Although Wolf arrived at his somewhat arctic (a reluctant stove the culprit) compositional haven in mid-January 1888, it was not until one month later that the true Wunderjahr began, comparable in intensity, volume and variety to Schubert's wellspring of song in 1814–15 and Schumann's in 1840. Wo wird einst of 24 January was Wolf's last attempt to tune his lyre to Schumann's foremost poet Heine, but his setting of Reinick's Gesellenlied composed that same day is his hail-and-farewell to the long apprenticeship years – a delightful comic song in which an apprentice longs to be a master, set to strains cheekily reminiscent of Wagner's David in Die Meistersinger. Wolf had brought with him to Perchtoldsdorf the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), long his favourite poet; ‘Mörikeana’, as Wolf dubbed his Mörike songs, had no doubt been quietly taking root in his musical imagination well before February 16 and the composition of Der Tambour, but now a floodtide of lieder emerged, to his delighted and disconcerted astonishment. On 22 February he wrote to Edmund Lang, ‘I have just put a new song down on paper [Der Knabe und das Immlein]. A divine song, I tell you! Quite divinely marvellous! … I feel my cheeks glowing like molten iron with excitement, and this state of inspiration is more an exquisite torment to me than pure pleasure’. Stunned by the violence of the event, he questions, ‘What will the future unfold for me? … Have I a calling? Am I really one of the chosen? … That would be a pretty kettle of fish’. The answer was happening to him even as he wrote those words, and by March he surely knew it. Later that same day he told Melanie's brother (by 1888 Wolf and Melanie had consummated their passion for one another, although they could only meet by stealth) to say that two more songs had come into being (Jägerlied and Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag, the latter fashioned from musical materials in Der Knabe und das Immlein and linked to it in a manner of Wolf's creating, not Mörike's). ‘This is an eventful day’, he concluded happily.
More such eventful days would follow, one after another. Nine Mörike songs were composed in less than two weeks in February, 20 more followed in March, and eight in April; ‘I'm working at 1000 horsepower from early morning until late at night’, he wrote to his brother-in-law Joseph Strasser, adding, ‘What I now write, dear friend, I write for posterity too. They are masterpieces’. In one anecdote we are told that when schoolboys were playing in the street, he would rush out and confiscate their toys so that they could not interfere with the quiet he needed for composition. With each new success he joyously notified his friends, telling Edmund Lang on 20 March that Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens was ‘by far the best thing that I have done up to now … the music is of so striking a character and of such intensity that it would lacerate the nervous system of a block of marble’. The next day he retracted the declaration to say that what he had written that morning (Fussreise) ‘is a million times better. When you have heard this song you can have only one wish – to die’. By 18 May he had composed 43 songs and needed a holiday, while the Werners reclaimed their vacation home. He went on a walking tour of Upper Styria and Carinthia (on this trip, he heard an Aeolian harp in a deserted castle and was impressed at the resemblance between its sounds, which he had never heard before, and his own setting of An eine Äolsharfe, composed seven weeks earlier) and again travelled to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal, which reduced him to weeping outside the theatre at the end of the performance. At the end of August he was back in Vienna and staying at the faithful Ecksteins' house, where he composed Eichendorff's Verschwiegene Liebe, a poem he had attempted earlier but abandoned. His success with the song persuaded him to retreat into solitude once more at the Eckstein's country house in Unterach am Attersee in order to compose more Eichendorff songs – 12 of them in the last half of September (two were composed in post coaches en route to Unterach). In October he resumed work on his Mörike songs (‘I have once again industriously “Möriked” [gemörikelt]’, he told Eckstein, who was arranging for the publication of the volume) and composed nine songs in eight days (4–11 October), including such masterpieces as An den Schlaf, Schlafendes Jesuskind, Wo find' ich Trost?, Karwoche, Gesang Weylas and Der Feuerreiter. The next day he began his return trip to Vienna and work on yet another mammoth lied project, this time to poems by Goethe, with the final Mörike song (Auf eine Christblume II) committed to paper during a visit to Perchtoldsdorf on 26 November. In an outburst even more intense than the Mörike floodtide, Wolf set to music 50 poems by Goethe between 27 October 1888 and 12 February 1889, with the 51st and last Goethe song coming on 21 October 1889. If he set many poems not treated by other composers, such as Anakreons Grab, St Nepomuks Vorabend and Cophtisches Lied I and II, he also directly challenged the legacy of Schubert and Schumann by setting ten famous texts well known in their settings by the earlier masters.
