6. Instrumental music and the ‘Christnacht’ cantata.
There is a curious category of chamber compositions by 19th-century composers famous for other genres. Although these works deserve inclusion in the standard repertory, they are infrequently performed, in part because they stand outside their creators' principal claims to fame. Verdi's String Quartet is one such composition; Hugo Wolf's D minor Quartet – a flawed but powerful work – is another. If its lengthy genesis resulted in a certain unevenness by the end, if the closeness and density of the texture (a common propensity of Wolf's in his youth) render details unclear in performance, its many passages of tragic intensity make it well worth knowing. The Scherzo, originally intended as the third movement but later shifted to second place, where it should properly remain, was the first movement to be composed, between 30 December 1878 and 16 January 1879; four days later, on 20 January, Wolf began work on the first movement, but had abandoned it by 7 April, telling his father that ‘it did not seem good enough to finish’. He did so, however, and continued onwards: the composition of the slow movement belongs largely to summer 1880, and the undated fourth and final movement was almost certainly composed in 1884, as sketches for it appear with sketches for the 1884 unfinished incidental music to Kleist's play Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. Wolf wrote a lengthy statement at the end of this last movement but at some time scraped it off with a knife so thoroughly that his signature is barely decipherable. It seems likely that the work, minus its fourth movement, was performed as an integral composition at a private performance in Natalie Bauer-Lechner's home early in 1881; after its rejection by the Rosé Quartet, it was not performed in public until 3 February 1903, shortly before Wolf's death.
When Wolf began this composition, he had recently contracted syphilis, and his score bears the Faustian motto ‘Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren’; one could almost declaim those words to the double-dotted fortissimo chords at the beginning of the Grave introduction. Nothing in his earlier teenage compositions had given reason to suspect him capable of such intensity at such length, and one can only speculate that the combination of immersion in late Beethoven and awareness of mortality produced such a work. The Grosse Fuge was the obvious model for the gigantic leaps, textual extremes, and treatment of dissonance in the introduction, and the spiky counterpoint of the first movement proper, which stretches the sonata principle close to breaking point. The extravagantly sweeping scalar gestures for the first violin in the introduction, the equally dramatic way in which the two violin parts cross paths when the Grave returns, the long crescendos (bars 314–49, for example), all convey a cataclysmic sense of turmoil. The Scherzo recalls the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso of Beethoven's F minor Quartet op.95, and is Beethovenian as well in the plethora of off-beat accents and the contrast between the ‘sehr ausdrucksvoll und sangbar’ middle section and the forceful dotted rhythms (the movement is marked ‘Resolut’) on either side of it. The slow movement begins with an obvious reference to Wagner, the hushed, high chords evocative of the beginning of the Lohengrin prelude or, perhaps more suggestively, the ‘pardon’ motif in Tannhäuser; for Wolf, to whom erotic transgression and suffering were a reality, the citation seems personal. What follows is not Wagnerian, however, but a continued transmutation of late Beethoven through youthful Wolf. Such overt Beethovenian influence recurs only in the Mörike song Der Genesene an die Hoffnung (in which Wagnerian influence is also apparent), likewise a work charting a spiritual progression through despair to faith and hence to recuperation. But even the expressive cello recitative and the long-breathed cantilena which emerges after the Wagnerian head-motif do not endure for long before extreme tension intrudes in the form of hammering figures which reappear near the end, although the movement ends peacefully. The energetic finale, combining aspects of both sonata and rondo forms, prefigures the manner of the later Italienische Serenade in several passages; by 1884 the 24-year-old Wolf was no longer the fraught youth who had begun this quartet, and the finale accurately registers the musical distance he had travelled in the interim.
