For the nine scant years, punctuated by long silences, of Wolf's maturity as a composer, his songs display an idiosyncratic merger of traditional and novel elements, both noted by the critics. Comparisons with Schubert and Schumann in his own day abound, and with reason; he remained true to the established dimensions of the earlier 19th-century lied, indeed conservatively so – there is, for example, nothing comparable to the immensity and formal radicality of Schubert's Im Walde d708. Wolf was acutely conscious of his heritage: ‘They fairly threaten me with Schubert’, he is reported to have said, ‘but must I keep silent because a great man lived before me and wrote wonderful songs?’ Wolf's taste in poetry is another indication of his conservative bent, as he generally preferred the textual choices of an earlier generation – anonymous folk poetry translated into German, Vormärz poets, Goethe – and savagely excoriated contemporary poets as bunglers. The Biedermeier poet Mörike (1804–75) could not have been more perfect for his purposes in 1888: Wolf, who prided himself on his ability to create different characterizations in music, was drawn to the Protean variety in Mörike's output (poems about love, about nature, Rollenlieder or ‘role’ poems about genre characters, religious subjects, comedy, erotic poems, songs of fantastic-supernatural creatures, ballads and more). Moreover, Mörike had not been appropriated by Wolf's great songwriting predecessors in the way that Schumann, for example, is forever linked with Heine. Schumann did set nine poems by Mörike to music, but they are not among this composer's greatest songs, nor would the earlier settings by Robert Franz and others have constituted a powerful model for Wolf. The psychological depths of this verse, and its avoidance of overt subjectivity, were other attractions of a poet Wolf could claim as his own in a manner that liberated his creative imagination.
Beset by the ghosts of Wagner, Schubert and Schumann, Wolf was both eager to assert the novelty of his enterprise and at the same time to point out his place in a continuum based on tradition (he continued, for instance, the ballad-writing art of Carl Loewe, whom he admired). The Wolf myth has subsequently stressed difference, insisting upon his extraordinary attention to poets and poetry, his scrupulous prosody, the post-Wagnerian flexibility of his vocal declamation and his bold harmonic language; but the truth of the matter is more complex. His predecessors and peers were hardly unconcerned about these aspects – even Brahms, whom Wolf excoriated for his supposed ‘yodelling’ melodies, reliance on folksong and poor declamation. But Wolf, too, sacrificed correct declamation to musical imperatives, as in the Mörike song Der Gärtner, where the gentle Schwung of the 6/8 rhythmic patterns in the vocal line distorts the prosody – a compositional choice designed to enhance the fairy tale eroticism of the poem. His justly famous declamatory vocal style is often a second-stage adjustment or the result of emendations in page proof to what were initially more conventionally conceived melodic lines, the result an idiosyncratic mixture of symmetrical phrase construction and Wagner-influenced declamation. For example, in the Goethe song Blumengruss one hears two-bar phrases given a declamatory cast, especially at the beginnings, until the final two phrases, which are cast in more customary lyric-melodic terms (the influence of Schubert's Goethe song Geheimes is audible as well). Wolf unquestionably venerated the great poets Eichendorff, Heine, Goethe and Mörike (as had other composers before him), but approximately half of his mature songs are settings of anonymous folk poetry of dubious literary value, even in Geibel's and Heyse's expert translations, and his practice of taking a back seat to the poet on the title-pages of his Mörike, Goethe and Eichendorff songbooks (Gedichte von Eichendorff in Musik gesetzt von Hugo Wolf) has precedents in Schumann. He even used inauthentic texts, probably lifting his incorrect version of Mörike's Das verlassene Mägdlein from Schumann, whose setting he admired, rather than the fourth edition of Mörike's anthology (he used ‘schwinden’ rather than the poet's ‘verschwinden’ in line 2, ‘drein’ rather than ‘darein’ in line 7). Wolf inveighed against textual repetitions for the distortion thus imposed on poetry, but he excised one entire verse of Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt (a praiseworthy editorial emendation) and repeated words, phrases, and whole strophes on occasion. He repeats the last line of Du denkst mit einem Fädchen to delicious comic effect, and he was evidently unwilling to end Benedeit die sel'ge Mutter with the all-too-premonitory words ‘Ach, der Wahnsinn fasst mich an!’ in the tonic minor, made more unstable by chromatic sequences; therefore, he repeated the entire first stanza, thus creating a classically balanced ABA form (Schubert does likewise with Müller's Mein!). He was prone to add pictorial or programmatic elements to his chosen poems, and those additions are not always congruent with the poet's purposes – the poetic persona of Mörike's Auf ein altes Bild falls silent at the thought of Christ's future agony on the Cross (the unspecified painting is of the infant Jesus) – but Wolf adds a piano postlude decipherable in programme music terms only as a depiction of the Passion, with the moment of death being the 19th century's favourite ‘horror harmony’, the diminished 7th. The song is furthermore filled with hints of modality (‘ … ein altes Bild’) and with Picardy 3rd cadential resolutions which foreshadow redemption well before the final major mode chord of the postlude. His separation of piano and voice into different musical personae, deliberately disjunct (the nocturnal serenader of the Italian song Mein Liebster singt am Haus plays a passionate Chopinesque mazurka in the piano while the object of his affections laments in the vocal line that she must lie in bed and merely listen), is familiar from Schumann and so is the prominence of the piano's role. If Wolf's piano parts are occasionally virtuoso in their demands (Er ist's, Der Feuerreiter, Der Rattenfänger), composers such as Schubert (Der Erlkönig) and Mendelssohn (Andres Maienlied) had preceded him in this regard; it was no novelty to fling the gauntlet of technical difficulty at the pianist or singer. Despite Wolf's stated belief that certain poems had to await a post-Wagnerian tonal language before they could be adequately rendered into music, he also insisted to Kauffmann in a letter of 21 May 1890 that even his boldest harmonies were explicable within the framework of known theoretical practice, and one can certainly cite remarkably complex chromatic progressions in the songs of Schubert (Die Gebüsche), Schumann (Stille Tränen) and Brahms (An eine Äolsharfe).
