An Essay by Susan Youens
Courtesy of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie
The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm IX
“…und Amor ist gut gelaunt…”
Essay by Susan Youens
“…und Amor ist gut gelaunt…”
From worshipfulness to bitterness, from good humor to fury, from fiery ardor to quiet ecstasy: love has a plenitude of moods and personae, and song serves them all. Wolf began dabbling in love songs when he was a teenager and returned to this venerable theme throughout his entire compositional life; his last completed work is a deeply spiritual love song to a poem by Michelangelo (“Fühlt meine Seele”). The selections chosen for this program are mostly delighted and delightful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, often reverential, and, on occasion, outright comic, but with a sprinkling of songs that show Eros’s darker side. Lovers must sometimes pay a terrible price for passion, as Wolf himself knew all too well.
Wolf, whose operatic ambitions were frustrated by lack of a good libretto, delighted in Eichendorff’s Rollenlieder because he could depict lively characters; he could indulge in sophisticated, post-Wagnerian comedy in music (a Wolfian innovation); and he could colonize a subset of Eichendorff’s poetry not previously set to music by Schubert and Schumann. Unfall is Eichendorff’s variation on the old theme of mortals who dare to laugh at Cupid and are suitably punished when the little god strikes them down with lovesickness. The choleric bachelor who is no match for the nimble god tells his story while another pair of gleeful storytellers—Eichendorff and Wolf—make their amusement plain in word and tone. The rhythmic fun is downright wonderful: four-square at the start, off-beat emphases for (comic) fear, triplets as the enraged bachelor runs at his assailant, rhythmic stumbling and falling, and hilarious laughter from Cupid in the high treble. Wolf’s gift for the most vivid tone-painting is on display here.
Erwartung, in which a lover-in-waiting dreams of the day a beloved will be his, is among Wolf’s early Eichendorff settings, dating from 1880. Here, yearning is made manifest in the cross-rhythms between the present moment in 3/8 in the vocal line and those blissful erotic dreams that take musical shape as a downward-drifting figure in the piano spanning five eighth notes and beginning on the weakest (third) beat of the measure, accented that we might mark the “rub” of one rhythmic pattern against another and the way love catches us off-base. By the end, he is loudly and happily sure of future union.
Another poet the young Wolf would have known from his immersion in all things Schumannian was Friedrich Rückert, the famed earlier 19th-century Orientalist. There is a long tradition of women in folklore sitting at their spinning wheels and singing of love in all its manifestations. In Rückert’s Die Spinnerin, a young girl begs her mother to let her quit her spinning and go out into the spring sunshine. Canny creature that she is, she maps out her campaign step by step: first, she will enjoy Nature, but if “bad boys” come along, she will hide in the bushes until they have gone by. However, if a pious lad offers her flowers, surely she should accept and go with him, she avers. Why do we think she already has someone in mind? Wolf in 1878 must have had a delightful time inventing a new spinning wheel in music (not indebted to Schubert’s tragic version in “Gretchen am Spinnrade”) and additionally giving the piano repeated fiery-stormy interludes to tell of this woman’s capacity for passion. The best touch of all?—the song “ends” on an unresolved dominant seventh. We will never know how “mother” responded.
In another Eichendorff song, Liebesglück, a lover one guesses is young and unscarred by experience can hardly contain his “over-the-top” similes for immeasurable love. Wolf enlists deliberately excessive exuberance—thickly-padded chordal textures, obsessive dotted rhythms, crescendos galore, rising chromaticism emblematic of desire, and more—to tell us just how ecstatic the singer is.
In Bescheidene Liebe, an anonymous poet overturns the expectation that young women should be modest and shy, desirous of matrimony and wedding rings. A self-assured young lass declares her ability to flaunt her love even under her mother’s nose, while her tame young man is a veritable turtle-dove in his sweetness. Gender expectations were seldom so humorously overturned, and Wolf in 1877 seized on the poem for a delightful Lied im Volkston.
Born in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart and impelled by his family into the Lutheran ministry (until his early retirement from the pulpit), Eduard Mörike drew Wolf’s attention for his many-sidedness and slipperiness of categorization. This poet is neither wholly Romantic, neo-classical, Biedermeier-idyllic or folk-like, although he partakes on occasion of each of the above. His works encompass love sonnets, ballads of the supernatural, “role poems” in which stereotypical characters speak, fantasy and fairy-tale worlds, humor, eroticism bordering on pornography, religious poetry, Nature poems, and much more. Like Mozart, whose music Mörike revered, his poems hint at daemonic sources of power beneath idyllic surfaces.
Mörike trained as a Lutheran pastor at the famed seminary in Tübingen and became a vicar in Cleversulzbach, but his heart was never in the ministry, and he retired early. Neue Liebe is a testament, however, to the use he could and did make of religion personally. In a nocturnal dialogue with his inner self, the singer asks whether it is possible to love wholly someone mortal and sadly concludes no—but he can belong utterly to God. Wolf’s most passionate post-Wagnerian harmonic wonders are unleashed in the service of half-sacral, half-erotic ecstasy.