In Hermann Bahr's reminiscences of Wolf one hears of Bahr and Edmund Lang returning at a disreputable hour to the Trattnerhof rooms they shared with Wolf in 1884, to be met with Wolf's dramatic readings from Kleist's plays; later, Wolf would insist upon prefacing each performance of his songs with a reading of the poem, the words thus separately acknowledged as a vital part of the content. Wolf was obsessed with Kleist, who lived in the age of Goethe but created denizens of a modern world in which identity and consciousness are dubious quantities, and ‘truth’ resides only in the unconscious. His principal characters are mysterious to themselves and to others; the excess of self wreaks havoc, and everything in the universe is simultaneously its opposite: love = hate and desire for domination, leading to murder. In Penthesilea (1807), the title character, the queen of the Amazons, leads her warrior maidens to Troy and wages war on both sides, on men of any nation or kind. Enamoured of Achilles, as he is of her, Penthesilea avenges her subjection to him in love and war when she incites her war-hounds to rip him to pieces and joins them in rending his flesh. Brought back from murderous madness to awareness of what she has done, she wills herself to die, slain from within by the erotic chaos which rages throughout the entire 24 scenes. For Wolf, an excessive personality fascinated with psychological workings, and much preoccupied at the time with the havoc inflicted by love, this was the perfect source for a symphonic tone poem, but if ever a work was a Schmerzenskind, this is it. The disaster with Richter was followed by sporadic attempts at revision, including the addition of english horn and percussion parts in 1897, after his confinement in the asylum, and a new eight-page section composed at the same time and depicting Penthesilea's memories of childhood (the pages were destroyed in an air-raid on Berlin). He never heard it again after the 1886 Vienna Philharmonic trial, although he briefly considered having his tone poem performed at a Wagner memorial concert in 1890. It is not surprising that he even thought in his insanity of turning it into the overture to a long-dreamt-of Kleist opera.
Disdainful of post-Beethovenian symphonies, Wolf sought to counter ‘the barren soil of absolute music’ with a more poetic music which he felt perforce had to break out of symphonic convention in order to create plastic form moulded to literary ideas. This was how Liszt, in Wolf's view, had created such works as Tasso, and this was the model he would follow; it was after his meeting with Liszt on 6 April 1883 that he began the initial compositional work on Penthesilea. Wolf's ambitions were not small: the characters are of epic scale, and so are their passions, while the play is filled with massive panoramas of ritual and conflict. Wolf sought a musical narration of similar heroic stature, incorporating the extremes of contrast in Kleist's universe. Perhaps in an attempt to outdo his revered model Liszt (despite his ardent praise of this composer he wrote of Liszt's music as ‘more intellectual than deeply felt’), he scored his tone poem for a giant and highly colouristic orchestra with, for example, antiphonal trumpets on either side to enclose the listener in sounds of war. The formal structure for the work is a mixture sui generis of characterization and quasi-narrative, beginning with two shorter sections entitled ‘Departure of the Amazons for Troy’ and ‘Penthesilea's Dream of the Rose Festival’ (a festival of love in which selected Amazons mate with chosen captured heroes). Availing himself of the sort of thematic symbolism evident in Liszt's Faust-Symphonie, Wolf fashions the principal themes presented at the start of the first two sections as different manifestations of the same material, the first section in a dark, stormy F minor, the second in the relative major with the rhythmic tensions of the theme's initial appearance as war music banished. One thinks inevitably of Berlioz (like Liszt, another of Wolf's most important early models) and Les Troyens upon hearing the march of the Amazons, with much ado for the four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, in addition to the full complement of wind, strings and percussion. The tone poem thus begins with successive sections depicting Penthesilea's duality before bringing the sides of her nature into musical conflict in the final, and by far the longest, section of the tone poem (‘Battles, Passions, Madness, Destruction’), a huge development section of all the themes previously presented, plus new thematic material which grows from the old.
Wolf had carefully considered the structural idiosyncrasies of the symphonic tone poem and demonstrated his theories about its nature in this work. In literary tragedies the climax, or peripeteia, the moment when all becomes clear to the fallen epic protagonist, occurs near the end. Before that moment tension builds as hints of revelation, of disaster, of possible rescue withheld, accumulate until, too late, the full truth appears. Wolf differentiates his ‘developmental section’ in Penthesilea from that of a purely symphonic work by presenting only fragments and shifting shapes of the section's main theme (Penthesilea's fury and madness) until bar 832, where it unfurls to full length and fury. Before that point Wolf brings back the love-dream at bar 520 and develops it in contention with the motifs of warlike hatred until a quasi-recapitulatory arrival at the battle music from the beginning of the entire work culminates in tutti sound-and-fury at bar 832. As the unarmed Penthesilea is dying, Wolf had his chance to compose a Liebestod and took it, including a final transformation of the love theme from minor to major mode before the work ends in darkness. Without knowing Kleist's play, it is difficult to discern the rationale for this particular formal structure, inventively cut to fit Kleist's ideas as well as condensed narrative, and this helps to explain why Penthesilea has never entered the standard repertory despite its brilliance. The orchestration later struck Wolf as needing revision; the first editors of the work thought so as well and made massive inexcusable cuts in the initial edition, including the entire section in which permutations of the Rose-Festival theme do battle with the emerging motifs of madness. A unique formal structure was thereby turned into gibberish, but the composer's full text has since been restored.