But Wolf was innovative in the degree to which he took certain chosen aspects of song composition, however traditional, and in his approach to organizing a song anthology. In the harmonic and tonal realms, he was a master of ambiguity created in numerous ways, such as his use of a dual focus on two tonal areas at once and his frequent recourse to harmonic substitution of chords that act in place of those expected in conventional functional progressions, especially plagal substitutions (Harfenspieler I). Given the 19th-century fascination with the possibilities of new 3rd relationships, Wolf was prone to key schemes built as chains of 3rds, sometimes within a tonic–dominant axis and sometimes not (Die ihr schwebet um diese Palmen, Und steht Ihr früh, Gesegnet sei das Grün); although Wolf's usage is ordinarily conservative, he does on occasion explore the harmonic ambiguity inherent in certain 3rd relations to create a highly complicated tonal language (In dem Schatten meiner Locken). If Schubert set a precedent for progressive tonality in song (Auf der Donau, Ganymed), Wolf moved even further beyond the bounds of traditional tonal schemes in such songs as Lebe wohl, Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag' erhoben and Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne. As with Schubert, however, most of Wolf's songs begin and end in the same key. Of crucial importance is the fact that Wolf's explorations of extended tonality were harnessed to explorations of poetic content, as when the conflict between two tonal centres and their resolution into one tonality make audible the conflict between two lovers that is resolved by angelic intervention in Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen. Words seemed to have been vitally necessary to awaken musical inspiration for Wolf, especially in the first years of his maturity, and the bond between musical gesture and poetic idea (his reading of the poetic idea, sometimes at odds with the poet's) is remarkably close. Wolf once told a teacher in Stuttgart that the second half of the Italienisches Liederbuch contained more absolute music than the first, a claim perhaps justifiable in a few songs, such as Wohl kenn' ich Euren Stand, but poetic content prompted compositional decisions here no less than in more obviously pictorial songs. Wolf's reluctance to set poems he felt had already been successfully composed by someone else (he made an exception in the case of Das verlassene Mägdlein) originates from an implied view of song composition as a kind of translation, with only one ‘ideal’ realization possible, rather than an idiosyncratic personal commentary on the poem. Despite Wolf's espousal of this aesthetic (peculiar to him), his own views, opinions and values are often evident from within the music. To cite only two examples, when the Muse dictates poetic drivel in Mörike's Warnung and Wolf sets the nonsense rhymes as a parodistic mockery of Beethoven's Ninth, one hears Wolf's scorn of Brahms's Beethovenian symphonic aspirations, and there is perhaps a reminiscence of Wolf's years of giving piano lessons in the brief, pungent citation from Beethoven's Für Elise in Schweig einmal still, with its irritated woman singer forced to endure a comically inept serenade in the piano. For all the avowed, and sincere, allegiance to poetry, poetic humour always becomes musical humour, and poetic anguish becomes musical commentary on Wolf's own historical situation.
Another of Wolf's most important innovations – the way in which he ordered the content of his large lieder volumes – possibly had its origins in defensiveness, a strategy to counter the era's denigration of his foremost genre. To be a Lieder-Komponist was to be a second-class citizen throughout the 19th century. The critic who dubbed Schubert ‘an indefatigable song composer’ was thereby conveying his condescension for those who composed miniature works; only success in opera and symphonic music could garner the full measure of attention and respect in the musical world, and it was to those forms that Schubert turned when he began consciously to challenge Beethoven's hegemony. 50 years later, the same attitude still held sway, and Wolf subscribed to it, all the more so as his early idols Wagner and Liszt pushed him in that direction. Over and over in his letters, he worried about being merely a song composer. ‘For the moment they [his compositions] are admittedly only songs’, he told Strasser on 28 March 1888 even as his true vocation was at last under way, and one week after the Mörike miracle began, he spent part of the day (22 February) improvising a comic opera at the piano. He thought of his Spanish songs as paving the way for opera, as preparation for a kind of composition which meant more to him, and he cried out to Grohe in a letter of 1 June 1891 that he could not ‘possibly continue for 30 years more to write songs or music to Ibsen's plays’, this in the midst of a jeremiad about the lack of an opera text. A few months later, in a letter of 12 October 1891, Kauffmann received an even more desperate outcry: ‘Truly I shudder at my songs. The flattering acknowledgement of me as a “song composer” distresses me to my innermost soul. What else can it mean but a reproach that I continue to compose only songs, that I only rule over a miniature genre and even that not completely, since there is in the songs only the predisposition for dramatic works … God help me!’ If syphilis was the principal cause of his eventual insanity, opera too drove him mad.
