But time was running out for the composer, and the sword of Damocles poised over his head for almost 20 years was soon to fall. As a Christmas present from Paul Müller, the founder of the Hugo Wolf-Verein in Berlin, he received a copy of Walter-Heinrich Robert-Tornow's German translations of Michelangelo's poetry from which he took the texts for four Michelangelo songs composed in March 1897 (he destroyed the fourth song as unworthy). On 22 February he accompanied Jäger and the soprano Sofie Chotek in a recital of his works at the Bösendorfer-Saal including the complete Hatem-Suleika sequence from the Goethe volume; this was to be his last public appearance in concert. As a consequence of this recital, he became friends with Michael Haberlandt, the curator of the Natural History Museum and founder of the Hugo Wolf-Verein in Vienna; the society's first meeting on 14 May 1897 featured a recital of Wolf's songs (Wolf did not attend but participated in the celebration afterwards). That same month Mayreder completed her libretto, but Wolf was soon unhappy with it. Haberlandt persuaded a colleague at the University of Vienna, one Moritz Hoernes, to recast the text; when Hoernes gave him the new libretto Wolf proclaimed it Shakespearean in quality. This judgment of a sick mind was accompanied by other ominous signs, including a loss of pupillary reflex (a symptom of the impending paralysis of tertiary syphilis) and by outbursts of temper and restlessness beyond his usual irascibility. In late July and early August he made a start on Manuel Venegas, but he then came to a standstill and only resumed work the second week of September, when he shut himself in his apartment to work from dawn to dusk, producing some 60 pages of piano score before his reason gave way. By 19 September it was evident to his distressed friends that he had lost his mind. Gustav Mahler had been appointed Kapellmeister of the Vienna Hofoper and, according to Wolf, had promised to produce Der Corregidor, then changed his mind. The disappointment was the last straw, and the delusional Wolf insisted that he was the new director of the opera and had dismissed Mahler from his post. The terrible real-life scene in which the mad Wolf played portions of Manuel Venegas for his horrified friends became a model for the scene of Adrian Leverkühn's madness in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus. He was taken away under restraint to Dr Wilhelm Svetlin's asylum for the insane from which he wrote letters of accusation against the friends who had ‘betrayed’ him and devised grandiose plans for the establishment of his fame, the latter will-o'-the-wisp supposedly to occur under the auspices of the Grand Duke of Weimar. For a few months in 1898 he was well enough to visit resorts at Cilli, Graz, Semmering and Trieste, with Melanie and his sister Käthe to take care of him, and even moved to a new apartment furnished by the Köcherts. After two months he terminated the lease and moved to Gmunden, but at the beginning of October his madness was renewed and he tried to drown himself in the Traunsee. He was returned at his own request to an asylum, the Lower Austrian Landesirrenanstalt in the Alsergrund district of Vienna, on 4 October 1898. His maintenance became the responsibility of Haberlandt and the Hugo Wolf-Verein; the devoted Haberlandt saw to it that he had a large room with a piano and a view of the Stephansdom, but Wolf was incapable of all music-making after the summer of 1899 (among his last comprehensible words was the exclamation ‘loathsome music’) and thought that the view was only a painting. Melanie visited him three times a week during the long agony of his insanity until his death on 22 February 1903. She then sank increasingly into melancholia and self-reproach (‘I have been a bad wife’, she is reputed to have said repeatedly) until finally she threw herself from the fourth-floor window of her Vienna home to her death on 21 March 1906. She is buried in the family plot at Hietzing, and Wolf, whom she loved so devotedly, is buried in the grove of honour in Vienna's central cemetery, by the graves of Schubert and Beethoven.
5. Early songs.
Wolf travelled a long road to the song year of 1888, a road littered with experiments, musical conceptions only partially realized and compositions more self-educative than musically valuable. Wolf, who may speculatively have kept his early manuscripts in order to revisit them on occasion and thereby enjoy the distance he had travelled musically, did not begin as a song composer finely responsive to poetry; it required over a decade of apprenticeship before he could harness mastery of compositional elements to the results of deep reading and before he could recognize where his talents lay. At first he was misled into the belief that large-scale forms were the only proper preparation and the sole sign of mastery, but his temperament militated against that direction. A self-willed and poetic nature gravitated instinctively to voice and keyboard rather than academic disciplines such as chamber music or a public forum such as orchestral composition. Even so, his earliest extant songs, for example, the three Goethe songs of op.3 (not published in Wolf's lifetime but designated as op.3 by the composer), show him struggling for control of the most basic compositional procedures and producing glaring errors of part-writing, maladroit prosody and inept forays into chromaticism. (In a foreshadowing of the Wilhelm Meister songs, defiantly placed at the beginning of the later Goethe anthology, the 15-year-old Wolf selected three poems famously set by Schubert half a century earlier: Sehnsucht, Der Fischer and Auf dem See.) Already obsessed with opera (he had begun work on a gory four-act Romantic opera entitled König Alboin in 1876–7), he quickly began thinking in terms of musical characterization and atmospheric depiction, as in the unintentionally comical demisemiquaver left-hand figures depicting rushing, swelling water in Der Fischer. These tendencies, however, would serve him well in his mature songs.
