The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Program III

An Essay by Susan Youens

Courtesy of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie

The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm III
Natur und ihre Geheimnisse – Tod, Trauer und Erinnerung – Wanderer

Essay by Susan Youens

Lieder Program: List of Songs


In this, the third program of the complete songs of Hugo Wolf, we encounter a mini-compendium of German Romanticism’s most common elements:  the intense contemplation of Nature; the wanderers galore who go in quest of new experience, self-understanding, and more; and its philosophizing about death and memory. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century–Wolf-Zeit–our composer had inherited an immense and impressive repertory of songs on all these themes and more; he came to them in their final ripeness before 20th century ould introduce other styles, other themes, other musical idioms. Therefore, in the groups allotted to each of these Romantic concerns, we also encounter a mixture of the young Wolf, teaching himself to compose by imitating the best of the best (Schubert and Schumann), and songs that tell of achieved mastery. It is a unique perspective to thus hear the apprentice and the master side-by-side: only by experimenting en route to the “wild Wolf’s own howl” could he eventually reject the “Ich-Poeten” of his youth for his mature conception of himself as an objective lyrical artist, drawn to the likes of Mörike, Goethe, and folk poetry in many voices.

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Nature (Natur und ihre Geheimnisse)

(Natur und ihre Geheimnisse song list)

There was something elemental in Wolf’s relation to nature; his friend Edmund Hellmer wrote that he would instinctively look for Wolf out in the countryside, as though he were more easily to be found there than anywhere else. Über Nacht is one of Wolf’s early songs, a setting of a pious poem by the theologian-pastor-poet Julius Sturm (Wolf’s only setting of this man’s work). It is in the piano introduction (how to make dominant preparation beautifully colorful) and its recurrences thereafter that Wolf first created the quietly nervous, broken rhythms that we will hear again years later in his setting of Lord Byron’s “Sonne der Schlummerlosen” and the Spanish song “Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh:”  in all three instances, we hear the restless heartbeats, the unquiet throbbing pulse of those too tormented to sleep. (I wonder whether Wolf noticed the links between Sturm’s poem contrasting sorrow by night, joy by night, and a mixture of the two for which God’s aid is invoked and Mörike’s “Verborgenheit” when he set the latter, one of his most often-performed songs, ten years later. Both poets, the one more doctrinal than the other, are concerned with how ones bears emotional extremity at either end of the spectrum.)

Because Wolf taught himself to compose in large measure by imitating first Schumann, then Schubert, he gravitated as a teen-ager to Schumann’s poets, to the artist-poet Robert Reinick, Nikolaus Lenau, and Heinrich Heine. Reinick’s genial Frühlingsglocken had been set to music before by Schumann (as a male chorus work . . . he also set Friedrich Rückert’s “Schneeglöckchen” to music), by Wilhelm Taubert, Otto Tiehsen, Karl Gottlieb Reissiger, and Ludwig Spohr, among others. In this long, merry work, we experience a season—Spring—from birth to its departure, when bluebells and glowworms take the place of roses, lilies, carnations, and tulips. Wolf marks his song “Munter!” and “(zart)” and clearly enjoyed creating the birth proclamation, the wedding music, and the other details by which he so closely tracks every nuance of the poem.

Like Schumann, like Brahms, like many other composers, Wolf found Emanuel Geibel’s and Paul Heyse’s 1852 Spanisches Liederbuch, containing translations of both anonymous folk poetry and “art” poetry by the likes of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and more. From this source, he chose ten spiritual songs and a larger compendium of secular songs, owing little to anything folkish; his Spain was a musical colony of late-Romantic Germany whose personae speak in the language of post-Wagnerian complexity. The anonymous author of Wenn du zu dem Blumen gehst fashions an appropriately flowery compliment for his beloved, telling her repeatedly that she herself is the most beautiful flower in the garden. Wolf begins, sans introduction, with a flowing, sweet passage of three-voice free counterpoint; the texture thickens and becomes more chromatic as the singer becomes more ardent. Over and over, he circles back to the refrain, with its encomium to Woman as Flower.