It is surely for this reason – the obsession with larger forms – that Wolf organized each of his mature songbooks into an ordered, even dramatic, succession as a way of suggesting to singers that they could cull entire recitals from these collections and would find therein all the contrasts necessary to make a programme interesting for the audience. Hanslick in a dyspeptic mood had said that ‘Wolf composes not songs but entire poets’, and in a sense he was right. Wolf's concern with grouping songs into larger collectives begins at the smaller level with paired songs and then extends into thematic groupings throughout a whole volume. (It is noteworthy that Schubert used lengthy cycles to create song compositions that would challenge opera and symphony in size and scope, whereas Wolf avoided, or perhaps did not find, such texts, resorting to the format of an ordered anthology instead.) In addition to the pairing of Mörike songs nos.2 and 3 already mentioned, nos.20–21 (Auf eine Christblume I and II) and nos.33–4 (Peregrina I and II) are paired, the latter via a pianistic ‘corridor’ by which the postlude of the first song becomes the introduction of the second. (Mörike wrote a cycle of five Peregrina poems, but Wolf implied in an 1890 letter to Melanie during his tour of Swabia, or ‘Mörike country’ as he called it, that he had not set three of the poems because he did not understand the anguished biographical backdrop.) He had precedents both for linking poems the poet had kept separate – Schumann did so as well – and for pairing songs musically, as Schubert had done in his Müller cycles, and he perhaps took other organizational cues from them as well. For example, Wolf begins the Mörike volume with a dedicatory encomium to hope and ends with a farewell (Abschied) in a manner reminiscent of Schumann's Widmung and Zum Schluss at the start and close of his Myrthen cycle; in between these framing songs for the Mörike volume, one finds thematic groupings of songs with religious content (nos.20–28, at the centre of the volume), songs of love in different guises (nos.30–36), songs about fantasy worlds and supernatural creatures (nos.44–7), and a final section of comic songs (nos.48–53). Within each of these groups is a diversity of sizes, shapes, moods and musical procedures, as in the contrast between the small mock-funeral dirge of Bei einer Trauung and the extravagant ballads such as Storchenbotschaft in the comic songs. The same concern with an all-embracing conceptual design characterizes the other songbooks as well: the Eichendorff volume contains groups of night songs and Rollenlieder while the Goethe volume begins with the Mignon and Harper songs – a gesture of defiance in the face of Schubert's and Schumann's settings – and ends with a group of Hatem and Suleika songs from Goethe's West-östlicher Divan (1819). The Spanish songbook, like its textual source, is divided into spiritual songs at the beginning and secular songs thereafter (Wolf chose ten of the 12 ‘geistliche Lieder’ and 34 ‘weltliche Lieder’). Those two larger groupings are further subdivided; for example, the spiritual songs begin with dedicatory songs to the Virgin (nos.1–2), which lead to songs tracing the Nativity and Christ's infancy (nos.3–6), songs of the penitent Magdalen (no.7) and the penitent Christian soul (no.8), and two Crucifixion songs (nos.9–10), while the songbook ends with the magnificent lover's farewell (Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt) as the farewell to the volume. The 46 songs of the Italian songbook alternate between works in a male and a female poetic voice (a few could be assigned to either gender) and trace a psychologically and dramatically acute narrative of love, courtship, quarrels, reconciliations, mockery and parting: there is no happy ending here. Wolf originally intended his Michelangelo songs of 1897 to be a portrait of the artist, but Manuel Venegas and insanity intervened to put a halt to that design.
There is also ample evidence within individual songs of dramatic conception, albeit on a small scale. Wolf gives the merry serenader of Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen (Italienisches Liederbuch, no.22) an initial full bar of silence in which to assume his wooing posture and prepare to strike the first mandolin or guitar chords; when the young man realizes in line 2 that he is serenading not the maiden but her father, his shock is registered in a radical harmonic swerve, while his sangfroid is evident when he does not miss a beat but continues strumming his pianistic guitar. (Wolf had reason to be particularly proud of his comic songs and told Melanie in 1896 that ‘humour had entered the realm of song for the first time’ in his works. He was exaggerating, but he did reinvent the comic lied for the world after Bayreuth.) Wolf once stated that he imagined a mise-en-scène for each of his songs, such as the goddess Weyla of Mörike's island fantasy world Orplid sitting on a reef in the moonlight, playing her harp in Gesang Weylas, or a chorus of wise men joining in the refrain of Cophtisches Lied I. Numerous other songs attest to his propensity for tableaux vivants in song. For these tableaux, Wolf took pains to complete the scenario in the piano: when the protagonist of the Mörike song In der Frühe, who has spent a sleepless and tortured night, bids the soul rejoice because ‘morning bells have already awakened’, Wolf lulls the persona peacefully to sleep in the postlude, while the protagonist of Abschied dances a rambunctious waltz at the end, after kicking a critic down the stairs. Wolf's fondness for creating a piano part representing one character in a mini-drama while the singer takes another role is also evidence of his hunger for drama in music; one thinks of the Eichendorff song Das Ständchen, which begins with a pianist-serenader tuning his mandolin before launching into a serenade, while the elderly man who inhabits the vocal part remembers his bygone days of serenading a beloved woman, now dead. As he muses, he takes the serenader's simpler strains unto himself and renders them richer and more complex until at the end he relinquishes the music of love and life to the younger man in the piano part, the song reverting at the end to the more uncomplicatedly lyrical music of youthful love. Such psychological shadings of musical characterization are typical of this composer. Even Wolf's liking for ‘dying away’ piano postludes is part of his intent to turn song into compressed opera, as when the piano introduction to Der Rattenfänger, beginning with sounds illustrative of a whip cracking (not in Goethe's poem, however), is more than doubled in length for a postlude depicting the near-diabolical Pied Piper of Hamelin vanishing into the distance. Wolf also uses root position triads in unusual juxtapositions and progressions in order to suggest the elemental power of the legendary creature (a lighter, more piquant manifestation of the same use of root position triads for supernatural creatures can be found in Nixe Binsefuss). Music does everything: paints the mise-en-scène, conveys the psychological inner workings of the characters, provides the chorus, orchestra and dancers, traces conflict and resolution through plot and subplot and rounds off the final scene as the curtain comes down.
