THE MORE one learns of the history of great artists, the more one is struck by the immense amount of sadness their lives enclose. Not only are they subjected to the trials and disappointments of ordinary lifewhich affect them more cruelly through their greater sensitivenessbut their surroundings are like a desert because they are twenty, thirty, fifty, or even hundreds of years in advance of their contemporaries; and they are often condemned to despairing efforts not to conquer the world but to live.
These highly strung natures are rarely able to keep up this incessant struggle for very long, and the finest genius may have to reckon with illness and misery and even premature death. And yet there were people like Mozart and Schumann and Weber who were happy in spite of everything because they had been able to keep their soul’s health and the joy of creation until the end; and though their bodies were worn out with fatigue and privation, a light was kept burning which sent its rays far into the darkness of their night. There are worse destinies; and Beethoven, though he was poor, shut up within himself, and deceived in his affections, was far from being the most unhappy of men. In his case, he possessed nothing but himself; but he possessed himself truly and reigned over the world that was within him; and no other empire could even be compared with that of his vast imagination, which stretched like a great expanse of sky where tempests raged. Until his last day the old Prometheus in him, though fettered by a miserable body, preserved his iron force unbroken. When dying during a storm, his last gesture was one of revolt; in his agony he raised himself on his bed and shook his fist at the sky. And so he fell, struck down by a single blow in the thick of the fight.
But what shall be said of those who die little by little, who outlive themselves and watch the slow decay of their souls?
Such was the fate of Hugo Wolf, whose tragic destiny has assured him a place apart in the hell of great musicians.
He was born at Windischgraz in Styria, March 13, 1860. He was the fourth son of a curriera currier-musician, like old Veit Bach, the baker-musician, and Haydn’s father, the wheelwright-musician. Philipp Wolf played the violin, the guitar, and the piano and used to have little quintet parties at his house, in which he played the first violin, Hugo the second violin, Hugo’s brother the violoncello, an uncle the horn, and a friend the tenor violin. The musical taste of the country was not properly German. Wolf was a Catholic, and his taste was not formed, like that of most German musicians, by books of chorales. Be-sides that, in Styria they were fond of playing the old Italian operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Later on, Wolf used to like to think that he had a few drops of Latin blood in his veins; and all his life he had a predilection for the great French musicians.
His term of apprenticeship was not marked by anything brilliant. He went from one school to another without being kept long anywhere. And yet he was not a worthless lad, but he was always reserved, little caring to be intimate with others, and passionately devoted to music. His father naturally did not want him to take up music as a profession, and he had the same struggles that Berlioz had. Finally he succeeded in getting permission from his family to go to Vienna, and he entered the Conservatory there in 1875. But he was not any the happier for it, and at the end of two years he was sent away for being unruly.
What was to be done? His family was ruined, for a fire had demolished their little possessions. He felt the silent reproaches of his father already weighing upon himfor he loved his father dearly and remembered the sacrifices the latter had made for him. He did not wish to return to his own province; indeed he could not returnthat would have been death. It was necessary that this boy of seventeen should find some means of earning a livelihood and be able to instruct himself at the same time. After his expulsion from the Conservatory he attended no other school; he taught himself. And he taught himself wonderfully, but at what a cost! The suffering he went through from that time until he was thirty, the enormous amount of energy he had to expend in order to live and cultivate the fine spirit of poetry that was within himall this effort and toil was without doubt the cause of his unhappy death. He had a burning thirst for knowledge and a fever for work which made him sometimes forget the necessity for eating and drinking.
He had a great admiration for Goethe and was infatuated by Heinrich von Kleist, whom he rather resembles both in his gifts and in his life; he was an enthusiast about Grillparzer and Hebbel at a time when they were but little appreciated; and he was one of the first Germans to discover the worth of Morike, whom, later on, he made popular in Germany. Besides this, he read English and French writers. He liked Rabelais and was partial to Claude Tillier, the French novelist of the provinces, whose Oncle Benjamin has given pleasure to so many German provincial families by bringing before them, as Wolf said, the vision of their own little world and helping them by his own jovial good humor to bear their troubles with a smiling face. And so little Wolf, with hardly enough to eat, found the means of learning both French and English, in order better to appreciate the thoughts of foreign artists.