From one Kleist play to another: Wolf spent much of the summer of 1884 working on incidental music to Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, but very little remains (16 bars of the introduction for yet another immense orchestra, 35 bars of orchestral accompaniment to a Hamlet-like soliloquy in Act 4, and a fragment in full score of the Trauermusik at the end of Act 2). Wolf played the funeral march in its entirety for Eckstein, who admired it, but the extant bits and pieces are too brief for meaningful evaluation of their significance. In 1889 he did complete, at Eckstein's urging, what was to be his answer to Bach's Christmas Oratorio: the cantata Christnacht to a text by August Graf von Platen-Hallermünde, yet another early 19th-century source for this composer rooted poetically in the Biedermeier era. (He told Paul Müller near the end of his creative life that he planned to set his contemporary Nietzsche's poem An den Mistralfor chorus and orchestra, but the plan came to nought.) The first sketches for the work are dated Christmas Eve 1886, appropriately enough for a work about the Incarnation whose musical inception is a southern Styrian Christmas carol that Wolf himself had sung in his boyhood. In a letter to Oskar Grohe (26 February 1891), Wolf wrote that he had conceived the composition as a portrait of Christ's personality in two manifestations, the child and the ‘Weltüberwinders’, or hero who overcame the world. At the end, these themes and other musical ideas merge and unfold ‘with tongues of flame the dogma of God made man and of salvation’, he told Grohe, adding that if the execution did not keep pace with the concept it was ‘nobody's fault but my own’. The last phrase is perhaps revelatory of an underlying if unadmitted suspicion that the music did not fully live up to his stated aims for it, and not solely because of the overloaded orchestration. The tutelary deities presiding over this piece were clearly Liszt in his ecclesiastical guise – similar contrasts of purified naivety and heroic sublimity appear in some of his religious works – and Wagner. Wolf calls for two soloists (a soprano Angel of the Annunciation and a shepherd with a smaller role), four- to eight-part mixed chorus and a large orchestra. Christnacht has much to commend it and many admirable effects in the lengthy orchestral introduction alone: the delicate use of the high wind instruments at the start to evoke shepherds' flutes, the antiphonal brass and wind ceremonial fanfares, the frequent and skilful use of the mediant modulations that would become a hallmark of his tonal language, the beautifully scored passage for wind and high strings preceding the angel's first solo, belying the notion that Wolf could not orchestrate. One can hear in the angel's solo passages Wolf on the way to blending declamation with pure melody successfully, even in the lilting 6/8 metre of some passages, and an exquisitely atmospheric orchestral passage in bars 296–309 leads to a funereal premonition of future terror (‘I hear people striding – they breathe doom’, the angel proclaims). But Wolf being neo-Bachian/Lisztian in huge brass-laden choruses is Wolf being bombastic, especially in the chorus of believers (Platen indicates shepherds here, but this was insufficiently solemn for his purposes, so Wolf told Grohe, hence their new designation as ‘Gläubigen’) and the final chorus, and the work is in consequence not an unmitigated success.