Wolf's comment to Mayer about his pride in achieving a more abstract figuration in the later songs for the Italienisches Liederbuch reflects in part the premium placed upon ‘absolute music’ (especially in a Vienna where Hanslick held sway), although it also tells of Wolf's recognition that he was no longer quite so dependent upon poetry to awaken musical ideas. The defensive subtext of the remark comes from awareness that his pictorializing gifts were, like the genre of song itself, considered second-best in comparison with abstract instrumental music without any programmatic ‘taint’. Wolf had a genius for vivid, varied musical analogues to sights and sounds of the external world evoked in his chosen poems, and there were those in Wolf's day and later who disdained onomatopoeia in music, despite the fact that his pictorialisms are always subsumed into a structure explicable in purely musical terms. It is a pity that he should have felt any shame, however veiled or momentary, for such a brilliant aspect of his compositional art as the buzzing bee of Der Knabe und das Immlein, the carillon of bells in Zum neuen Jahr and St Nepomuks Vorabend, the combination of trilling birds and deep muted bell chimes in Karwoche, the tumultuous winds gusting throughout the Lied vom Winde, the donkey's braying in Schweig einmal still and Lied des transferierten Zettel, and clip-clopping horses' hooves in Der Gärtner and part of Denk' es, o Seele! Wolf also mimics human beings making unmusical sounds: yawning in Der Schäfer (here Wolf may have taken his cue from Im Dorfe in Schubert's Winterreise), both yawning and groaning in Der Tambour, panting desire in Nimmersatte Liebe, and an attack of tipsy hiccups in Zur Warnung. More rarefied specimens of extra-musical evocation include the delicately ‘dissonant’ striking sounds of a pounding headache in Köpfchen, Köpfchen, nicht gewimmert, dissonances which finally resolve to euphony when the charm against headache works its magic, or the spoiled only child flagellating himself in Selbstgeständnis (another instance in which Wolf adds something to the poetic scenario not sanctioned by the poet), where the whip-cracking forms a comic counterpart to the Pied Piper's whips in Der Rattenfänger. Wolf was also drawn to pianistic depictions of other musical instruments, as in the echoes of janissary music in Epiphanias, the broken-chord and arpeggiated harp playing in An eine Äolsharfe and Gesang Weylas, the inept violinist of Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen who slaughters a graceful salon tune in the postlude (for one performance of the last-named song, Grohe recruited an actual violinist, and Wolf was amused to hear of it), the evocations of military march music in Sie blasen zum Abmarsch, Ihr jungen Leute and Der Tambour, and various guitar-strumming effects in the secular songs from the Spanisches Liederbuch (Sagt, seid Ihr es, feiner Herr and Bitt' ihn, o Mutter). Extra-musical scene-painting was expected in ballads and surely constituted an element of Wolf's attraction to this genre (which was undergoing a nationalistically inspired revival in Wolf's day), as shown in the shrilling bells and gallimaufry of the crowd in Der Feuerreiter or the storks clapping their wings in Storchenbotschaft, but Wolf delighted in onomatopoeia for non-narrative lieder as well. Much of this stylized depiction was couched in the piano part, often formidably difficult as a result.
