More Eichendorff and Reinick songs followed in 1883, with Rückkehr an effective early premonition of the later Eichendorff song Das Ständchen (in both, the piano takes the role of music external to the poetic persona – a street serenader – to which the singing persona adapts his song), but Wolf was in a quandary about his life's direction. Through the intermediary of his friend Tilgner, Wolf sent his songs to Eduard Hanslick for his opinion and advice on possibilities for publication; Hanslick, later quite hostile to Wolf, commended him for his ‘sensitive, interesting songs’ and suggested that he try his luck with Simrock. Probably because of Wagner's death on 13 February, a shattering event for Wolf, he did not send his works to Brahms's publisher Simrock but rather to Wagner's publisher Schott, who rejected them, as did Breitkopf & Härtel. Despite these disappointments, he received encouragement from none other than Liszt, who visited Vienna in April 1883. At a meeting engineered by Goldschmidt, Wolf was able to play some of his songs, including Die Spinnerin, for Liszt, who was impressed and even embraced the younger composer. Liszt, like Wagner and Brahms, advised that Wolf work in larger forms, and these words prompted the beginnings that summer of the symphonic tone poem based on Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, long an obsession of Wolf's; Kleist's reversal of the post-Homeric legend in which Achilles slays the Amazon Penthesilea, such that Penthesilea rends Achilles to death, is among the most powerful works in all of literature about the violence wrought by female sexuality upon men. In June Wolf also composed a setting of Justinus Kerner's Zur Ruh, zur Ruh, possibly as an elegy on the death of Wagner; this song (among the best of his pre-1888 works) is premonitory of his mature style in its string quartet texture, chromatic part-writing and careful attention to prosody and textual nuance. After a second pilgrimage to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal he visited the Köcherts in Rinnbach, staying there for seven weeks in August and September. It was here that he made a new friend in the writer Hermann Bahr and quarrelled with the Breuers over his vitriolic verbal abuse of a woman (the mother of a child prodigy); incensed by Frau Breuer's reproof, Wolf broke off all contact with them for ever. He did likewise with Schönaich and also stormed out of the house of a prominent industrialist named Fritz Flesch, who had generously offered the entire first floor of his home for the composer's use, because his host passed him a pear on a toothpick – as a syphilitic sensitive about the possibility of infection, Wolf took violent offence. The darker side of his personality, his capacity for bitterness and anger (his nickname ‘Fluchu’ reflects his propensity for elaborate cursing), was often evident during these years of apprenticeship and trial, before the accession of fully fledged compositional mastery, and must be weighed in the context of his immense artistic frustration, his despondency about his compositional destiny in Wagner's wake. ‘What remains for me to do?’ Wolf reportedly lamented. ‘He has left me no room, like a mighty tree that chokes with its shade the sprouting growths under its widely spreading branches’.
It is, however, also revelatory of his personality that so many friends remained loyal to him, despite his snappish outbreaks. First and foremost among them was Melanie Köchert, whose husband Heinrich Köchert was the Vienna court jeweller; an influential advertiser in the fashionable weekly newspaper, the Wiener Salonblatt, he exerted his influence to obtain for Wolf an appointment as their music critic, a post Wolf held from January 1884 to April 1887. The ‘wild Wolf’ (who did nothing by halves) became an institution, an uncompromising voice for musical quality in a city where the views of Hanslick, with his incessant complaints about the ‘Wagner-Influenza’ afflicting all of Europe and his touting of second- or third-rate anti-Wagnerian composers like Anton Rubinstein, overwhelmingly held sway. If Wolf was often unfair in his attacks on Brahms, whom he excoriated for ‘nullity, emptiness, and hypocrisy’ (but he praised the String Quintet in F op.88 in print), he was not merely partisan, and his articles are vivid mirrors of their time and place. Furthermore we learn much about Wolf's views on music, discovering that Meyerbeer was now a fallen idol, that Wolf had the highest regard for Chopin, that singers and conductors often permitted unpardonable alterations to Wagnerian staging, that he was a fanatical devotee of Liszt, that he had no respect for bel canto opera, that he considered Schubert's songs the highest attainment of art but found his symphonies loose in their construction. The writing is emphatic, often sardonic, vivid in its imagery and thoroughly enjoyable to read. Unfortunately, his critiques made him many enemies, who neither forgot nor forgave and had the means to make Wolf suffer for their rancour.