No such pomposity mars Wolf's next two instrumental works, the Intermezzo in E for string quartet and the Serenade in G (in a letter of 2 April 1892, Wolf calls it ‘an Italian Serenade’, a title later reserved for the orchestral second version of the piece). Wolf sketched the Intermezzo's main theme on 3 June 1882, with further undated sketches following no later than the second half of 1884, then abandoned the work until the summer of 1886. Wolf referred to it as a ‘Humoristisches Intermezzo’ in a letter to Grohe of 16 April 1890, and this has led some to posit an unknown programme, possibly based upon Mörike whose delightful humorous poems Wolf would have discovered by that time. Certainly the grace-noted figures in the cello at bars 22–6 seem a premonition of Rat einer Alten, and other effects (bars 111–26) foreshadow Mörike's elfin creatures, but Wolf never specified a literary source of any kind. The Intermezzo is fashioned as a rondo whose main theme comes back twice in the tonic key (from bar 235 in the second violin and viola, from bar 431 in the viola alone, each occurrence with new counterpoints). In between Wolf derives the intervening episodes from the 16-bar main theme with a rigour that is Beethovenian and a lightness of touch, a verve, that are his own. The Serenade in its original string quartet version was composed between 2 and 4 May 1887 during a period when Wolf was preoccupied with Eichendorff settings (7 March – 24 May) and seems thematically related to one of them (by family resemblance, not quotation): Der Soldat I of 7 March. In this lighthearted Rollenlied, a soldier clip-clopping along on his horse invokes a sweetheart at the nearby castle; she is not, he confides, the prettiest girl in the world, but she pleases him best – until she speaks of wooing (‘Freien’), at which he hastily decides to remain free (‘bleibe im Freien’) and rides away. Eric Sams has postulated a connection between the Serenade and Eichendorff's novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, in whom Wolf might have seen a charmed, and charming, version of himself. Its protagonist is a young musician who leaves his country home and his grumbling father for various adventures, including several at a castle in Italy where a serenade played by a small orchestra is a central plot mechanism and thus a possible link between Der Soldat I, with its castle and serenading adventurer, the novella and the instrumental Serenade. As in his Eichendorff song Das Ständchen, composed in September 1888, Wolf begins the Serenade with some preliminary strummings on open 5ths and repeated single pitches (to test tuning), in mimicry of musicians preparing themselves before the piece really starts, but the wistful song is in a very different mood from the earlier instrumental work. With this composition Wolf created the first in a series of comic serenades, where love and laughter mingle, the laughter suffused with irony and love's language and rituals gently caricatured. We are told at the outset that this is a humorous affair when eight bars of preliminary strumming on the tonic, G major, culminate in ‘wrong-note’ repeated E pitches – isolated for maximum comic effect – and a forte dominant 7th of E, upon which the inner strings slyly (pizzicato) restore the proper cadential chords; what follows is further entertainment.
As in the Intermezzo, Wolf resorts to rondo form, but rondo modified by a quasi-dramatic conception in which the instruments seem like dramatis personae in a comedy of love. The initial section can be heard fancifully as the lover several times readying himself for a declaration, the syncopations and trills of the preparatory gestures leading to more preparation until at last (bar 130) the change of metre to 6/8 ushers in a passionate outburst. The main theme returns, with new and florid countermelodies in the second violin, followed in turn by a dialogue between the cello in fiery recitative passages and the other instruments responding, at first mockingly and then, as if in acquiescence, with the cello's first figure. After further dancelike strains, the rondo recurs, and the work closes as it began, with the soft strumming and twanging of mock guitars. Everything about the music suggests characterization and scene-painting, including the clear sense of dialogue or colloquy between the instruments, the symbolic invocation of speech in the cello recitative, the gestural liveliness of the sweeping violin flourishes and the predominance of the first violin (the object of the cello's affections?); one thinks of the ‘Taugenichts’ in chapter 8 of Eichendorff's novella, with garden arias in the moonlight, to the accompaniment of guitars' light laughter. The scene, if such was Wolf's intent, is the instrumental concomitant to the kind of opera Wolf then wanted most to write, a comedy of love with amorous sighs, moonlit nights, guitars and champagne banquets (see the letter to Grohe, 28 June 1890), and the putative link to his operatic ambitions may explain Wolf's ten-year preoccupation with arrangements and developments of his Italienische Serenade. Virtually everyone, however, is in agreement regarding the superiority of the original string quartet version over the 1892 arrangement for string orchestra (he also thought of adding second and third movements to the work but never did so); the fleetness of foot that is so crucial to the work is muddied or lost in the transference to larger instrumental forces. Once again, the smaller-scale conception is the finer.
The composition of works as skilful and delightful as the Intermezzo and Serenade brought Wolf at last to the point of mastery. It was at this juncture and surely for this reason that Wolf threw over his detested duties as a critic and readied himself for the marvel that was 1888.