Wolf's writing for the voice varies from outright lyrical melody, or song style in symmetrical phrases without declamatory elements (the use of this conservative melodic manner in Der Gärtner is Wolf's way of signalling the ‘pastness’ of the fairy tale text and the perfect order of its fantasy world), to the declamatory style evident in Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert! or at the beginning of Beherzigung, with its declamation on repeated pitches and its recitative-like gestures. Wolf did not begin with declamatory principles as his given modus operandi; on the contrary, he evolved a flexible melodic manner shaped by the application of declamatory gestures to an original lyric inspiration, and one can see the more conventional melodic shapes in the early songs. (According to an anecdote from Eckstein's reminiscences, Wolf had closely studied Schumann's song declamation and praised it to his friends.) In the mature works, the rise and fall of the melodic line, its rhythmic profile and its mixture of declamatory and lyrical elements (often a compromise between the two) often seem to arise directly from Wolf's interpretation of the poem; for example the sage's series of questions at the start of Beherzigung are rhetorical – he already knows the answer – and hence Wolf ends each query with a falling, not a rising, inflection, and then states the answer in the last stanza as a series of march-like equal crochets, certainty (with an ironic seasoning of pomposity) writ large in the rhythmic ordering of the vocal line. Against the slow, regular chorale-like chords in the piano of Schlafendes Jesuskind, Wolf softens the vocal line by beginning every phrase just after the strong first beat, surely in order to enhance the profoundly meditative atmosphere of the poem, and accounts for Mörike's wonderfully changeable poetico-rhythmic gestures by means of the occasional interpolated triplet figure. The epitome of Wolf's vocal writing can be found in such melodic lines as that for the words ‘welche Bilder hinter dieser Stirne, diesen schwarzen Wimpern’ from the same song, where wonderment is signalled in the slight prolongation of ‘wel-che’ and where the composer winds sinuously through the bar-line so that the words ‘Stir-ne’ and ‘Wim-pern’ on the second beat in 4/2 metre (this ekphrastic poem was inspired by a 16th-century painting, and Wolf accordingly uses a metre which looks antique on the page) are the melodic goals of a chromatic sequence. It is from just such interplay between purely melodic and harmonic concerns, phrase construction, overall poetic interpretation and inflections of poetic detail that Wolf's declamatory art was created.
The importance of radical tonal manoeuvres and complex harmonic manipulations to Wolf's poetico-musical art cannot be too strongly emphasized. It was central to this composer's appropriation of poetry that an emotion, an idea, an image in the poem is given harmonic flesh and bones, sometimes with breathtaking audacity, although he rightly insisted upon the traditional compositional framework from which his boldest harmonies emerged. For example, Mörike, unable to believe the religious dogmas of his breadwinning profession as a pastor, wrote a German paraphrase of a Latin hymn verse about the inability to believe, despite the desire to do so (Seufzer), and Wolf set it to music whose saturated chromaticism shows that he had assimilated the furthermost limits of Parsifal and turned them to his own devices. From the start one wonders ‘What hell is this? Where are we tonally?’ Wolf begins with motion towards the tonic, as if this were the goal of the poetic persona's desire, but the tonic is immediately denied and remains in abeyance thereafter, the chromatic alterations producing a shifting world with no solid ground. And yet the music is rigidly organized in its part-writing, motivic patterns and tonal substitutions: anguish has its own structure. Soprano–bass dissonances are everywhere; deceptive motion is regnant (almost to achieve ‘resolution’ and rootedness, then to have it snatched away, is Wolf's sounding analogue for extreme misery); and the ultimate and only tonic cadence – a ‘tonic’ called into doubt – at the end is weakened by its approach through the Phrygian flat 2nd, nor is there any Picardy 3rd at the end to hint at surcease or redemption. It is often characteristic of Wolf to delay the arrival at the tonic, and he does so here in an especially exaggerated way in order to make audible a claustrophobic hell of the soul. (The poetic persona's enclosure in a torment only partially expressible is something Wolf also conveys by framing the texted body of the song in lengthy piano passages to suggest wordless mental anguish before words are possible, an eight-bar introduction and seven-bar postlude framing a mere 16 bars of word-setting. Those 16 bars are, moreover, almost continuous, despite a few rests in the vocal line, and the slow non-stop motion of the text adds to the impression of airless psychological pain beyond bearing.) In perhaps the most famous Mörike song, Das verlassene Mägdlein, the muddled mind of a pain-stricken woman caught between waking and sleeping is translated harmonically into dissonance and functional ambiguity: is the F–A–C–E chord in bar 9 an embellished tonic following the dominant harmony in bar 8 or a submediant chord with its own embellishing seventh degree? Not until the singer resolves F to E in the final words ‘O ging er wieder’, the resolution then echoed in the piano, do we hear a solution to the dilemma in the first and only unambiguous tonic harmony. In the great Goethe song Grenzen der Menschheit, the endless chain of being invoked by the poet gapes open musically in a succession of augmented triads carried beyond the norms of late 19th-century practice; in Wolf's reading of Goethe, the ‘unendliche Kette’ evokes more fear than piety, and both the open-endedness of time and the tension aroused by fear at its contemplation find expression in this way. One could cite dozens of similar examples throughout Wolf's works in which poetic ideas gave rise to specific, complex harmonic and tonal ideas.