In music he learned a great deal from his friend Schalk, a professor at the Vienna Conservatory; but, like Berlioz, he got most of his education from the libraries and spent months in reading the scores of the great masters. Not having a piano, he used to carry Beethoven’s sonatas to the Prater Park in Vienna and study them on a bench in the open air. He soaked himself in the classicsin Bach and Beethoven, and the German masters of the liedSchubert and Schumann. He was one of the young Germans who was passionately fond of Berlioz, and it is due to Wolf that France was afterward honored in the possession of this great artist, whom French critics, whether of the school of Meyerbeer, Wagner, Franck, or Debussy, have never understood. He was also early a friend of old Anton Bruckner, whose music we do not know in France, neither his nine symphonies, nor his Te Deum, nor his masses, nor his cantatas, nor anything else of his fertile work. Bruckner had a sweet and modest character and an endearing, if rather childish, personality. He was somewhat crushed all his life by the Brahms party; but, like Franck in France, he gathered round him new and original talent to fight the academic art of his time.
But of all these influences, the strongest was that of Wagner. Wagner came to Vienna in 1875 to conduct Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. There was then among the younger people a fever of enthusiasm similar to that which Werther had caused a century before. Wolf saw Wagner. He tells us about it in his letters to his parents. I shall quote his own words, and though they make one smile, one loves the impulsive devotion of his youth; and they make one feel, too, that a man who inspires such an affection, and who can do so much good by a little sympathy, is to blame when he does not befriend othersabove all if he has suffered, like Wagner, from loneliness and the want of a helping hand. You must remember that this letter was written by a boy of fifteen.
“I have been toguess whom?to the master, Richard Wagner! Now I will tell you all about it just as it happened. I will copy the words down exactly as I wrote them in my notebook.
“On Thursday, December 9, at half-past ten, I saw Richard Wagner for the second .time at the Hotel Imperial, where I stayed for half an hour on the staircase awaiting his arrival. (I knew that on that day he would conduct the last rehearsal of his Lohengrin.) At last the master came down from the second floor, and I bowed to him respectfully while he was yet some distance from me. He thanked me in a very friendly way. As he neared the door I sprang forward and opened it for him, upon which he looked fixedly at me for a few seconds and then went on his way to the rehearsal at the Opera. I ran as fast as I could, and arrived there sooner than Richard Wagner did in his cab. I bowed to him again, and I wanted to open the door of his cab for him; but as I could not get it open, the coachman jumped down from his seat and did it for me. Wagner said something to the coachmanI think it was about me. I wanted to follow him into the theater, but they would not let me pass.
“I often used to wait for him at the Hotel Imperial; and on this occasion I made the acquaintance of the manager of the hotel, who promised that he would interest himself on my behalf. Who was more delighted than I when he told me that on the following Saturday afternoon, December 11, I was to come and find him, so that he could introduce me to Mme. Cosima’s maid and Richard Wagner’s valet! I arrived at the appointed hour. The visit to the lady’s maid was very short. I was advised to come the following day, Sunday, December 12, at two o’clock. I arrived at the right hour but found the maid and the valet and the manager still at table. . . . Then I went with the maid to the master’s rooms, where I waited for about a quarter of an hour until he came. At last Wagner appeared in company with Cosima and Goldmark. I bowed to Cosima very respect-fully, but she evidently did not think it worth while to honor me with a single glance. Wagner was going into his room with-out paying any attention to me when the maid said to him in a beseeching voice: Herr Wagner, it is a young musician who wishes to speak to you; he has been waiting for you a long time.’
“He then came out of his room, looked at me, and said: `I have seen you before, I think. You are . .
“Probably he wanted to say, `You are a fool.’
“He went in front of me and opened the door of the reception room, which was furnished in truly royal style. In the middle of the room was a couch covered in velvet and silk. Wagner himself was wrapped in a long velvet mantle bordered with fur.
“When I was inside the room he asked me what I wanted.”
Here Hugo Wolf, to excite the curiosity of his parents, broke off his story and put “To be continued in my next.” In his next letter he continues:
“I said to him: `Highly honored master, for a long time I have wanted to hear an opinion on my compositions, and it would be…
“Here the master interrupted me and said: `My dear child, I cannot give you an opinion of your compositions; I have far too little time; I can’t even get my own letters written. I understand nothing at all about music (Ich verstehe gar nichts von der Musik)
“I asked the master whether I should ever be able really to do anything, and he said to me: `When I was your age and composing music, no one could tell me then whether I should ever do anything great. You could at most play me your compositions on the piano; but I have no time to hear them. When you are older, and when you have composed bigger works, and if by chance I return to Vienna, you shall show me what you have done. But that is no use now; I cannot give you an opinion of them yet.’