News of what Wolf called ‘the unheard-of wonder’ spread quickly beyond Wolf's small circle. Wolf played many of his songs for the Thursday concerts of the Vienna Wagner Verein, whose members included the Vienna Conservatory professors Joseph Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe. On 8 November 1888 three of Wolf's Mörike songs were performed by a Vienna Hofoper soprano with Schalk accompanying, and the great Wagnerian tenor Ferdinand Jäger (who had sung Parsifal at Bayreuth) was in the audience. Jäger became Wolf's Johann Michael Vogl, serving Wolf's cause as Vogl had served Schubert's; little more than a month later, on 15 December Jäger and Wolf performed nine songs at a public concert in the Bösendorfer-Saal. Although the audience responded to Wolf's songs with enthusiasm, the critics (among them Wolf's erstwhile friend Paumgartner) felt it was presumptuous to juxtapose Wolf and Beethoven as the only two composers on the programme. But success had finally come and Wolf had cause for rejoicing. He had even more cause in 1889 and 1890 when Wetzler brought out the Mörike-Lieder and the small Viennese firm of Lacom published the Eichendorff-Lieder and the Goethe volume (the latter appeared in 1890), with financial aid from Eckstein and an American woman named Elizabeth Fairchild; Wolf also used some of the money he inherited from his father to defray the costs of publication. Wolf insisted upon truly fine volumes – he had no compunction about administering periodic tongue-lashings to the printers – and fussed over every detail of ornamental borders, paper, number of staves per page, number of bars per line, colour of the covers and lettering.
In May 1889 he returned to the Werners' house in Perchtoldsdorf, where he worked on several large-scale compositions: fragments of an opera based on A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Elfenlied in piano score, orchestrated in 1891 for soprano solo, women's chorus and orchestra, and the Lied des transferierten Zettel, or Bottom's ‘The ousel-cock so black of hue’, for voice and piano, are all that remain of this project), the choral and orchestral work Christnacht (begun at the end of 1886, completed in May 1889), and orchestral arrangements of the Mörike songs Seufzer, Karwoche and Auf ein altes Bild (the date for the latter is uncertain). More orchestration of his recent songs followed, including the Goethe songs Der Rattenfänger, Anakreons Grab, Kennst du das Land?, Ganymed and Prometheus and the Mörike songs Er ist's, Gesang Weylas and Schlafendes Jesuskind. In the wake of holiday visits to Bayreuth and to his mother in Windischgraz, Wolf returned to Perchtoldsdorf in October 1889 to work on his Spanisches Liederbuch, the source an 1852 volume of translations of Spanish poems by the poets Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse (the latter a writer of many novellas and winner of the Nobel Prize); Wolf's choice of 44 poems included works by Juan Ruiz, Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Luís de Camoens, as well as anonymous songs. Given the long-enduring vogue for Spanish exoticism in Germany, this anthology had been popular with song composers, including Schumann (the Spanisches Liederspiel duets, for example) and Brahms, for over 40 years; but Wolf characteristically chose poems overlooked by previous composers, a fact which earned him a quibble from his new publisher Schott. Thanks to his friend Gustav Schur, a banker and the treasurer of the Wagner Verein, the efforts of Jäger and Schalk, and Engelbert Humperdinck's approbation of the music he was asked to evaluate, Wolf had the attention of one of Germany's foremost music publishers.