In matters of song form as well, Wolf exercised dazzling ingenuity. He was not one of those later 19th-century composers who adhered to the tradition of the strict strophic form for lieder. Schubert, closer to the 18th century, composed many such songs, Schumann somewhat fewer, and Wolf almost none. He was interested in folk music, but his lied aesthetic was not for the Lied im Volkston. Although he often uses other traditional formal song structures, he varies them, adapting them to poetic and musical purposes unique to that one setting. Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag, for example, is a varied strophic form, with each of Mörike's three verses set as a discrete section, the second verse a near-exact transposition of the first; but the song is quite radical, and possibly unique, in its transposition of the second and third verses upwards by a semitone each time. In a wonderfully imaginative musical structure for Nixe Binsefuss, Wolf devised an inexact palindrome form, a ringlike ABCBA succession (the repetitions are not literal) which serves to underscore the nixie's supernatural powers (the ring being a symbol of eternity) and bears no resemblance to the poetic structure. Even where musical strophes are repeated literally or almost literally to different words, the form is nonetheless both unusual and tailored to the poetic content, as when Wolf draws an exact musical parallel between Christ's agony on the Cross (Mörike's stanza 2) and the protagonist's shamed awareness of lust, of an ‘evil pleasure’ piety cannot tame (stanza 4), in Wo find' ich Trost?; the Parsifalian echoes in this depiction of sexual shame fraught with mystical religiosity are remarkable. In his setting of Goethe's late (1820) poem St Nepomuks Vorabend, the contours of three-part song form, matching the poet's three quatrains, are subtly blurred, the middle section a further development of the same bellringing motifs which sound throughout the song, while the vocal part is extensively varied in the return of the A section. Much the same flexible handling of three-part form as a continuous development and recollection of the same material is evident in Anakreons Grab (a single six-line stanza, with two lines of verse to each division of the musical form) as well. Wolf also fashions three-part forms across and through very dissimilar poetic structures for reasons of content and imagery. For example, Mörike was a poet obsessed with time, memory and the past, and this perhaps inspired Wolf to set Im Frühling as a large three-part form, the words ‘Ich denke dies und denke das’ read by the composer as memory (the same is true of Peregrina II, where Wolf implies that the protagonist and his ghostly companion are mutely remembering the past at the words ‘Fremd sassen wir’ by bringing back the beginning of the song). The formal structure of Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens ‘legt sich im Ring’: this song is remarkable for the manner, typical of Wolf, in which poetic images generate form. The poetic speaker is a woman in the throes of first sexual experience, with the piano acting as her lover; Wolf sets the song as a frenetic, unlyrical waltz – a dance considered scandalous in the late 18th century and the 19th because of the close contact between dancers – in which three figures (a plunging motif, a panting syncopated figure and a rising motif) alternate in various transpositions but are otherwise remarkably unchanged (one hears similar panting figuration at the beginning of Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt). Wolf cited Erstes Liebeslied in a letter to Emil Kauffmann (5 June 1890) as a perfect specimen of the ‘truth to the point of cruelty’ (‘Wahrheit bis zur Grausamkeit’) he sought in art, and the formal structure he created in his setting is a witty concomitant to an aperçu about sex in Freud's Vienna.
Wolf later spoke of seeing ‘Wölfer's own howl’ in his early songs, and that ‘howl’ is compounded in part of certain recurrent and consistent musical usages, despite his concern for individual poetic reading. For example, the concepts of littleness, or littleness and mockery combined, resulted on several occasions in motifs filled with harmonic seconds, as in Mögen alle bösen Zungen, Elfenlied and Mein Liebster ist so klein, where the small size of the interval and its dissonance form the perfect concomitant to the sentiments expressed. In several of his religious songs (Nun wandre, Maria; Zum neuen Jahr; Führ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem; Ach, des Knaben Augen), Wolf mimics in his own manner the streams of parallel thirds found in many 19th-century geistliche Lieder published for use in the home. States of ecstasy produced on certain notable occasions descending cascades of octaves in the right-hand part against full-textured harmonies (Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt! and Auf einer Wanderung, the latter as the Muse descends upon the poet in the wordless interlude following ‘die Rosen leuchten vor’). Stylized evocations of folkishness or the open countryside or guitar playing were often created by a plethora of open-sounding parallel 5ths in the left-hand part (the last half of Schon streckt' ich aus im Bett; Und schläfst du, mein Mädchen; In dem Schatten meiner Locken; portions of Auf einer Wanderung). Several rhythmic patterns are recurrent features of Wolf's songs, including a quasi-syncopated figure consisting of a quaver–crochet–quaver pattern (Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst und lachst, the birdsong section of Der Knabe und das Immlein, Wer sein holdes Lieb verloren, In der Frühe), while themes of beautiful death and slumber on two occasions prompted remarkable ‘floating’ rhythmic patterns in which triplets and duplets alternate in a repeated-pitch ostinato and the beginnings of beats are veiled by tied notes (Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh and Sterb' ich, so hüllt' in Blumen). Wolf clearly had personal associations with particular keys, as had Schubert and Schumann before him. Thus A major was associated with tenderness and ardour (Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen), extreme flat keys with profound emotional states (the C major of Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag' erhoben, the G major of Geh', Geliebter and Wenn Du, mein Liebster, steigst zum Himmel auf), A minor with women's laments both tragic and comic (Das verlassene Mägdlein, Schweig einmal still), C major with bluff and jovial clarity (Gesellenlied), and so on. There are many exceptions, but such associations, usual in all songwriting, are especially significant in Wolf.