In an 1898 essay Das deutsche Lied seit dem Tode Richard Wagners, the musicologist and conductor Hermann Kretzschmar observed that a majority of the songs composed from about 1855 to 1880 were influenced by Schumann, and Wolf in his youth was no exception. Songs such as An* to a text by Lenau, composed in April 1877, seem a hybrid of Schumannesque traits and elements borrowed from Liszt, another of Wolf's youthful idols; the lied perfectly exemplifies the over-indulgence in pathos which Kretzschmar condemned in many Schumann imitators. (Works such as Über Nachtto a text by Julius Sturm, composed in May 1878, seem especially Lisztian in their lush harmonies and slightly overblown grandiloquence.) One notes in An* the prolongation of the words ‘auf immerdar’ while a chromatic bass line rises menacingly upwards at the song's end; the progression culminates in Romanticism's favourite diminished 7th ‘horror’ chord, followed by a melodramatically sombre piano postlude extended à la Schumann, not a repetition of the introduction but newly composed. In the 1877 setting of Friedrich von Matthisson's Andenken (a 19th-century ‘bestseller’ of a song text), the postlude goes on and on tiresomely, typical of the formal imbalances of Wolf's earliest songs. By the early 1880s, however, the imitations of Schumann are often uncannily skilful: Wolf's Das ist ein Brausen und Heulen, for example, seems a latter-day homage to Schumann's Lust der Sturmnacht from the Kerner songs op.35. To compose under the sign of Schumann meant composing virtually independent Charakterstücke in the piano to which a vocal line was added, sometimes a vocal part which echoes the right-hand melody in the piano (Morgentau, one of the few early songs Wolf ever judged worthy of publication), sometimes a more declamatory line. As in songs by Schumann and Schumann's disciple Brahms, contrapuntal devices of a sort he would later scorn appear on rare occasions, such as the fragmentary imitation between the left-hand and right-hand parts in the introduction to the Heine song Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen of May 1878, followed by a vocal line which begins with the same figures in rhythmic augmentation (one thinks of Brahms's Liebestreu op.3 no.1). But the influence of Schubert is also detectable in these early years as well, such as the clearly recognizable echo of the first variation in the Impromptu in B op.142 no.3 in Wolf's 1876 setting of Heine's Wenn ich in deine Augen seh or the hint of Schubert's Der Doppelgänger at the beginning of Wolf's Nach dem Abschiede, no doubt called into being by Hoffmann von Fallersleben's words ‘Dunkel sind nun alle Gassen, / Und die Stadt ist öd und leer’. It is possible too that Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen swayed the creation of uncharacteristic vocal melismas in the Lenau song Frühlingsgrüsse from early 1876, an echo of the welcome to spring in the final section of Schubert's German concert aria-cum-lied.
But Schumann was the foremost influence. For a time Wolf's favourite poet was Schumann's favourite poet Heinrich Heine; Wolf chose texts from Heine on five separate occasions in the years from 1876 to 1888 before realizing that this poet's subjectivity, lack of dramatic elements, obsession with unrequited love, and possibly his brimstone-and-gall misogyny as well, were not Wolf's cup of tea. Despite his later renunciation of Heine, it was in this repertory that Wolf first devised the separation of voice and piano into different elements of a mini-drama, for example, the military music in Es blasen die blauen Husaren or the tinkling Trivialmusik salon piece in Aus meinen grossen Schmerzen or the ‘party music’ in Sie haben heut' Abend Gesellschaft; in these songs alienated protagonists are set apart from the resonant social world around them. The latter song is especially remarkable because Wolf imbues the background music with the protagonist's anger and misery, erupting unchecked in the long postlude. This is both echt Schumann and yet a reversal of Schumann's psychological strategem of reconciliation with memory in the lengthy piano passage at the end of Dichterliebe. There is often just such an individual touch, something premonitory of the real Wolf, in these Schumann imitations even at their most slavish (the ethereal non-legato chordal figures in the piano one finds in Du bist wie eine Blume are, for example, a foreshadowing of similar figuration to accompany the gentle laughter of the stars in Mörike's An die Geliebte, or the apotheosis of a humble peasant woman who imagines her arrival in heaven in Wie glänzt der helle Mond). These exercises in autodidacticism by mimicry could on occasion prove inhibiting to composition. He attempted in May 1878 to set Chamisso's Was soll ich sagen? (also set by Schumann), but abandoned the attempt after 31 bars, at some time inscribing the comment ‘Zu viel Schumannisch; deshalb nicht vollendet’ on the manuscript. His skill in aping Schumann, however, in Heine and Eichendorff poems not set to music by his predecessor was eventually so accurate that he undertook to pass off some of his ‘Schumannisch’ creations as the genuine article at a recital given by the Austrian Alpine Society, probably in 1882, but the master of ceremonies gave away the hoax in his introduction, and the infuriated Wolf ran off the stage and disappeared.