Nikolaus Lenau is a major Romantic poet, known for the intense melancholy on display in many of his finely-crafted lyric poems; he tried to live in the American Midwest for a time, nursed a hopeless passion for a woman named Sophie von Löwenthal, and went mad six years before his death at the mid-century mark. But the sixteen-year-old Wolf chose his more lighthearted Liebesfrühling (a setting he proudly tells us was begun and completed on Thursday, 29 January 1876), in which springtime invokes images of the beloved while her actual appearance in other seasons creates “spring” on the spot. In the overlaid echoing figures at the start, in the singer’s initial leap of joy (“Ich sah”), we hear the ebullience of youthful love.

Ernst ist der Frühling comes from a projected volume of Heine songs—a Liederstrauss he called it, shying away from the term “song cycle”—and seems in retrospect a preliminary study for the great ‘Im Frühling’ on a poem by Eduard Mörike composed ten years later:  the two songs share the same 6/4 meter and a similar interweaving motion of individual melodic lines in the piano and the singer’s part, over a bass foundation that is also remarkably alike. One wonders whether Wolf remarked the resemblance when he came to compose the later masterpiece—but the earlier, gravely beautiful song is indicative of great strides towards this composer’s breakthrough to achieved compositional maturity in 1888.

In summer 1879, Wolf was back in his home town of Windischgraz and returned again to poetry by Lenau:  that poet’s gloomy masterpiece of a poem entitled Herbst. Its ultra-Romantic protagonist is on a deserted lake, remembering bygone youth and happiness from within a bleak, autumnal season of the spirit, a foreshadowing of death. Wolf’s quiet proclamation “Nun ist es Herbst,” with the piano only joining in for the last word, is followed by a sea of chorale-like, quasi-Wagnerian gestures in the piano that shun secure tonal footing until the gloomy end, with its offbeat sighing figures.

Wolf set Heine’s poem Sterne mit den goldnen Füsschen (from the poet’s Neue Gedichte) in late 1880, after a summer idyll in Maierling bei Baden. In this delicately beautiful song, the glassy transparency of the piano part in the beginning and ending sections hints at the later masterpiece “O wär’ dein Haus durchsichtig wie ein Glas” from the Italienisches Liederbuch, sharing with it the ethereal octave leaps and repeated pitches in the treble register:  a crystalline tintinnabulation. In the middle section, where the mute forests and mountain listen to the music of the stars, the figuration that was once in the right hand sinks to the low bass to sing of deep-rooted things.

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Death, Mourning, and Memory (Tod, Trauer und Erinnerung)

(Tod, Trauer und Erinnerung song list)

We begin the group with death narrowly averted, with a child who experiences sooner than most of us the both attraction and horror of beckoning death. Wolf loved storytelling poems, or ballads, and experiments with its conventions in his setting of the 19th-century dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel’s (first famous for his tragedy Judith in 1840) Das Kind am Brunnen. Over and over, the nameless narrator endemic in ballads calls to the sleeping nanny to wake up and realize that her charge is in danger. In a nod to Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” the multiple refrains, “Frau Amme, Frau Amme, das Kind ist erwacht!”, with their distinctive octave leaps, are transposed a half-step higher with each invocation (Schubert does likewise with the child’s cries to his father in the Erlking). One of the attractions of balladry for Wolf was the virtuosic piano writing enshrined in the genre’s history; here, he goes to town with the child’s running, with the reflections in the water, with quasi-orchestral tremolando danger, and a final pell-mell rush away from the well.

The Aeolian harp was named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, and is essentially a box with a sounding board and strings stretched across two bridges. Because it is played by the wind, not by human hands, the great poet Eduard Mörike uses it in his Horace-inspired ode An eine Äolsharfe as a symbol of poetry:  the winds of love and grief play upon it as “the full rose scatters its petals,” Mörike’s oblique image for the death by suicide of his beloved brother August in 1824. Mörike begins his ode by bidding the Aeolian harp, leaning on the ivy-covered wall of an old terrace, to sound forth; Wolf therefore begins his song with one of the most poignant dissonances (one tone leaning on another) in all of 19th-century song. The winds arrive to harmonies that waft upwards, softly and solemnly, from the deep bass while bell chimes drift downwards in the right. The textures in the piano are extraordinary throughout this, one of Wolf’s greatest masterpieces.