“When I told that master that I took the classics as models, he said: `Good, good. One can’t be original at first.’ And he laughed and then said, `I wish you, dear friend, much happiness in your career. Go on working steadily, and if I come back to Vienna, show me your compositions.’
“Upon that I left the master, profoundly moved and impressed. ”
Wolf and Wagner did not see each other again. But Wolf fought unceasingly on Wagner’s behalf. He went several times to Bayreuth though he had no personal intercourse with the Wagner family; but he met Liszt, who, with his usual goodness,wrote him a kind letter about a composition that he had sent him, and showed him what alterations to make in it.
Mottl and the composer, Adalbert de Goldschmidt, were the first friends to aid him in his years of misery, by finding him some music pupils. He taught music to little children of seven and eight years old, but he was a poor teacher and found giving lessons was a martyrdom. The money he earned hardly served to feed him, and he ate only once a dayHeaven knows how. To comfort himself he read Hebbel’s Life; and for a time he thought of going to America. In 1881 Goldschmidt got him the post of second Kapellmeister at the Salzburg theater. It was his business to rehearse the choruses for the operettas of Strauss and Millocker. He did his work conscientiously but in deadly weariness; and he lacked the necessary power of making his authority felt. He did not stay long in this post and came back to Vienna.
Since 1875 he had been writing music: lieder, sonatas, symphonies, quartets, etc., and already his lieder held the most important place. He also composed in 1883 a symphonic poem on the Penthesilea of his friend Kleist.
In 1884 he succeeded in getting a post as musical critic. But on what a paper! It was the Salonblatta mundane journal filled with articles on sport and fashion news. One would have said that this little barbarian was put there for a wager. His articles from 1884 to 1887 are full of life and humor. He upholds the great classic masters in them: Gluck, Mozart, Beethovenand Wagner; he defends Berlioz; he scourges the modern Italians, whose success at Vienna was simply scandalous; he breaks lances for Bruckner and begins a bold campaign against Brahms. It was not that he disliked or had any prejudice against Brahms; he took a delight in some of his works, especially his chamber music, but he found fault with his symphonies and was shocked by the carelessness of the declamation in his lieder and, in general, could not bear his want of originality and power, and found him lacking in joy and fullness of life. Above all, he struck him as being the head of a party that was spite-fully opposed to Wagner and Bruckner and all innovators. For all that was retrograde in music in Vienna and all that was the enemy of liberty and progress in art and criticism was giving Brahms its detestable support by gathering itself about him and spreading his fame abroad; and though Brahms was really far above his party as an artist and a man, he had not the courage to break away from it.
Brahms read Wolf’s articles, but his attacks did not seem to stir his apathy. The “Brahmins,” however, never forgave Wolf. One of his bitterest enemies was Hans von Billow, who found anti-Brahmism “the blasphemy against the Holy Ghostwhich shall not be forgiven.” Some years later, when Wolf succeeded in getting his own compositions played, he had to submit to criticisms like that of Max Kalbeck, one of the leaders of “Brahmism” at Vienna:
“Herr Wolf has lately, as a reporter, raised an irresistible laugh in musical circles. So someone suggested he had better devote himself to composition. The last products of his muse show that this well-meant advice was bad. He ought to go back to reporting.”
An orchestral society in Vienna gave Wolf’s Penthesilea a trial reading; and it was rehearsed, in disregard of all good taste, amid shouts of laughter. When it was finished, the conductor said: “Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for having allowed this piece to be played to the end; but I wanted to know what manner of man it is that dares to write such things about the master, Brahms.”
Wolf got a little respite from his miseries by staying a few weeks in his own country with his brother-in-law, Strasser, an inspector of taxes. He took with him his books, his poets, and began to set them to music.
