(Born; Slovenj Gradec, 13 March 1860; Died; Vienna,
22 Feb 1903). Austrian composer. He played the violin, piano and organ as a child and
studied briefly at the Vienna Conservatory (1875-7, meeting his idol Wagner) but, lacking
discipline and direction, he had to rely on friends and cultured benefactors for help and
introductions. His first important works, the songs of 1877-8, arose from the effects of
his sexual initiation and first romantic attachment. Some are bright, others agonized,
reflecting his depression and illness from a syphilitic infection. Though in 1880 this
cloud seemed to abate, a pattern of cyclic mood swing and sporadic creativity was already
established. Holidays, studies of Wagner and radiant song settings alternated with
personal estrangements and a dark, dramatic strain in his music. For three years (1884-6),
he wrote trenchant musical criticism for the Wiener Salonblatt, siding with Wagner
and against Brahms, meanwhile working on Penthesilea (1883-5) and the D minor
Quartet (1878-84) and beginning a secret love affair with Melanie Koumlchert.
Compositional mastery and a sense of purpose came only in the late 1880s, when he turned
from subjectivity to imaginative literature as a stimulus. In 1888 Eichendorff's poetry
and in particular Moumlrike's inspired a sudden flowering of song music that in profusion
and variety matched Schubert and Schumann. His acclaimed public performances won new
converts, and in February 1889 he finished the 51 songs of the Goethe songbook, in April
1890 the 44 Spanish songs. Publication and critical recognition turned his thoughts to
opera but from 1891 physical exhaustion and depressive phases stemmed the flow of original
music. In 1895 he composed his only completed opera, Der Corregidor, but it was
unsuccessful; in 1897 he composed his last songs and had the mental breakdown that led to
his terminal illness.
Wolf's strength was the compression of
large-scale forms and ideas - the essences of grand opera, tone poem and dramatic symphony
- into song. Combining expressive techniques in the piano part with an independent vocal
line, and using an array of rhythmic and harmonic devices to depict textual imagery,
illustrate mood and create musical structure, he continued and extended the lied tradition
of Schubert and Schumann. Yet he was original in his conception of the songbook as the
larger dramatic form; each one seems to have been planned in advance to represent a poet
or source. Folk music, nature studies, humorous songs and ballads peopled by soldiers,
sailors, students or musicians recur in the German settings, while religious or erotic
themes dominate the Spanish and Italian songbooks.
Songs 245 published settings, incl. 53 of Mörike (1889), 20 of Eichendorff (1889), 51 of Goethe (1890), 44 in
Spanisches Liederbuch (1891), 46 in Italienisches Liederbuch, i (1892), ii (1896); 103
unpublished or posthumously published settings.
Dramatic music: Der Corregidor, opera (1896); Das Fest auf Solhaug, incidental music (1891).
Choral music: Christnacht, solo vv, mixed vv, orch (1886-9); 3 other acc. works, 12 unacc. choruses, mixed/male v.
Instrumental music: Penthesilea, sym. poem (1883-5); Str Qt, d (1878-84); Intermezzo, EFlat;, str qt (1886); Serenade (Italienische
Serenade), G, str qt (1892); pf variations, character-pieces.
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