Wolf composed very little during the three-year period as a critic. He went on a six-week summer holiday at Rinnbach with the Köcherts in 1884, and it was probably at this time that Melanie and Wolf made a secret pledge of love for one another. Composition did not come easily, however: fragmentary sketches of incidental music for Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, sketches for the last movement of the D minor Quartet, the scoring of his Penthesilea music, and one completed song (the Mörike setting Die Tochter der Heide) are the sole products of an otherwise arid summer. On a visit to his sister Modesta and her husband Josef Strasser at Öblarn in August, he met the folk poet and singer Johann Kain and was entranced by his songs. In the autumn he returned to Vienna to write reviews. His attempts to secure performance of his quartet and Eichendorff choruses were in vain, and Wolf resolved to spend the summer of 1885 completing his Penthesilea and Prinz Friedrich scores for submission to the Vienna Philharmonic. The latter remained unfinished, but he submitted the completed Penthesilea to Hans Richter himself and his quartet to the famed Rosé Quartet, all four players being members of the Philharmonic as well. The violist Sigismund Bachrich, his ego wounded by Wolf's attacks on the orchestra's conservative programming policies and on his own ineptitude as a performer, egged the group into administering a sharp snub to the composer: ‘we … have unanimously resolved to leave the work for you with the doorkeeper of the opera house’. Worse humiliation was to follow. After the summer of 1886 in which Wolf composed the bulk of his Intermezzo in E for string quartet, he received the news that his Penthesilea would be played at a Philharmonic trial of new works on 15 October; a year had lapsed beween submission of the piece and the actual run-through. The trial (the mot juste) was a disaster at which the orchestra supposedly burst into derisive laughter at the end and Wolf overheard disparaging remarks by Richter about people who dared to criticize the great Brahms. It is difficult to disentangle conflicting accounts of the fiasco, which Wolf believed had been engineered to give the Brahmsian faction malicious delight, but Wolf's fury at such a crushing blow is all too plain (‘they shall be roasted in hell's brimstone and immersed in dragon's poison – I have sworn it’). In the aftermath of this bitter incident, Wolf put the score away and did not return to it in order to clarify the excessively thick orchestration until he was confined in the asylum and could no longer accomplish coherent work. His grand symphonic tone poem was not published until 1903, shortly after his death, and then in a badly bowdlerized version (it has subsequently been re-edited to reflect the original manuscript).
Wolf was not the most patient of men, but beneath the frustration engendered by his slow compositional maturation and by setbacks in the external world was an underlying persistent faith in his mission as a composer. The texts by Eichendorff (Der Soldat II) and Joseph Victor von Scheffel (Biterolf and Wächterlied auf der Wartburg) composed in December 1886 and January 1887 and the Goethe songs of late January and 1 March (Wandrers Nachtlied and Beherzigung) all have to do with staunchness of purpose and resolution in times of adversity. More Eichendorff songs in a lighter vein, about love, women's witchery and beauty and nature's magic, followed in spring 1887 (Der Soldat I, Die Kleine, Die Zigeunerin, Waldmädchen, Nachtzauber – the last of these songs has a nocturnal nature-magic that suggests an idiosyncratic mixture of Schumann with Debussy's Verlaine song Clair de lune), as did the Italienische Serenade for string quartet, composed 2–4 May. Perhaps it was this renewal of his creative powers that was responsible for Wolf's decision to abandon music journalism for ever; he handed in his last critique on 24 April. The tongue-in-cheek caricature of a serenade, its ironic mastery a sign that the apprenticeship years were virtually over, may have been inspired by the Italian serenade in Eichendorff's novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, in which Wolf could see many correspondences with his own life. But at precisely this moment, Wolf was struck another devastating blow when he was summoned home for his father's death on 9 May. For all Philipp's pessimism, he had loved his son dearly, telling him in one of his last letters, ‘Don't despair: the sun of recognition will shine on you yet … think only that you have a father who loves you and whose only hope and joy you are’; and Wolf was devastated by his death. He composed nothing further that year. It was a tragic irony that Wolf's friend Friedrich Eckstein offered in November to help arrange for publication of some of Wolf's songs by the small Viennese firm of Emil Wetzler. From among his many manuscripts, Wolf chose six songs for women's voice (Sechs Lieder für eine Frauenstimme, dedicated to his mother) and six for men's voice (Sechs Gedichte von Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe und Kerner, dedicated to his father's memory). Overjoyed, he wanted only to compose; overwhelmed by the onrush of renewed creativity, he sought solitude at the Werners' summer home in Perchtoldsdorf, a market town half an hour's train ride from Vienna, to give his Muse Polyhymnia full rein.