He was now twenty-seven years old and had as yet published nothing. The years of 1887 and 1888 were the most critical ones of his life. In 1887 he lost his father whom he loved so much, and that loss, like so many of his other misfortunes, gave fresh impulse to his energies. The same year, a generous friend called Eckstein published his first collection of lieder. Wolf up to that time had been smothered, but this publication stirred the life in him and was the means of unloosing his genius. Settled at Perchtoldsdorf, near Vienna, in February 1888, in absolute peace, he wrote in three months fifty-three lieder to the words of Eduard Morike, the pastor-poet of Swabia who died in 1875, and who, misunderstood and laughed at during his lifetime, is now covered with honor and universally popular in Germany. Wolf composed his songs in a state of exalted joy and almost fright at the sudden discovery of his creative power.
In a letter to Dr. Heinrich Werner, he says:
“It is now seven o’clock in the evening, and I am so happy oh, happier than the happiest of kings. Another new lied! If you could hear what is going on in my heart! . . . the devil would carry you away with pleasure! .. .
“Another two new lieder! There is one that sounds so horribly strange that it frightens me. There is nothing like it in existence. Heaven help the unfortunate people who will one day hear it! .. .
“If you could only hear the last lied I have just composed, you would have only one desire left to die. . . . Your happy, happy Wolf.”
He had hardly finished the Mörike Lieder when he began a series of lieder on poems of Goethe. In three months ( December 1888 to February 1889) he had written all the Goethe Liederbuchfifty-one lieder, some of which are, like Prometheus, big dramatic scenes.
The same year while still at Perchtoldsdorf, after having published a volume of Eichendorff Lieder, he became absorbed in a new cyclethe Spanisches Liederbuch, on Spanish poems translated by Heyse. He wrote these forty-four songs in the same ecstasy of gladness:
“What I write now, I write for the future. . . . Since Schubert and Schumann there has been nothing like it!”
In 1890, two months after he had finished the Spanisches Liederbuch, he composed another cycle of lieder on poems called Alten Weisen, by the great Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. And lastly, in the same year, he began his Italienisches Liederbuch, on Italian poems, translated by Geibel; and Heyse.
And thenthen there was silence.
The history of Wolf is one of the most extraordinary in the history of art and gives one a better glimpse of the mysteries of genius than most histories do.
Let us make a little résumé. Wolf at twenty-eight years old had written practically nothing. From 1888 to 1890 he wrote, one after another, in a kind of fever, fifty-three Morike lieder, fifty-one Goethe lieder, forty-four Spanish lieder, seventeen Eichendorff lieder, a dozen Keller lieder, and the first Italian liederthat is about two hundred lieder, each one having its own admirable individuality.
And then the music stops. The spring has dried up. Wolf in great anguish wrote despairing letters to his friends. To Oskar Grohe, on May 2, 1891, he wrote:
“I have given up all idea of composing. Heaven knows how things will finish. Pray for my poor soul.”
And to Wette, on August 13, 1891, he says:
“For the last four months I have been suffering from a sort of mental consumption, which makes me think very seriously of quitting this world forever…. Only those who truly live should live at all. I have been for some time like one who is dead. I only wish it were an apparent death; but I am really dead and buried though the power to control my body gives me a seeming life. It is my inmost, my only desire, that the flesh may quickly follow the spirit that has already passed. For the past fifteen days I have been living at Traunkirchen, the pearl of Traunsee…. All the comforts that a man could wish for are here to make my life happypeace, solitude, beautiful scenery, invigorating air, and everything that could suit the tastes of a hermit like myself. And yet and yet, my friend, I am the most miserable creature on earth. Everything around me breathes peace and happiness, everything throbs with life and fulfills its functions. . . . I alone, oh God! . . . I alone live like a beast that is deaf and senseless. Even reading hardly serves to distract me now though I bury myself in books in my despair. As for composition, that is finished; I can no longer bring to mind the meaning of a harmony or a melody, and I almost begin to doubt if the compositions that bear my name are really mine. Good God! What is the use of all this fame? What is the good of these great aims if misery is all that lies at the end of it? .. .
“Heaven gives a man complete genius or no genius at all. Hell has given me everything by halves.
“0 unhappy man, how true, how true it is! In the flower of your life you went to hell; into the evil jaws of destiny you threw the delusive present and yourself with it. 0 Kleist!”
Suddenly, at Dobling on November 29, 1891, the stream of Wolf’s genius flowed again, and he wrote fifteen Italian lieder, sometimes several in one day. In December it stopped again; and this time for five years. These Italian melodies show, how-ever, no trace of any effort nor a greater tension of mind than is shown in his preceding works. On the contrary, they have the air of being the simplest and most natural work that Wolf ever did. But the matter is of no real consequence, for when Wolf’s genius was not stirring within him he was useless. He wished to write thirty-three Italian lieder, but he had to stop after the twenty-second, and in 1891 he published one volume only of the Italienisches Liederbuch. The second volume was completed in a month, five years later, in 1896.