In fact, his fame was now on the march outside Vienna's boundaries. Heinrich Rauchberg's article ‘Neue Lieder und Gesänge’ on the Mörike and Eichendorff songs appeared in the November–December issue of the Österreichisch-ungarische Revue and was privately printed and distributed shortly after to spread the word about Wolf. Even more significant, Schalk wrote a lengthy article ‘Neue Lieder, neues Leben’ in the Münchener allgemeine Zeitung for 22 January 1890 in which he praised Wolf's achievement to a new south German audience and pointed out the composer's service to the ‘half-forgotten Swabian master’ Mörike. Upon reading this article, Emil Kauffmann, the Tübingen music director and son of Mörike's friend Ernst Friedrich Kauffmann (a mathematician and composer who set many of Mörike's poems to music), wrote to Wolf, thanking him for his music with the magnificent gift of a Mörike autograph manuscript; the gift and Kauffmann's first letter arrived fortuitously on Wolf's 30th birthday. Both Kauffmann and the Mannheim judge Oskar Grohe, who also learned of Wolf's existence from Schalk's article, became close friends, and the composer's correspondence with these two trusted non-Viennese adherents is a valuable window on to his life. Grohe introduced Wolf's music to the music publisher Karl Heckel and to Felix Weingartner, Kapellmeister at Mannheim, who asked Wolf to contribute works for a concert in commemoration of Wagner's birthday. Furthermore, a hugely successful recital given by Jäger for the Graz Wagner Verein led to still another concert, this time with a new Wolfian adherent, the dentist and amateur pianist Heinrich Potpeschnigg, accompanying. ‘Hugo Wolf is a lieder composer of the first rank’, wrote the critic for Die Tagespost, continuing, ‘Since Schubert we have seen few equal to him’.
But Wolf was also encountering renewed opposition from his enemies as a result of new-found fame. The great Wagnerian singer Amalie Materna withdrew from an engagement to sing some of Wolf's songs in the Wagner Verein when she was threatened with a boycott by the critics, and Richard Heuberger, Hanslick's underling at the Neue freie Presse (who refused to allow his own songs to be performed on the same programme as Wolf's), later told of a conversation with Brahms and Hans Richter in November 1890 about ‘the Wagnerians and in particular Hugo Wolf, whom they now praised as a great songwriter, the inventor of the “symphonic song”, whereas Schubert, Schumann and Brahms are said to have written songs as if with guitar accompaniment’. Brahms's later biographer Max Kalbeck wrote scathing reviews of Wolf's ‘childish, tinkling, arid things’ with their ‘ludicrous harmonic convulsions’, but Wolf was undeterred by the opposition and began energetically searching once more for suitable opera librettos – the idée fixe of his life, his Holy Grail. ‘Die Oper und immer wieder die Oper!’ (The opera, always the opera!), he cried out in a letter to Kauffmann. Wolf had believed his Spanish songs to be a preparatory stage for operatic composition, and his friends therefore encouraged the feminist and journalist Rosa Mayreder in 1890 to prepare a libretto based on Pedro Antonio de Alarcón's El sombrero de tres picos. Wolf rejected it savagely (he would later accept it in revised form), nor did plans to adapt The Tempest into a full-scale opera come to anything; given Wolf's love of tendentious humour, it is characteristic that he praises Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano as perfect for his purposes. The poet Detlev von Liliencron offered Wolf his play Pokahontas (it is difficult to imagine the exclamation ‘Kranke Wigwams!’ set to post-Wagnerian harmonies), but this too was rejected, as was the publisher Karl Heckel's proposal of a poetic drama on the life of Buddha. The latter was too reminiscent of Wagner for Wolf, who did not want to be an epigonic creator of still more ‘world-redeeming tragedy’; he preferred, so he told Grohe, comedy ‘ … in happy and original company, with strumming of guitars, sighs of love, moonlit nights, champagne carousels, etc.’. But despite his search for a drama to compose, he was soon rendered very unhappy indeed by a commission in 1890 to compose incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's The Feast at Solhaug for a new production at the Burgtheater. ‘It [the play] is a thoroughly botched piece of work – with damned little poetry’, he wrote crossly; he was uninspired and tardy, his dilatoriness delaying the opening until 21 November 1891. Only a portion of his music could be performed because he had scored the work for too large an orchestra, while one of the singers found the music too difficult and recited his songs to harp accompaniment instead.