Despite these hallmarks of Wolf's ‘own howl’, it has often been remarked that each of his songbooks has its own distinct character, owing to Wolf's different musical responses to different poetic repertories. But the choice of those poetic repertories was also directed from within by an artistic trajectory, the changes in poetic taste paralleling different degrees of dependence upon poetic imagery to awaken musical gestures. Wolf's first source of sustained poetic inspiration was, not surprisingly, a poet associated with Schumann, but Wolf sought to mine new musical veins in this repertory untouched by his predecessors. What most attracted him were character portraits that invited vivid musical portrayals or else scenes of nocturnal magic (the almost Debussyan swaying, hovering 7th chords in the piano part of Verschwiegene Liebe demonstrate the depth of his response to Eichendorff's mystical night poems). However, he would later tell Kauffmann that ‘beyond the costumes and a little colour, there is nothing individual to note in Eichendorff's figures … only vague, shadowy outlines … like still dreams overhead’, and he would find in Mörike's more complex poetry the source for a correspondingly more advanced tonal language. ‘Divine Mörike!’ (‘Göttlicher Mörike!’), Wolf called this poet, whose symbol-imbued poems provided him with many points of contact, from a mutual reliance on fickle muses to similar bouts of insomnia to a liking for humour with anger as its substratum. Furthermore, Mörike's poems gave Wolf a variety of forms, moods and types on which to test his newly expanded tonal resources and the necessary specificity of verbal images to provide a fertile source of musical analogues. In every way Mörike invited Wolf to greater ambition; for example, the way in which the independent yet intertwining piano and vocal parts overlap in Im Frühling, coming together fully only in the final phrase of the song (‘Alte unnennbare Tage!’) when past and present, nature and protagonist, converge in memory, is far more complex than anything in the early songs. The orchestral richness of the piano accompaniments in songs such as Er ist's and Die Geister am Mummelsee, the harmonic radicalism of Um Mitternacht, Der Genesene an die Hoffnung, Lebe wohl and Seufzer, were new proving grounds for the composer and for the lied; it is no wonder that the word ‘new’ made an appearance in so many of the first critiques of these songs when they first burst on to the scene. It was here that Wolf could and did develop his distinctive gift for humour in music, whether in small-scale songs like Bei einer Trauung or in extended comic scenas like Abschied. Mörike, who lived in the recently expanded kingdom of Württemberg, had ample opportunity to hear of loveless marriages among the aristocracy, and Wolf turns the poet's stinging, comic account of one such wedding into a mock-funeral dirge filled with augmented triads, ‘wrong-note’ resolutions, tritones and progressions gone woefully awry.
Comedy, with the exception of what Wolf called ‘world-redeeming comedy’ à la Wagner, was not associated with a progressive or experimental musical language at the time; operettas, waltz songs, comic operas were generally composed in a conservative, downright regressive harmonic style, but Wolf endowed Mörike's humour with all the refinements of tonal nuance available to a late 19th-century composer. Religious songs (both Mörike and Wolf had complicated, idiosyncratic relationships to their religious upbringings, Lutheran and Catholic respectively) likewise become a more sophisticated endeavour in Wolf's hands, as when the attempt to pray conventionally in Gebet, to sing a stereotypical hymn, veers away and becomes something quite other than orthodoxy. Always attracted to the fantastic and the supernatural, Wolf created extensive song panoramas to go along with Mörike's Orplid mythology, as in Die Geister am Mummelsee and the Elfenlied, and the poet's other phantasms, most notably his fire-rider; somewhat in the spirit of a latterday Mendelssohn, Wolf delighted in elfin scherzos in the high treble register. Although the older Mörike might not have approved, as he and his friends were ardent anti-Wagnerites, his poetry gave Wolf the scope to incorporate Wagner as well as Schumann into his musical mix, with Karwoche and Wo find' ich Trost? both mini-Parsifals (the so-called Spear figure stabs its way through the latter song). In sum, the Mörike songs are Wolf's rough equivalent to Monteverdi's Vespers in their demonstration of variety, of mastery over old and new, with the old rendered new in the process.
The Goethe songs continue the same processes to even greater lengths. There can be no more grandiose quasi-orchestral writing for piano than in Wolf's setting of the Mignon song Kennst du das Land?, and the ballads (Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt, Gutmann und Gutweib) are more sprawling, episodic and virtuoso than before (Mörike's Der Feuerreiter – Wolf's Erlkönig – is organized as a refrain structure, but not so the Goethe ballads). The small lyric songs maintain the epigrammatic intensity of the Mörike songs, especially in works such as Anakreons Grab (Goethe's moving hail and farewell to the ancient Greek poet whose verse had been a major inspiration in his youth), Blumengruss and St Nepomuks Vorabend. Even more than in the Mörike volume, the impulse to form cycles and sub-collections expands to new and different dimensions. Like the Peregrina songs, Wolf's Harper songs are musically linked, but here Wolf steps beyond the customary pairs and trios of songs to larger groupings from still larger contexts: the ten Wilhelm Meister songs at the beginning of the Goethe volume and, at the end, 15 songs from West-östlicher Divan, Goethe's late volume of poems inspired by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall's translations of the 14th-century Persian poet Hāfiz. As he would later do in the Italienisches Liederbuch, Wolf divides the pseudo-Persian set (this is a notional Orient of sultans and harems, innkeepers and taverns, invocations of the Qur'an, etc.) into men's songs for Hatem/Goethe and women's songs for Suleika/Marianne von Willemer (a late love of the elderly Goethe); as in the Italian songs, the man is given the wistful gems of compressed lyricism (Wie sollt ich heiter bleiben and Wenn ich dein gedenke, akin in the mixture of parallel major and minor modes in both songs) and the most ardent specimen of Innigkeit (Komm, Liebchen, komm!). It is noteworthy that Wolf did not set the two Suleika poems previously given musical life by Schubert, although he did set all three of Goethe's homages to Pindar set by Schubert (Prometheus, Ganymed, Grenzen der Menschheit) and all of the Wilhelm Meister songs. From this immersion in a Teutonized Oriental exoticism, it was not far to find a Teutonized Spanish exoticism with dramatic overtones – a mise-en-scène in song.