Reverting back to Wolf’s youth—in fact, to one of his earliest extant songs, composed in December 1876—, we hear Ein Grab to words by Paul Peitl, one of his friends at the Vienna Conservatory (this is shortly before Wolf’s expulsion from that august institution). It was virtually a rite of passage for young composers to add to the large repertory of German graveyard songs, and Wolf duly chips in his two cents. The gloom is indeed deep:  we hear spooky tremolando figures, the combination of ghostly treble strains and a vocal line deep underneath it at one point, and rising chromaticism (clichés of the genre). But who of us could have done likewise at age sixteen?

Another mature masterpiece follows this slightly awkward, somewhat excessive bit of juvenilia:  with Anakreons Grab, Wolf set to exquisitely elegiac music a poem none of his great predecessors had appropriated. Mid-eighteenth-century German poets took their cue from the so-called Anakreonteia, sixty antique poems modeled on those by the great Greek poet Anacreon (6th century B.C.), who wrote of roses, wine, crickets, love, and—the real theme of his poems—the passage of time. The young Goethe followed fashion and also wrote neo-Anacreontic verse until, in these lovely lines, he bade farewell to Anacreon in order to forge a new path. In Wolf’s consummately tender elegy, with fragmented harmonies drifting down from the treble register like falling rose petals, the “catch in the breath” before the final verb “geschützt” is heart-stopping, and so too is the “dying away” postlude (a Wolfian hallmark).

All living things, Mörike asserts, flourish atop the graves of the once-living, whose number they will one day surely join. In Denk’ es, o Seele!, he fashions a progression of living things destined for death, beginning with those most unlike us and culminating in the poet’s own body. From forest wildness to a garden cultivated by human hands to horses tamed by men to the poet himself, the progression moves with shocking speed. The poem comes from the end of Mörike’s exquisite novella Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag, when Mozart has left the Bohemian villa where he was a guest in a music-loving household. In the wake of his departure, the daughter of the house, Eugenie, comes across “an old Bohemian folk song” and understands as a prophecy of the composer’s early death. Wolf begins his setting with what I believe is a reference to Schubert’s “Ihr Bild,” with the same premonitory octave B-flats sounding as a death-tocsin. Twice, the tocsin sounds and twice, the piano tries to understand from whence it comes:  the D minor of Death or the F major of life? At the song’s end, an abyss of nothingness lies beneath the final chord once the left hand drops away.

And the masterpieces roll on with Komm, o Tod from the Spanisches Liederbuch. Wolf in his teens and early twenties wondered desperately whether he could ever match Wagner’s accomplishments; when he went to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal, his friends found him outside after the performance, weeping bitterly. But in songs such as this one, its persona longing for Death, hoping that the joy of embracing Death will not recall him back to life, Wolf found a way to encapsulate post-Wagnerian white-hot harmonies and motivic processes within the much smaller framework of a song in classical three-part form. The prolongation of the second beat in triple meter, the whole-tone and semi-tone sighing figures in the inner voice of the piano:  everything bespeaks the erotics of death.

Zur Ruh’, zur Ruh is Wolf’s only song to poetry by the Romantic poet-physician-occultist Justinus Kerner (he invented an early version of Rorschach inkblots called Kleksographie). In his last volume of poetry, Winterblüten, Kerner proposed a conception of inner powers that act as a guide to conduct the soul from life to life-after-death; in this–the last poem in the collection–, a dying man bids first the body, then the senses to loose their hold on life. Wolf may have set this poem to music in June 1883 as his elegy for Richard Wagner, after his idol’s death in Venice in February. From the start, the piano part (in the string quartet texture Wolf uses so often in his mature songs) begins to sink gently downwards, the dying process only completed in the piano postlude. As the persona begs, “O lead me wholly,” Wolf enacts the sort of magical enharmonic shift of a major third for which Liszt was famous, and continues to an ecstatic climax as we go “through night and dream.” No wonder that this song was performed when Wolf himself was laid to rest after his death on 22 February 1903.

Aus meinem grossen Schmerzen is the fourth song in the Heine Liederstrauss from summer 1878. Wolf would have known, and probably not liked, Robert Franz’s famous setting of the same text in his Op. 5, No. 1 and concocts something quite different. In this poem, Heine ironically notes the discrepancy between the heavy weight of his sorrows and the light stuff of his poems; they are dispatched on light wings to his sweetheart but will not reveal her heart on their return (so much for poetry as the register of Romantic feeling). The young Wolf has a marvelous, and very Schumannian, time with fluttering, flitting figuration in the piano (bits of which seem borrowed, albeit in ironic mode, from Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”).

