Adapted by Anthony Princiotti
Although Schubert is certainly a strong contestant, many would assert that Hugo Wolf was the greatest composer of art songs, or lieder, of all time. If a tragic life is a requirement, Wolf had that going for him for sure. He was a manic depressive and (like Schubert) suffered from syphilis (looking for love in all the wrong places). Towards the end of his life he became quite mad, insisting that he rather than Gustav Mahler was the director of the Vienna State Opera. Who knows what gems he might have composed had he not hastened his own demise?!
Born in Windischgraz, Austria, he studied music with his father, who was not a musician but a leather tradesman. He attended the Vienna Conservatory but was expelled for “breach of discipline” in 1877. He became a piano teacher, barely scraping by financially. His first compositions were orchestral: a string quartet and a symphonic poem. They did not meet with critical approval, so he began to compose songs instead, building on the expressive and dramatic musical innovations of Richard Wagner. In 1882 he wrote the Italian Serenade, which became quite popular, and is now considered to be one of the first works of his mature style. He originally wrote it for string quartet, then later orchestrated it. The solo viola parts were at first shared with solo English horn, but in his final revision the English horn lost out.
By 1894, Berlin had set up a Hugo Wolf Society! Although his fiery temperament (he was known as “Wild Wolf”) got him into trouble periodically, his musical gifts and his personal charm earned him attention and patronage. He was a great admirer of Franck and Liszt, although he felt much of Liszt’s music was too academic, whereas he strove at all times for color and passion in his writing. Certainly Wolf’s place in history is assured by his huge outpouring of lieder, but there is a little spot reserved for this marvelous instrumental piece as well.