Wolf was what one might call a messianic critic, someone who wore his partisan heart on his sleeve and fought his battles pro Wagner and contra Brahms with all the impatience, fervour and trenchancy one also finds in his letters. He refused to allow the publication of his collected critical writings later in his life on the grounds that the writing style was faulty (his writing is actually vividly readable, filled with literary allusions, imaginative metaphors and sarcastic wit), but he did not recant the opinions he had expressed earlier. He did not need to: whatever the intemperance of his animadversions against Brahms, most of his views retain their currency to the present day. With the brashness of youth and in the fervent conviction that his judgment was right, he went against the tide of critical and public opinion on numerous occasions, as when he inveighed against the popular virtuoso pianist Anton Rubinstein as a composer ‘prone to promising beginnings that come to nothing’ or damned certain novelties on Viennese concert programmes as ‘petit bourgeois music’. It is revealing to read two reviews from early 1887 about the new epidemic (Wolf's term) of lieder recitals – he would organize his own recitals only a few years later – with their potpourri of works by the likes of Brüll, Schütt, Goldmark, Hager and Heuberger. His reasons for condemning the individual songs on the programmes reveal by negative deduction aspects of his own aesthetic: he criticized one for its resemblance to Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade, another for its dullness, one for a melody like a street tune, another for being ‘one of those perfumed things flirting coquettishly with the naive simplicity of folk music, and in a Brahmsian mask at that’. Even before the wonder of 1888, he knew that his works were superior to much of what was trumpeted as praiseworthy, and he could and did give readers critical insight into his own aesthetic through his critiques.
But self-consolation and self-promotion were not his purposes. Already an avid concert- and operagoer, he learned much from the experience, whatever his later denigration of it and his relief when he was freed from its bonds: it was a disciplined endeavour which imposed a schedule and deadlines, it gave him a new understanding of language and its relation to music (crucial for his idiosyncratic mission), and it provides readers then and now with a window on to his art. From his reviews one learns how deeply involved in his own milieu, in the fin-de-siècle German-speaking world, he was and how important he considered the educative place of music in society to be. To him music was the foremost symbolic language of human emotion and thought, related to life in a fundamental way, its workings as organic as the mind and body. He had no use for absolute music divorced from the human word or from organic human experience and considered all academic contrivances (elaborate fugues, for example) a waste of time and energy, mere arid pedantry. When he found music unacceptable, it made him physically miserable, as when he says of Brahms's First Piano Concerto, ‘The air that blows through this composition is so icy, dank and foggy that it could easily freeze your heart and take your breath away; you could catch a cold from it. Unhealthy stuff!’ Music he liked (including, to give him credit for minimal fairness to Brahms, that composer's G major Sextet and F major Quintet) he compared to nature, spring, health and well-being, emotional and physical; good music was restorative. Like Wagner (but not in quite the same way) he thought of opera as an art within and belonging to society, and he commented upon every aspect of its rendering in his reviews – scenery, costumes, acting, singing and conducting – especially with regard to the Mozart and Wagner operas he considered had the most to convey to people about humanity's profounder truths. His most fundamental aesthetic belief appears in his statement that the forms and contents of Liszt's symphonic tone poems, no less than the thematic material, were derived from the literary works that inspired them: this is, in a nutshell, Wolf's own credo.
Wolf's was a life dedicated wholly and utterly to music, a life flamelike in its fierce singleness of purpose – it is no wonder he felt such an affinity with Mörike's ballad of the fire-rider. ‘When I can no longer compose’, Wolf once wrote to Rosa Mayreder, ‘you may throw me on a dunghill’, and he compared life without composition to that of a frog, ‘not even a galvanized frog’, he concluded ruefully. But the composition to which he was so devoted was of a special kind. Wolf attempted to extract every nuance he could find in poetry, from simple sound effects to complex symbolism, and to render each detail audible in a post-Wagnerian tonal language. He saw his artistic mission as a matter of truthfulness to life, not verismo or naturalism or realism, but the psychological and emotional truths of human experience. ‘For me the sovereign principle in art is rigorous, harsh, inexorable truth, truth to the point of cruelty’, he told Emil Kauffmann in a letter of 5 June 1890, and his dedication to this mission gives his brief compositional life a comet-like intensity. He was not a Renaissance man, no more than Chopin, whom he so admired; he did not engage in many different genres, as did his older contemporary Brahms, but at the point where words and music intersect or coincide he can rightly claim greatness in company with Schubert and Schumann, whose legacy he carried forward and whose songs he equalled in refinement and power.
Editions:Hugo Wolf: Samtliche Werke, ed. H. Jancik and others (Vienna, 1960) [WW]Hugo Wolf: Lieder aus der Jugendzeit, ed. F. Foll (Leipzig, 1903) [LJ]Hugo Wolf: Nachgelassene Werke, ed. R. Haas and H. Schultz (Leipzig and Vienna, 1936) [NW]