One may imagine the tortures that this solitary man suffered. His only happiness was in creation, and he saw his life cease without any apparent cause for years at a time, and his genius come and go, and return for an instant, and then go again. Each time he must have wondered anxiously if it had gone forever, or how long it would be before it came back again. In letters to Kaufmann on August 6, 1891 and April 26, 1893, he says:
“You ask me for news of my opera. Good Heavens! I should be content if I could write the tiniest little Liedchen. And an opera, now? . I firmly believe that it is all over with me. … I could as well speak Chinese as compose anything. It is horrible. . What I suffer from this inaction I cannot tell you. I should like to hang myself.”
To Hugo Faisst he wrote on June 21, 1894:
“You ask me the cause of my great depression of spirit and would pour balm on my wounds. Ah yes, if only you could! But no herb grows that could cure my sickness; only a god could help me. If you can give me back my inspiration and wake up the familiar spirit that is asleep in me and let him possess me anew, I will call you a god and raise altars to your name. My cry is to gods and not to men; the gods alone are fit to pronounce my fate. But however it may end, even if the worst comes, I will bear ityes, even if no ray of sunshine lightens my life again. . . . And with that we will once for all turn the page and have done with this dark chapter of my life.”
This letter-and it is not the only onerecalls the melancholy stoicism of Beethoven’s letters and shows us sorrows that even the unhappy Beethoven did not know. And yet how can we tell? Perhaps Beethoven, too, suffered similar anguish in the sad days that followed 1815, before the last sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony had awakened to life in him.
In March 1895 Wolf lived once more and in three months had written the piano score of Corregidor. For many years he had been attracted toward the stage, and especially toward light opera. Enthusiast though he was for Wagner’s work, he had declared openly that it was time for musicians to free them-selves from the Wagnerian Musik-Drama. He knew his own gifts and did not aspire to take Wagner’s place. When one of his friends offered him a subject for an opera taken from a legend about Buddha, he declined it, saying that the world did not yet understand the meaning of Buddha’s doctrines and that he had no wish to give humanity a fresh headache. In a letter to Grohe, on June 28, 1890, he says:
“Wagner has, by and through his art, accomplished such a mighty work of liberation that we may rejoice to think that it is quite useless for us to storm the skies since he has conquered them for us. It is much wiser to seek out a pleasant nook in this lovely heaven. I want to find a little place there for myself, not in a desert with water and locusts and wild honey but in a merry company of primitive beings, among the tinkling of guitars, the sighs of love, the moonlightin short, in a quite ordinary opera-comique without any rescuing specter of Schopenhauerian philosophy in the background.”
After having sought the libretto of an opera from the whole world, from poets ancient and modern, from Shakespeare, from his friend Liliencron, and after having tried to write one himself, he finally took that of Rosa Mayreder, an adaptation of a Spanish novelette of Don Pedro de Alarcón. This was Corregidor, which, after having been refused by other theaters, was played in June 1896 at Mannheim. The work was not a success in spite of its musical qualities; the poor libretto helped in its failure.
But the main thing was that Wolf’s creative genius had returned. In April 1896 he wrote straight away the twenty-two songs of the second volume of the Italienisches Liederbuch. At Christmas his friend Muller sent him some of Michelangelo’s poems, translated into German by Walter Robert-Tornow; and Wolf, deeply moved by their beauty, decided at once to devote a whole volume of lieder to them. In 1897 he composed the first three melodies. At the same time he was also working at a new opera, Manuel Venegas, a poem by Moritz Hoernes, written after the style of Alarcón. He seemed full of strength and happiness and confidence in his renewed health. Muller was speaking to him of the premature death of Schubert, and Wolf replied, “A man is not taken away before he has said all he has to say.”
Ho worked furiously, “like a steam engine,” as he said, and was so absorbed in the composition of Manuel Venegas (September 1897) that he went without rest and hardly had time to take necessary food. In a fortnight he had written fifty pages of the pianoforte score, as well as the motifs for the whole work, and the music of half the first act.