With the Goethe songbook behind him, Wolf no longer looked to the best in the earlier generation of German poetry for verbal inspiration. It is a noteworthy aspect of his songwriting art that his most advanced musical techniques found no poetic concomitant in the poetry of his own day; while never freeing himself entirely from the intersection of words and music, he came increasingly to rely more on music first and foremost, rather than responses to symbol-drenched words by the likes of Mörike and Goethe. Instead he next turned to Geibel and Heyse's Spanish songbook, which contains a small amount of fine poetry in skilful German paraphrase (Lope de Vega, Camoens, Cervantes) and quite a lot of anonymous folk poetry which in the aggregate becomes a blank slate on which to inscribe an intense post-Wagnerian chromaticism. The Spanish songbook is not an exercise in diversity, but is instead confined to religious subjects with a distinctly Spanish mystic-erotic tinge (the first ten songs) and purely erotic themes (34 songs). There are no more ballads, comic songs, nature songs or supernatural creatures in this collection; as a result, the focus is tighter, and the tone more intense. The chromatic sequences which suffuse Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert! and Herr, was trägt der Boden hier seem a fusion of Bachian chromaticism at its most piercing and Wolf's most convoluted post-Wagnerian idiom, and the same statement is true of many other songs in this anthology as well.
With the six Keller songs of 1890 Wolf returned to Rollenlieder and to psychological studies in song, with the poetry once again the chief source of inspiration. (He was also attempting to negate Brahms's Keller song Therese by setting the same text, entitled Du milchjunger Knabe in Wolf's Alte Weisen, in a pointedly un-Brahmsian manner.) The results were mixed; although the depiction of the howling charcoal-burner's wife in Das Köhlerweib ist trunken is a grand display piece for both pianist and singer, with a bitter twist, and Wie glänzt der helle Mond (with its affectionate reminiscence of Hans Sachs's cobbling motif at the end) is sheer magic, the other four songs are less successful, perhaps because Wolf was swimming against the current of his own musical course. In the Italian songbook he continued the trends established in the Spanish songbook but with even more focus and a different overall character, lighter, brighter and clearer. None of the poems in this anthology constitute ‘great’ poetry, although they are skilfully translated by Heyse, whose polished style is omnipresent; all are quite brief, of roughly uniform small size; and all have to do with secular love. The tortured mystic strain of both Caritas and Eros in the Spanish songs is no longer a factor, and Wolf consequently casts over the entire Italienisches Liederbuch a string-quartet-like clarity of texture (four-part writing had become his wont) which contributes to the sense of overarching unity in the volume, despite the gamut of human emotions he traverses. The uniformity is all the more remarkable because of the lengthy cleft between the two periods of composition which produced this songbook, although Wolf may have sketched in 1890 more songs than he completed at that time. The manuscripts of Gesegnet sei das Grün and O wär dein Haus durchsichtig from 1896 bear the marginal inscriptions ‘Phönix no.1’ and ‘Phönix no.2’, which suggests that they were new inspirations, but they and the other 1896 songs continue the stylistic hallmarks of the first group. This volume is the radiant summit of Wolf's songwriting art.
At the end, inspiration slipped, regained control, faltered again. The three Michelangelo songs, in consequence, are not marked by the same unfailing mastery evident everywhere in the Italian songbook but revert to earlier strains. The introduction to the third song (Fühlt meine Seele; see fig.6) in particular brings back figures from Peregrina I and II in the Mörike songs, the echo an obvious one. But the second song, Alles endet, was entstehet, is one of his masterpieces: Wolf, six months away from insanity, told Grohe in a letter of 27 March 1897, ‘If in your emotion over it you do not lose your reason, you cannot ever have possessed any. It is truly enough to drive one mad, and furthermore of a staggering, truly antique simplicity … I really stand in awe of this composition, for I am afraid of losing my mind from it.’ The entire song is derived from an intervallic figure consisting of a rising and a falling semitone whose kinship/difference is designed to convey a message from the ars moriendi of the Middle Ages, the whited sepulchres with their variations on the inscription ‘I was that which you are, and what I am that you will be’. The circularity of the figures implies the circularity of life and death, the one contained within the other. So too is the death of tonality contained within tonality and foreshadowed when the voices of the dead speak from this song: ‘Und nun sind wir leblos hier’. Of such monumentality in miniature is Wolf's penultimate lied.