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Wanderers (Wanderer)

(Wanderer Lieder song list)

In late summer 1878, Wolf was staying with the family of Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer in the Lower Austrian town of Waidhofen. He had recently bought the works of August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, a scholar of ancient Teutonic literature, a poet known for his progressive political sentiments, a writer of children’s songs and wanderer’s songs. Wolf had originally planned to compose a Dichterleben (poet’s life) of 14 songs in the voice of Fallersleben’s wandering students (a favorite persona), but the project petered out after four songs and a fifth fragment. Auf der Wanderung makes use of the trio theme from the scherzo of his lost Symphony in G minor, an early work in 1876-7 with a complicated history. This is a hearty tramping song, its ebullience quite winning. Wolf was already responding with pinpoint precision to words, so references to rustling leaves, sunny weather, friendly towns and friendly girls, elicit treble register sweetness and softer strains. By the end, we understand the nonstop accompaniment as the register of endearing youthful vitality.

Another poet that the young Wolf inherited from Schumann was Adelbert von Chamisso, the poet of Frauenliebe und –leben and himself a wanderer of sorts, whose peregrinations took him from France to Berlin, to Switzerland in the wake of Madame de Staël, and to sea as botanist on the Russian ship Rurik in 1818. His archetypal wanderer in Auf der Wanderschaft laments leaving his sweetheart and envies the singing bird that knows no such grief. Wolf in March 1878 experimented with two different approaches to the same text; in the first setting, we hear a quasi-funeral march/tramping song in melancholy minor mode in the first stanza and the same strains lightened and brightened in E major for the treble birdsong in the second stanza.

One can almost see Mörike tramping through the vineyards of Swabia in Fussreise, recapturing the joy of Nature and realizing that the “old Adam” in all of us is not so bad when we tramp the hills and praise our Creator. I like to think that when Wolf bids the piano emphatically repeat the invocation of “Erstling-Paradiseswonne,” it is the composer seconding the poet. Before the final verse, with its wish that all of life might be like this moment, there is a magical change of key:  Wolf has wandered away from his starting point and returns from Heaven to Earth in a beautifully economical shift. In the dying-away postlude, we hear the wanderer-poet’s jaunty steps fading into the distance.

The late eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries made a fetish of Heimweh, with legions of poetic wanderers who think wistfully of bygone days and their bygone homeland when far away in distant realms. In Wolf’s setting of Eichendorff’s blend of Teutonic patriotism (Eichendorff fought in the War of Liberation against Napoleon) and Romantic wandering, we hear a combination of his favorite offbeat rhythmic pattern in the left hand and a lightly leaping figure in the right hand, as if continually yearning upward. With the final stanza and the postlude, patriotic feeling for Germany bursts forth in hyperbolic exuberance.

For a completely different mood, we turn to another Eichendorff song, In der Fremde II. Wolf’s preference five and six years later would be Eichendorff’s often hilariously funny Rollenlieder and his mystic night songs, but this work features a bereft lover pacing the nocturnal streets, someone driven almost mad by the spectacle of other people’s happiness. This sort of “Ich-Romanticism” is something Wolf would outgrow, but here, he very effectively combines a slow perpetual motion “walking bass” in the left hand with an offbeat, tolling bell pattern in the right hand. There are two climaxes in this song, one midway (“daß mir die Sinne vergehn”) and one near the end (“sind alle so weit von hier”), each one followed by collapse into soft despondency. The “open” ending on the dominant in major mode—his thoughts are far away from the “dark streets”—is something Wolf would also do on occasion in his maturity.

Schumann’s younger friend Franz Abt had set the minor poet Karl Herloßsohn’s most successful poem, “Wenn die Schwalben heimwärts ziehn,” in 1846; thirty-one years later, the young Wolf would set the first stanza to music as Der Schwalben Heimkehr. The wistful invocations of the homecoming swallows and the bygone roses impel piano figuration reminiscent of Schumann’s “Heimliches Verschwinden,” Op. 89, no. 2, which then gives way to passionate despair and the starkly unaccompanied question “Ob ich euch wieder seh?”.