In the early 1880s Wolf turned from Heine to Eichendorff as a textual source also hallowed by Schumann, although now he knew to avoid Schumann's choices. Going from song to song chronologically (Nachruf in 1880, In der Fremde I of 1881, In der Fremde II and Wolken, wälderwärts gegangen of 1883, Rückkehr of 1883 and Die Kleine of 1887), one can trace the acquisition of greater skill, of harmonic adventurousness under greater control and even more innate response to verbal gesture, although compositional maturity still eludes him. Schumann remains very much an unbanished ghost, as when the succession of single pitches rising from the low bass at the beginning of Wolken, wälderwärts gegangen is actually split into two contrapuntal lines – one thinks of Schumann's Zwielicht – or when Schumannesque syncopation appears near the end of the same song (‘Doch du harrst nicht mehr mit Schmerzen’). However, one can hear the results of Wolf's immersion in Wagner as well when the sad revenant of Rückkehr tells of heart and mind afire at the sound of music and the sight of a happy crowd; the Wolfian verklingend (dying away) postlude is on display at the end of the latter song as well. Wolf would later complain in Eichendorff's dreamy vagueness and would turn to poets given to greater psychological activity and more vivid images; here, he gropes for musical gestures to suit poetic imagery – drifting ‘wandering cloud’ quaver figures in the piano part of Wolken, wälderwärts gegangen, for example – and yet the music often seems curiously divorced from the text, the composer posing musical challenges for himself rather than plumbing poetic depths. Even where figure is matched to image, the results are not always very inspired: witness the figure at the beginning of In der Fremde I, wheel-like but dull, or the neo-Baroque ‘walking bass’ throughout In der Fremde II, which is unimaginable in the later Wolf. He was happiest with Eichendorff either when the imagery was specific, as in the village music-makers of Rückkehr, or when in 1887 he chose a folklike Rollenlied entitled Die Kleine and dressed it up with quasi-dramatic musical characterization; the lusty villageoise maiden longing to be married laments her manless state to affective harmonies in the middle section, then returns to her irrepressibly merry self at the end. But the prosody is unforgivably awkward, filled with misaccentuations; Wolf had not yet secured the harnessing of declamatory principles to melodic imperatives. This song, like most of the Eichendorff songs of the early 1880s, is not one he later considered worthy of publishing.
During these same years of apprenticeship Wolf found material for lieder in yet another Schumann text source, the poet and illustrator Robert Reinick. Of the eight Reinick songs composed in 1882–3, the paired lullabies Wiegenlied im Sommer and Wiegenlied im Winter (Wolf's pairing or collecting impulse was already at work) are perhaps the most successful, albeit in a style and a manner one does not associate with the mature Wolf. The summer lullaby is a strophic lied im Volkston (was it perhaps from Schubert's Im Frühling that Wolf learned to devise a continuous faster treble melody in the right hand against a vocal line in even crochets or quavers?), the beautiful vocal melody and gentle chromatic touches within a diatonic framework completely assured, while the winter lullaby alternates another such charming tune with sections depicting a not-really-menacing winter wind whose displacement by springtime beauty is promised at the end. However, the best songs of the period before February 1888, the ones which foreshadow his mature style most clearly, are settings not of such poetic nonentities as Reinick but of Mörike and Mörike's Swabian friend Justinus Kerner (the poet of Schumann's op.35). Wolf's early lieder tend to divide into light, comic pieces and deeply serious songs, as exemplified respectively by the Mörike song Mausfallen-Sprüchlein of June 1882 and the Kerner song Zur Ruh', zur Ruh', ihr müden Glieder of 1883. Wolf would not be ready for Mörike's more profound poems until six years later, but the rapidly changing poetic metres and line lengths of this magic charm for mousers, its colloquial tone, its vivid poetic persona (a child with a streak of cruelty) and the vivacity of its brief phrases impelled a foretaste of ‘Wolf's own howl’. In an entirely serious vein, the Kerner song also bespeaks Wolf's mature manner in the combination, fully achieved, of chromatic part-writing in his characteristic string-quartet-like texture, carefully disposed prosody and close attention to the nuances of the text. But despite these hints of greatness to come Wolf was not yet able to step outside a poem and view it with sufficient objectivity and attention, detached from his own concerns, to produce the best lieder. (It seems only appropriate that he was first able to do so through the agency of Mörike, who sought to veil deeply personal inner concerns from view or to rewrite experience rather than create art in a confessional vein.) By Wolf's own stringent but accurate criteria, only 19 of the 100 or so songs before 1888 were worth publishing in the Sechs Lieder für Frauenstimme, Sechs Gedichte von Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe und Kerner, and the Eichendorff anthology (seven songs in the latter). Wolf was better able in these early years to test the relationship between literature and music within the larger confines of instrumental works, where the link with words, though still vital, was not a criterion of excellence.