In May and June of 1890 Wolf set a series of six poems from the Alte Weisen of the Swiss poet and novelist Gottfried Keller, whose novel Der grüne Heinrich he had long loved. Shortly afterwards Wolf orchestrated four more of his Mörike songs (Gebet, An den Schlaf, Neue Liebe, Wo find ich Trost?) and began work on the Italienisches Liederbuch, which had a difficult and protracted genesis. Between 25 September and 14 November 1890, he set seven poems from the 1860 translations of Italian folk poems by Paul Heyse, then turned to the Ibsen commission. After the first four Italian songs had been composed in one burst of creative energy, he made an important journey to Germany (Munich, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Mainz, Mannheim) in October and November 1890 in order to conclude negotiations with Schott and to visit such friends as Kauffmann and Grohe. In his letters to Melanie, Wolf recounted his pleasure when Kauffmann showed him Mörike's letters to Kauffmann's father and told the biographical history of Mörike's Peregrina, which Wolf had not known when setting those poems to music. But the next year was not so felicitous. Mental and physical exhaustion complicated by depression and bouts with throat inflammation (almost certainly a secondary result of his syphilis) prevented further work for much of 1891. ‘You ask me about the opera! Dear God, I would be contented if I could write the smallest song, let alone an opera! I firmly believe that I am finished, completely finished’, he wrote to Kauffmann on 6 August. ‘I am the most unhappy creature on this earth’, he told Hermann Wette in a letter written one week later, and he had to endure this unhappiness until 29 November, when the clouds parted and he was able to compose Dass doch gemalt all' deine Reize wären. 14 more Italienisches Liederbuch songs followed, the compositional spurt ending on 23 December with Man sagt mir, deine Mutter woll' es nicht. Although he had chosen still more poems from the Heyse anthology for inclusion in his Italian songbook, darkness fell once again, longer and more impenetrable than ever. Four years would pass before he could complete his last lengthy song collection.
Wolf filled the lean years in part with concerts of his works, beginning in Berlin with a private recital on 3 March for the Berlin Wagner Verein (Wolf himself played and sang additional songs after the singer had to leave for another engagement) and a public recital on 5 March 1892, with the mezzo-soprano Friedrike Mayer and a local tenor replacing Jäger, who was ill with gout. Wolf's loyal friends in the Wagner Verein prevailed upon the proud composer to accept their help toward the advancement of his art and contributed a dress suit and travel funds. In Berlin he made valuable friends, including Baron Lipperheide, the wealthy proprietor of a fashion paper who became a loyal patron, and his wife Baroness Frieda; the critic Richard Sternfeld, a director of the Berlin Wagner Verein who wrote the laudatory article ‘Ein neuer Liederfrühling’ for the 12 March issue of the Magazin für Literatur; and Siegfried Ochs, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic choir who conducted the first Berlin performance of the Elfenlied two years later. Although Wolf was angered by the musical liberties Mayer permitted herself in performance and the two never saw one another thereafter, the concert was a success; if the critics showed little real comprehension of Wolf's importance, they praised him nonetheless. Also in Berlin, the librettist Richard Genée recommended Alarcón's Il niño de la bola, the German translation entitled Manuel Venegas, as a suitable text for conversion into an opera, and Wolf began the search for a librettist, a search which cost him the friendship of two men (Gustav Schur and Hermann Wette) and shows him at his inflammatory and self-centred worst. He returned to Vienna in early March and fell ill with another throat inflammation immediately upon arrival and was nursed back to health at the Köcherts' for ten days before returning to his hermitage in Döbling. On 11 April Jäger and Schalk gave a recital in Vienna's Bösendorfer-Saal, and the occasion was a triumph. ‘It seems in fact as if I were becoming fashionable’, the pleased composer wrote, adding ‘It is high time’. In April and May of 1892 he worked on the scoring of the Italienische Serenade for small orchestra and an orchestral version of Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt (Wolf chose to end the Spanisches Liederbuch with this magnificent extended song of passion), the latter exercise possibly inspired by Melanie's solicitous presence during his illness. June saw a performance of the music to Das Fest auf Solhaug at the International Exhibition of Music and Theatre in Vienna – from all accounts, not a good performance but still a succès d'estime.