Then madness came. On September 20 he was seized while he was working at the great recitative of Manuel Venegas in the first act.
He was taken to Dr. Svetlin’s private hospital in Vienna and remained there until January 1898. Happily he had devoted friends who took care of him and made up for the indifference of the public; for what he had earned himself would not have enabled him even to die in peace. When Schott, the publisher, sent him in October 1895 his royalties for the editions of his lieder of Morike, Goethe, Eichendorff, Keller, Spanish poetry, and the first volume of Italian poetry, their total for five years came to eighty-six marks and thirty-five pfennigs! And Schott calmly added that he had not expected so good a result. So it was Wolf’s friends, and especially Hugo Faisst, who not only saved him from misery by their unobtrusive and often secret generosity but spared him the horror of destitution in his last misfortunes.
He recovered his reason and was sent in February 1898 for a voyage to Trieste and Venetia to complete his cure and pre-vent him from thinking of work. The precaution was unnecessary; for he says in a letter to Hugo Faisst, written in the same month:
“There is no need for you to trouble yourself or fear that I shall overdo things. A real distaste for work has taken possession of me, and I believe I shall never write another note. My unfinished opera has no more interest for me, and music al-together is hateful. You see what my kind friends have done for me! I cannot think how I shall be able to exist in this state. … Ah, happy Swabian! One may well envy you. Greet your
beautiful country for me, and be warmly greeted yourself by your unhappy and worn-out friend, Hugo Wolf.”
When he returned to Vienna, however, he seemed to be a little better and had apparently regained his health and cheer-fulness. But to his own astonishment he had become, as he says in a letter to Faisst, a quiet, sedate, and silent man, who wished more and more to be alone. He did not compose anything fresh but revised his Michelangelo lieder and had them published. He made plans for the winter and rejoiced in the thought of passing it in the country near Gmunden, “in perfect quiet, undisturbed, and living only for art.” In his last letter to Faisst, September 17, 1898, he says:
“I am quite well again now, and have no more need of any cures. You would need them more than I.”
Then came a fresh seizure of madness, and this time all was finished.
In the autumn of 1898 Wolf was taken to an asylum at Vienna. At first he was able to receive a few visits and to enjoy a little music by playing duets with the director of the establishment, who was himself a musician and a great admirer of Wolf’s works. He was even able in the spring to take a few walks out of doors with his friends and an attendant. But he was beginning not to recognize things or people or even himself. “Yes,” he would say, sighing, “if only I were Hugo Wolf!” From the middle of 1899 his malady grew rapidly worse, and general paralysis followed. At the beginning of 1900 his speech was affected, and finally in August 1901, all his body. At the beginning of 1902 all hope was given up by the doctors; but his heart was still sound, and the unhappy man dragged out his life for another year. He died on February 22, 1903, of peripneumonia.
He was given a magnificent funeral which was attended by all the people who had done nothing for him while he was alive. The Austrian state, the town of Vienna, his native town Windischgraz, the Conservatory that had expelled him, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde who had been so long unfriendly to his works, the Opera that had been closed to him, the singers that had scorned him, the critics that had scoffed at himthey were all there. They sang one of his saddest melodies, Resignation, a setting of a poem of Eichendorff’s, and a chorale by his old friend Bruckner, who had died several years before him. His faithful friends, Faisst at the head of them, took care to have a monument erected to his memory near those of Beethoven and Schubert.
Such was his life, cut short at thirty-seven years of agefor one cannot count the five years of complete madness. There are not many examples in the art world of so terrible a fate. Nietzsche’s misfortune is nowhere beside this, for Nietzsche’s madness was, to a certain extent, productive and caused his genius to flash out in a way that it never would have done if his mind had been balanced and his health perfect. Wolf’s madness meant prostration. But one may see how, even in the space of thirty-seven years, his life was strangely parceled out. For he did not really begin his creative work until he was twenty-seven years old; and as from 1890 to 1895 he was condemned to five years’ silence, the sum total of his real life, his productive life, is only four or five years. But in those few years he got more out of life than the greater part of artists do in a long career, and in his work he left the imprint of a personality that no one could forget after once having known it.
