Hugo Wolf

Austrian composer Hugo Wolf is perhaps best known for his output of songs. They came from a career in search of stability and respect. It was a career cut short, most likely by one night and a manhood’s right of passage.

Hugo Wolf was born in Windischgraz, Austria (now Slovenjgradec, Slovenia), on 13 March 1860. He was the fourth of eight children. His father worked in the leather business and was a self-taught amateur musician. He passed on his musical gifts and his temper to his son. Hugo learned piano and violin from his father, starting from the age of four. In primary school from 1865-1869 he studied piano and music theory with Sebastian Wexler, who was also a violist of the Wolf Family Orchestra. In 1868, Wolf saw his first opera, Belisario by Donizetti. The performance made such an impact on him that he was able to play long passages by memory.

Though the family was not financially well off, it was important to Wolf’s father to provide an education for his child that he himself lacked. In 1870 Wolf started at the regional school in Graz, where his accent brought him attention. He left after one term, most likely due to homesickness. In 1871 he began at the Benedictine Abbey of St Paul in Lavanttal, where he was a boarder for two years. While there he was an organist for Mass, a member of a piano trio, and he spent time arranging opera selections for piano.

After two years his academic life shifted again. The Latin requirement at the Abbey prevented Wolf from focusing on music, so he transferred to the secondary school in Marburg. After another two years he left, being ridiculed by students for his taste in music, particularly Beethoven, and leaving his teachers frustrated by his ‘damned music’. To convince his father that music was a potential career, not an amusement, Wolf wrote two pieces dedicated to him, a piano sonata and piano variations. After an aunt in Vienna offered to house him, Wolf’s father agreed to let him study at the conservatory starting in 1875,

Wolf was advanced enough to begin his studies with the second year students. He studied piano with Wilhelm Schenner and composition and harmony with Robert Fuchs. He also made friends there, including a young Gustav Mahler. He wrote many pieces, including piano sonatas and vocal works. He was immensely interested in operas and made a note of his impressions of many operas he attended in Vienna. When Wagner visited the city for performances of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Wolf waited for many days outside his hotel, eventually encountering the famed composer. He showed some of his compositions to Wagner, who politely looked them over, encouraging Wolf and advising patience.

During his time at the conservatory he expanded into larger works, leading to critiques on his part-writing. He was critical of himself: scores survive from the time with Wolf’s scribbles of ‘rubbish’ and ‘bad’ across his writing. It was at that point that Wolf’s own musical voice began to come through. After two years though, Wolf left the conservatory. He claimed that he was resigning in protest of the school’s conservatism, but in reality he was dismissed for a scandal in which a student sent a death threat to the director signed ‘Hugo Wolf’.

After some time living with his family and working on various compositions, including a song Morgantau that he later published, Wolf was permitted by his father to return to Vienna. There he began working as a music teacher for wealthy families in the city. While not possessing the right temperament to be a teacher, the impatient Wolf did have a certain charm that ensured the clients were interested in keeping him paid. This was perhaps because they were aware of their own children’s lack of musical talent.


Wolf also began frequently moving house, either searching for cheaper rent or more tranquility. Wolf also developed a group of friends at this time, who took him to concerts and operas, exposing Wolf to culture. They also took him to a brothel, as was the custom at the time, where Wolf contracted syphilis, which would be his downfall.

As time passed, he began writing more songs. His maturity was starting to be hinted at in these songs, but being dismissed from the conservatory, he developed his style by imitating Schumann. The earlier composer’s influence is evident in the song Du bist wie eine Blume. Over the course of 1878, his output would evolve from imitation to his own voice.

Wolf became a critic for the weekly Wiener Salonblatt. He was a harsh critic, earning him enemies over his time with the paper. His writing gives an insight into the musical world of Wolf’s Vienna. The employment brought him some stability, but he still relied on a circle of close friends for his survival.

His song output is still what continued through the years. He wrote with texts from Goethe, Mörike, and translations of Spanish and Italian texts, including by Michelangelo. He also wrote an opera, Der Corregidor, based on a Spanish tragedy. It was a failure upon its premiere. A second opera, Manuel Venegas, was unfinished before his death. His song work however led to the establishment of Wolf Societies in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1897, as signs of his insanity increased, Wolf had himself committed. He blamed his opera’s failure on his friend of 20 years, Gustav Mahler. He was released after four months. After his release he attempted suicide. He was recommitted and died in an asylum on 22 February 1903. He was buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery near Schubert and Beethoven. 

Wolf’s work over the course of twenty years is still widely performed. He wrote in creative bursts, caused by his mental instability from syphilis. In the end there were over 300 songs, many published posthumously, choral works, chamber pieces, and a handful of orchestral works.

Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo, are the three last songs Wolf wrote. They are based on texts by Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. The setting of these songs gives the impression of a deep connection the composer felt with the words. Throughout the work, starting with the piano introduction of the first song, there is a sense of the poet’s mood and luck rising and falling through his art and his love. The songs were originally meant to be part of a larger work, but this was never able to be achieved.

Wolf’s Italian Serenade was originally written for string quartet in 1887, and later orchestrated for chamber orchestra in 1892. Wolf was setting texts by Joseph Eichendorff and was inspired by his novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts to write the chamber piece as well. It took him only three days in May to complete it. Originally called Serenade in G major, Wolf returned to the piece planning to add two more movements, but only sketches remain of any additional music.

Hugo Wolf was an insecure artist, troubled by his increasing mental instability from syphilis. He was easily insulted, as seen by encounters with Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler. His music was respected and well received in his own lifetime though, as seen in the Wolf Societies that were established and he is today held in the highest esteem, especially as a composer of Lieder, to the level of the greats like Schubert and Schumann.

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