Magazine article The Spectator

Mood Swings

Magazine article The Spectator

Mood Swings

Article excerpt


A hundred years ago this week (22 February), after some six years of hapless delusion in a Vienna asylum, Hugo Wolf died. He'd been born 43 years before, to grow up into that neurasthenic culture later explored by Freud. As a student he was close friends with two other unstable young geniuses, the upwardly mobile Mahler and the wretched Hans Rott who killed himself after Brahms had dismissed his compositional efforts. (The old master had snubbed the other two also, but both were robust enough to survive, Wolf repaying the insult with some of the most vituperative music criticism ever committed to print.)

Already at 18 Wolf's internal pressure was shown in a heaven-storming string quartet with its stern motto `Thou shalt renounce!'. Five years later a hell-bent tone-poem after Kleist's Penthesilea, ending with a huge finale appetisingly headed Struggle, Passion, Frenzy, Destruction, which despite overloading and imbalance reveals an unmistakable feel for large-scale orchestral thinking. It may well be to music's loss that its only try-out was such a fiasco that the humiliated 23-year-old never returned this way.

Certainly this debacle sent him on a route unique in the epoch of gargantuan orchestral blockbusters, to concentrate mainly on songs for solo voice and piano. His creative pattern is still the most extreme of any great composer. Long periods of melancholy sterile depression were succeeded by bouts of exultant creative potency.

The dates tell it all: after a few earlier songs of no great moment comes a single setting of Morike (16 February 1888); six days later, he's off! - 43 settings of Morike by 18 May; in August he turns to Eichendorff, but after three days returns to Morike for the remaining few, completing his first great collection. From 11 October to 15 February of the next year he turns to setting Goethe; then, temporarily spent, till the autumn of that year (1889), when he turns for two months to German translations of miscellaneous old Spanish poets. Then another two-month gap with relaxing orchestration, till spring 1890 when yet another two completes this Spanish Songbook and rounds off the Goethe. Early that summer come six to poems by Gottfried Keller: then in the autumn he dips, with unwonted temperance, into a collection from the Italian, composing just seven before turning to other projects, then adding a further 15 late in 1891.

Stagnation sets in for a long baffled search to find an acceptable opera-text, composing which would gain fame and glory like his fatal hero Wagner, and the handsome royalties and universal delight now being earned by his old friend Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. …

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