Wolf’s work consists chiefly, as we have already seen, of lieder; and these lieder are characterized by the application to lyrical music of principles established by Wagner in the domain of drama. That does, not mean he imitated Wagner. One finds here and there in Wolf’s music Wagnerian forms, just as else-where there are evident reminiscences of Berlioz. It is the inevitable mark of his time, and each great artist in his turn contributes his share to the enrichment of the language that belongs to us all. But the real Wagnerism of Wolf is not made up of these unconscious resemblances; it lies in his determination to make poetry the inspiration of music. “To show, above all,” he wrote to Humperdinck in 1890, “that poetry is the true source of my music.”
When a man is both a poet and a musician, like Wagner, it is natural that his poetry and music should harmonize perfectly. But when it is a matter of translating the soul of other poets into music, special gifts of mental subtlety and an abounding sympathy are needed. These gifts were possessed by Wolf in high degree. No musician has more keenly savored and appreciated the poets. “He was,” said one of his critics, G. Kühl, “Germany’s greatest psychologist in music since Mozart.” There was nothing labored about his psychology. Wolf was incapable of setting to music poetry that he did not really love. He used to have the poetry he wished to translate read over to him several times, or in the evening he would read it aloud to himself. If he felt very stirred by it he lived apart with it, and thought about it, and soaked himself in its atmosphere; then he went to sleep, and the next morning he was able to write the lied straight away. But some poems seemed to sleep in him for years and then would suddenly awake in him in a musical form. On these occasions he would cry out with happiness. “Do you know,” he wrote to Muller, “I simply shouted with joy.” Muller said he was like an old hen after it had laid an egg.
Wolf never chose commonplace poems for his musicwhich is more than can be said of Schubert or Schumann. He did not use anything written by contemporary poets although he was in sympathy with some them, such as Liliencron, who hoped very much to be translated into music by him. But he could not do it; he could not use anything in the work of a great poet unless he became so intimate with it that it seemed to be a part of him.
What strikes one also in the lieder is the importance of the pianoforte accompaniment and its independence of the voice. Sometimes the voice and the pianoforte express the contrast that so often exists between the words and the thought of the poem; at other times they express two personalities, as in his setting of Goethe’s Prometheus, where the accompaniment represents Zeus sending out his thunderbolts and the voice interprets Titan; or again, he may depict, as in the setting of Eichendorff’s Serenade, a student in love in the accompaniment, while the song is the voice of an old man who is listening to it and thinking of his youth. But in whatever he is describing, the pianoforte and the voice always have their own individuality. You cannot take anything away from his lieder without spoiling the whole; and it is especially so with his instrumental passages, which give us the beginning and end of his emotion and which circle round it and sum it up. The musical form, following closely the poetic form, is extremely varied. It may sometimes express a fugitive thought, a brief record of a poetic impression or some little action, or it may be a great epic or dramatic picture. Muller remarks that Wolf put more into a poem than the poet himself as in the Italienisches Liederbuch. It is the worst reproach they can make about him, and it is not an ordinary one. Wolf excelled especially in setting poems which accorded with his own tragic fate, as if he had some presentiment of it. No one has better expressed the anguish of a troubled and despairing soul, such as we find in the old harp player in Wilhelm Meister, or the splendid nihility of certain poems of Michelangelo.
Of all his collections of lieder, the fifty-three Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, komponiert für eine Singstimme and Klavier (1888 ), the first published, is the most popular. It gained many friends for Wolf, not so much among artists (who are always in the minority) as among those critics who are the best and most disinterested of allthe homely, honest people who do not make a profession of art but enjoy it as their spiritual daily bread. There are a number of these people in Germany, whose hard lives are beautified by their love of music. Wolf found these friends in all parts, but he found most of them in Swabia. At Stuttgart, at Mannheim, at Darmstadt, and in the country round about these towns he became very popular-the only popular musician since Schubert and Schumann. All classes of society united in loving him. “His lieder,” says Ernst Decsey, “are on the pianos of even the poorest houses, by the side of Schubert’s lieder.” Stuttgart became for Wolf, as he said him-self, a second home. He owes this popularity, which is without parallel in Swabia, to the people’s passionate love of lieder and, above all, of the poetry of Morike, the Swabian pastor who lives again in Wolf’s songs. Wolf has set to music a quarter of Mörike’s poems, he has brought Morike into his own, and given him one of the first places among German poets. Such was really his intention, and he said so when he had a portrait of Morike put on the title page of the songs. Whether the reading of his poetry acted as a balm to Wolf’s unquiet spirit or whether he became conscious of his genius for the first time when he ex-pressed this poetry in music I do not know; but he felt deep gratitude toward it and wished to show it by beginning the first volume with that fine and rather Beethoven-like song, Der Genesende an die Hoffnung (“The Convalescent’s Ode to Hope”).
