Hugo (Filipp Jakob) Wolf


Wolf studied piano and violin with his father, a keen amateur. He left his home town of Windisch-Graz to attend school at Graz, leaving after a term to enrol in the seminary at the Carinthian Benedictine monastery of St Paul. He continued his education in Marburg in 1873 and began studying at the Vienna Conservatoire in 1875. Wagner received him during his visit to the city and gave him some words of encouragement, which meant a great deal to the young Wolf; considerably more, indeed, than his tutors at the Conservatoire, who expelled him for impertinence. Returning home in 1877 he quickly bored, and went back to Vienna where he taught privately. There he began writing lieder, setting Goethe, Heine, Lenau and others, and it was in this area that he was to achieve the greatest success.

An 1881 appointment in Salzburg as a chorus master did not end happily, and in 1883 he began as music critic of the Wiener Salonblatt. From this position he was able to espouse his progressive views, vilifying rival critic Hanslick and Brahms, who had not been kind about his compositions. He had great difficulties in obtaining performances of his works; when Richter finally agreed to put on his tone poem Penthesilea, Wolf was greatly displeased with the standard of orchestral playing. In 1887 he resigned as a music critic, writing songs which he believed to be the equal of those of Schubert and Schumann. Many now believe him to be justified in this belief. In 1889 his Morickelieder were published, and subsequent years brought further publication. His Spanisches Liederbuch (1890) and Italianisches Liederbuch (1896) are particularly noteworthy.

Wolf ventured into opera with Der Corregidor (1896), revising the orchestration following its first run. Mahler, who was set to conduct a revival of the work, was less than complimentary, and this tipped Wolf into a nervous breakdown. This is especially tragic since celebrations of Wolf’s work had been organised in Berlin and Vienna, and these did much to raise his standing. Wolf’s breakdown manifested itself with fabricated declarations to his friends that he was to take Mahler’s place as conductor of the Vienna Opera. He was committed to an asylum, but showing an improvement was discharged the following year. However a relapse and attempted suicide led to his reincarceration and an irreversable deterioration in his mental state. He died while in care at the age of 42.

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