatic Viennese waltz; the boisterous roister-doister of Seemanns Abschied (Sailor’s Farewell).
If there is plenty of Wagnerian eroticism at work in Wolf’s output – in the delayed climaxes of Ganymed, in the central group of the Mörike set whose songs weave together the sacred with the sexual – elsewhere the composer can indulge in self-conscious mockery of it. The title Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable Love) is immediately undercut by a teasing piano introduction and, despite the intervening chromatic treatment of the pains of passion (girls are like lambs under the knife, the poet tells us), it all ends, as Wolf put it in a letter to a friend, by breaking out “into a right old student’s song, damned merry”. Singing it nowadays in concert, it almost seems like a chimerical cabaret turn, half Richard Wagner, half Noel Coward.
My first experience of Hugo Wolf was as a child, hearing Verschwiegene Liebe (Silent Love) on Barbra Streisand’s Classical Barbra album (much praised by both Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould). I remembered the song years later, and it drew me back to Wolf. Thank you, Barbra. In essence, the story ought to be one of boundaries broken down, of how vocal traditions can circulate and cross-fertilise. But, in fact, 30 years on, listening again to that track with Tony Pappano, while we were making a recording of Wolf songs, our sense was of how reverential and cautious Streisand is with the classical repertoire. If you go back and listen to the early recordings of Wolf from the 1930s, put out by the Hugo Wolf Society and bought by music-lovers on subscription, the first sensation is of an old world, of something unfamiliar. Then you start to hear the sheer variety of vocal styles among the various singers, and the sense of freedom. That’s what one strives for in singing this music today: an interpretative freedom which can draw inspiration, if not technique, as much from popular vocalists such as Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan as from the operatic tradition. Wolf’s songs are about modulating music with words, and vice versa, something that great popular vocalists are masters of. Classical singers have a lot to learn from the best of them.