The fifty-one lieder of the Goethe Liederbuch (1888-1889) were composed in groups: the Wilhelm Meister Lieder, the Divan (Suleika) Lieder, etc. Wolf even tried to identify himself with the poet’s line of thought; and in this we often find him in rivalry with Schubert. He avoided using the poems in which he thought Schubert had exactly conveyed the poet’s meaning, as in Geheimes and An Schwager Kronos; but he told Muller that there were times when Schubert did not understand Goethe at all because he concerned himself with translating their general lyrical thought rather than with showing the real nature of Goethe’s characters. The peculiar interest of Wolf’s lieder is that he gives each poetic figure its individual character. The Harpist and Mignon are traced with marvelous insight and restraint; and in some passages Wolf shows that he had rediscovered Goethe’s art of presenting a whole world of sadness in a single word. The serenity of a great soul soars over the chaos of passions.
The Spanisches Liederbuch nach Heyse and Geibel (1889-1890) had already inspired Schumann, Brahms, Cornelius, and others. But none had tried to give it its rough and sensual character. Muller shows how Schumann, especially, robbed the poems of their true nature. Not only did he invest them with his own sentimentalism, but he calmly arranged poems of the most marked individual character to be sung by four voices, which makes them quite absurd; and worse than this, he changed the words and their sense when they stood in his way. Wolf, on the contrary, steeped himself in this melancholy and voluptuous world and would not let anything draw him from it; and out of it he produced, as he himself said proudly, some master-pieces. The ten religious songs that come at the beginning of the collection suggest the delusions of mysticism and weep tears of blood; they are distressing to the ear and mind alike, for they are the passionate expression of a faith that puts itself on the rack. By the side of them one finds smiling visions of the Holy Family which recall Murillo. The thirty-four folk songs are brilliant, restless, whimsical, and wonderfully varied in form. Each represents a different subject, a personality drawn with incisive strokes, and the whole collection overflows with life. It is said that Spanisches Liederbuch is to Wolf’s work what Tristan is to Wagner’s work.
The Italienisches Liederbuch (1890-1896) is quite different. The character of the songs is very restrained, and Wolf’s genius here approached a classic clearness of form. He was always seeking to simplify his musical language and said that if he wrote anything more, he wished it to be like Mozart’s writings. These lieder contain nothing that is not absolutely essential to their subject; so the melodies are very short and are dramatic rather than lyrical. Wolf gave them an important place in his work: “I consider them,” he wrote to Kaufmann, “the most original and perfect of my compositions.”
As for the Michelangelo Gedichten (1897), they were interrupted by the outbreak of his malady, and he had time to write only four, of which he suppressed one. Their associations are pathetic when one remembers the tragic time at which they were composed; and, by a sort of prophetic instinct, they exhale heaviness of spirit and mournful pride. The second melody is perhaps more beautiful than anything else Wolf wrote; it is truly his death song:
Alles endet, was entstehet. Alles, alles rings vergehet.
And it is a dead man that sings:
Menschen waren wir fa auch, Froh and traurig, so wie Ihr. Und nun sind wir leblos hier, Sind nur Erde, wie Ihr sehet.
At the moment he was writing this song, in the short respite he had from his illness, he himself was nearly a dead man.
As soon as Wolf was really dead, his genius was recognized all over Germany. His sufferings provoked an almost excessive reaction in his favor. Hugo Wolf Vereine were founded everywhere; and today we have publications, collections of letters, souvenirs, and biographies in abundance. It is a case of who can cry loudest that he always understood the genius of the unhappy artist and work himself into the greatest fury against his traducers.
I doubt if Wolf with his rough, sincere nature would have found much consolation in this tardy homage if he could have foreseen it. He would have said to his posthumous admirers: “You are hypocrites. It is not for me that you raise those statues; it is for yourselves. It is that you may make speeches, form committees, and delude yourselves and others that you were my friends. Where were you when I had need of you? You let me die. Do not play a comedy round my grave. Look rather around you, and see if there are not other Wolfs who are struggling against your hostility or your indifference. As for me, I have come safe to port.”