     Nach dem Abschiede was the last of the completed Hoffmann von Fallersleben songs. Its first verse is clearly modeled on Heinrich Heine’s much greater poem “Der Doppelgänger”—but this weaker work is without any ghostly double. Still, we have a deserted and empty town, dark streets, and a love who is no longer there at the start, and that scenario was bound to recall Schubert’s setting of Heine’s masterpiece in Schwanengesang. The resemblance is far from exact—Wolf does not use a ground bass or quote Schubert exactly (as Brahms did in his song “Herbstgefühl”), but the declamation in the vocal line at the beginning and the ponderous tread sound familiar indeed. The last half of the song, with its pleas to the beloved, has nothing to inspire Schubertian reminiscences; instead, we hear very Schumannian “heartbeat’ repeated chords.

We end with one of Wolf’s greatest songs by anyone’s estimation. Both Wolf and Mörike knew what it was to suffer the Muse’s protracted absences, knew as well the utter joy—beyond all else in life—of her returns. In Auf einer Wanderung, the persona strolls into a small town and into transcendence; through the beauty of a singing voice and glowing flowers, his Muse touches his heart with pure poetry. One can hardly imagine a better way to end this recital than with poetry and music both at their most incandescent, joining forces to tell us why so many people love Wolf’s Lieder. As the poet walks lightheartedly into town, we hear his attention touch lightly on now this, now that, now the other harmonic point of beauty (E-flat major, C major, G major, D-flat major, C major, E major, and on and on, Wolf slipping from one to the next in an ultimate display of musical sleight-of-hand). There are two climaxes in this long, luxuriant song (one doesn’t want it to end):  the first a matter of hugely heightened sense perception in Wagnerian sequences and the second hailing the Muse’s presence in heartfelt gratitude. In the long postlude, we hear the poet walk happily into the distance, with a last sweet echo of his gratitude at the very end.

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The Author


Susan Youens


The musicologist Susan Youens is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on German song, and the music of Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf. She is one of very few people in the United States who have won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She is the author of eight books.


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The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm V

Natur und ihre Geheimnisse

(Susan Youens on Natur und ihre Geheimnisse)

Über Nacht – text by Julius Sturm (1816-1896), 23-24 May 1878

Frühlingsglocken – text by Robert Reinick (1805-1852), 19 February 1883

Wenn du zu dem Blumen gehst – text from Spanisches Liederbuch by Anonymous, trans. Paul Heyse (1830-1914), 1 November 1889

Liebesfrühling, Op. 9, No. 2 – text by Nikolaus Lenau (pseud. of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau, 1802-1850), 29 January 1876

Ernst ist der Frühling – text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), 13-17 October 1878

Herbst – text by Nikolaus Lenau, 24 July 1879

Sterne mit den gold’nen Füßchen – text by Heinrich Heine, 26 November 1880


Tod, Trauer und Erinnerung

(Susan Youens on Tod, Trauer und Erinnerung)

Das Kind am Brunnen – text by Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), 16-27 April 1878

An eine Äolsharfe – text by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), 15 April 1888

Ein Grab – text by Paul Günther (pseud. of Paul Peitl), 8-10 December 1876

Denk es’, o Seele! – text by Eduard Mörike, 10 March 1888

Komm, o Tod, von Nacht umgeben – original text “Ven muerte tan escondida” by Comendador Juan Escrivá, trans. Emanuel Geibel, 1815-1884), 14 April 1890

Zur Ruh’, zur Ruh’, ihr müden Glieder! – text by Justinus Kerner (1786-1862)

Anakreons Grab – text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), 4 November 1888

Aus meinen großen Schmerzen – text by Heinrich Heine, 5 June 1878



(Susan Youens on Wanderer)

Auf der Wanderung – text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874), 10 August 1878

Auf der Wanderschaft (1. Fassung)– text by Adalbert von Chamisso (original name Louis-Charles-Adélaïde Chamisso de Boncourt, 1781-1838), 20-23 March 1878

Fußreise – text by Eduard Mörike, 21 March 1888

Heimweh – text by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), 29 September 1888

In der Fremde II (“Ich geh’ durch die dunklen Gassen”) – text by Joseph von Eichendorff, 3 February 1882

Der Schwalben Heimkehr – text by Karl Herloßsohn (pseud. for Borromäus Sebastian Georg Karl Reginald Herloß, 1804-1849), 29 December 1877

Nach dem Abschiede – text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, 31 August – 1 September 1878

Auf eine Wanderung – text by Eduard Mörike, 11 March 1888

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