Success, while not hollow, could not make up for the compositional wasteland Wolf now inhabited. From 1892 to 1894 he wrote nothing. ‘I would like most to hang myself on the nearest branch of the cherry trees which now stand in full bloom’, he told Kauffmann in April 1893, Nature's fruitfulness only exacerbating his awareness of aridity. ‘I could just as soon begin suddenly to speak Chinese as compose a single note’, he wrote in despair to Grohe. Travel and the obsessional quest for an opera libretto helped to pass the time, if not peacefully. ‘I already own a small library of the most atrocious, bestial, bloody, idiotic, hair-pullingest, murderously shameful opera texts imaginable’, said ‘Fluchu’, and yet he longed for ‘the right one! the true one!’ (‘Der Rechte! der Echte!’) with every fibre of his being. In October and November 1892 he completed a mammoth arrangement of the Mörike ballad Der Feuerreiter (always one of Wolf's favourites among all his compositions) for chorus and orchestra, first performed, along with the Shakespeare Elfenlied, under Siegfried Och's direction in Berlin in January 1894. While in Mannheim in 1894 Wolf made a new friend in the barrister and amateur singer Hugo Faisst, who was unbounded in his admiration and support of the composer thereafter. Early in this same year Wolf became infatuated with the mezzo-soprano Frieda Zerny and had an affair with her of several months' duration; he even contemplated emigrating to America to begin life anew with her. She came to Vienna in March to give a recital of Wolf's songs with Jäger and Faisst, with Wolf himself accompanying, but by June the brief liaison, perhaps born of the desire to bring his long compositional drought to an end, was over. The matter caused Melanie great distress – in one letter to Frieda, Wolf reveals that Melanie's hair had turned grey from grief – before Wolf's return to her. Heinrich seems to have discovered the longstanding love between his wife and Wolf in the summer of 1893 and to have understood the matter in some extraordinary fashion; he neither renounced his wife nor abated his loyal patronage of Wolf. Wolf spent the summer months of 1894 first at her country house in Traunkirchen and then with the Lipperheides near Brixlegg in the Tyrol. When he returned to Vienna, he stayed with either the Köcherts or Eckstein and was reportedly in a terrible state of depression, broken only by the performance on 2 December of the Elfenlied and the choral-orchestral version of Der Feuerreiter at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (a concert attended, and warmly applauded, by Brahms and reviewed approvingly by the critics, even Hanslick) and by the successful Vienna production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel.
Both of these events almost surely played a role in Wolf's renewed operatic obsession. He returned to the notion of an opera based on Alarcón's El sombrero de tres picos and, after rejecting a scenario by Franz Schaumann, chairman of the Vienna Wagner Verein, returned to the formerly despised libretto entitled Der Corregidor by Rosa Mayreder. Where before he could find nothing right in it, he could now find no fault. The day before his 35th birthday he began the work of composition, the long, arid period of blocked creativity finally over. In April 1895 he moved to Perchtoldsdorf and threw himself ‘like a madman’ into the composition of his first and only completed opera, moving to the Lipperheide château in Brixlegg in May when the Werners returned to their summer home. In nine months of feverish work he composed and orchestrated the entire opera, which he designated as an ‘Oper’ rather than a comic opera. The sufferings caused by adulterous passion were not, as he knew to his cost, comic at the core. Wolf had quarrelled with Schott and therefore the score was printed by Karl Heckel in Mannheim, where the opera was first performed on 7 June 1896 under the baton of Hugo Röhr (Wolf had offered it to Vienna, Berlin and Prague, with no success). After fraught rehearsals, exacerbated by Wolf's nerves and his customary outspoken criticism of the performers, the opera was a resounding initial success, but the second performance was a failure and the Intendant dropped it from the roster. Much the same fate has been repeated at every revival of this work, which for all its beautiful passages is undramatic and marred by a poor libretto – Wolf's judgment of the text was correct the first time.
At the end of March 1896, Wolf asked Melanie for his copy of the Italienisches Liederbuch, then went to Perchtoldsdorf to complete the last section of the songbook. After composing 24 songs in the five weeks between 25 March and 30 April he returned to Vienna and, for the first time, an apartment of his own at Schwindgasse 3, thanks to the generosity of Faisst and other friends. He had always lived penuriously in lodgings or as a guest in other people's homes but could now look forward to furnishing a place with ‘all the devil's stuff that really makes a dwelling comfortable’. For the remainder of 1896 Wolf revised the score of Der Corregidor with the help of the devoted Potpeschnigg, composed one song to a poem by Reinick (Morgenstimmung) and two songs to translations of Byron (Keine gleicht von allen Schönen and Sonne der Schlummerlosen), and importuned Rosa Mayreder to concoct a new version of his old obsession, Manuel Venegas.