In the spring of 1852, the poet-translators Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse published a volume of fluent German paraphrases of Spanish poetry, both anonymous folk verse and poems by such learned poets as Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Given Germany’s longstanding fascination with Spanish exoticism, the poems were popular with many composers, including Schumann, Brahms, Cornelius—and Hugo Wolf, who began work on the forty-four songs of his Spanish Songbook immediately after completing his fifty-one Goethe songs. Famously incendiary Spanish passionn is on ample display here: over and over, a young woman on fire with love begs her mother for water to cool her flaming heart in Liebe mir im Busen zündet. That “water” is dramatized as a loud-louder-loudest Neapolitan harmony pressing on the A minor key so often emblematic of lamentation in Schubert and Wolf is notable.
Schumann had already set Liebesbotschaft by the poet-artist Robert Reinick, but Wolf in 1883 turned his hand to a new version. In the long tradition of poets sending messages to the beloved via Nature (here, clouds), we hear pianistic breezes wafting chromatic messages in the first section, rocking-cradling figures in the middle section, with its invocation of evening quietude, and finally a return to the opening music. The sudden hush at the end, after rising passion just before, is lovely.
The child Wolf may have heard much about Italy from his Carinthian mother, who, according to family tradition, had Italian blood. Wolf’s texts for his Italienisches Liederbuch came from the anthology of the same name, published in Berlin in 1860 and containing translations by Paul Heyse (1830-1914) of Italian folk poetry. Heyse tells us in the preface that he wanted to create a “middle way” between the naiveté of folk poetry and the “affected and bombastic” nature of German speech. The “middle way” becomes a metamorphosis of Italian peasant maidens into German women with larger vocabularies and greater intensity of expression than their models. Wolf took the transmogrification a step farther, telling his friend Emil Kauffmann in a letter of 23 December 1892, “A warm heart, I can assure you, beats in the small bodies of my youngest children of the South, who cannot, despite appearances, deny their German origins. Yes, their hearts beat in German, though the sun shines on them in Italian.” In the verse-form known as the rispetto, such as Wenn du mein Liebster steigst zum Himmel auf, a lover’s compliment is repeated several times to different words, often intensified by the end. Here, the fantasy mise-en-scène is Paradise, where God Himself will surely join the hearts of lover and beloved, with full-out Wolfian glory resounding at the end.
While life and art are not the same, a poet’s experiences and world-view inevitably find their way into his or her verse. In 1824, the 19-year-old Mörike fell catastrophically in love with a beautiful, disturbed Swiss vagrant named Maria Meyer; his rejection of her for promiscuity in 1825 left massive imprints on his poetry thereafter and is inscribed all over his 1832 novel Maler Nolten. There, the character Agnes discovers An die Geliebte among the actor Larkens’s papers after his death; in this love poem, the poet’s quasi-religious worship of his beloved’s countenance leads to a transcendental experience in which the self dissolves in tremolando rapture and mystical apprehension of the depths and the heights.
Returning to the Italien Songbook for another of its reverential/passionate love songs, the lover in Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst und lacht begs for a sign from his beloved when she looks at him and smiles so that he might still his wildly beating heart. We hear Wolf’s frequent recourse to syncopated rhythms in the left hand throughout the song; in the second half, the lover’s ardor heats up by stages en route to the end, with a “dying away” postlude to follow.
To select poems famously part of Schumann’s Dichterliebe did not, could not, produce “Wölferl’s own howl” (his humorous term for his own style), at least not at age 16, but it enabled Wolf to learn principles of text setting from the song-master he most revered. While his setting of “Du bist wie eine Blume” is cloned Schumann, Wenn ich in deine Augen seh is still mock-Schumann but not so close to the original model—except for the echo of his predecessor’s setting of the words “so werd’ ich ganz und gar gesund” and “doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich.” Heine’s masterful poem foreshadows Nietzsche’s later statement that assent to a single desire is siultaneously assent to an entire world of pain.
In Sagt ihm, dass er zu mir komme (another song of female passion from the Spanish Songbook), the woman declares that the more “they”—the forces ever opposed to love—inveigh against her beloved, the more resolved she is to love him. The recurring figure in the piano, with its tapping repeated pitches, is of surpassing beauty.
George Gordon Lord Byron’s exquisite lyric poem, “There be none of Beauty’s daughters,” was an immediate draw for composers, including in Germany, where Goethe had helped to estabblish Byron’s reputation early on. Otto Gildemeister’s translation into German as Keine gleicht von allen Schönen provided Wolf’s words: notice how the composer emphasizes the important first syllables of “Kei – ne” and “Zau – berhafte” by setting them on the fourth beat of the measure and then sustaining them across the barline in palpable yearning. The duetting relationship between the piano’s right-hand octave-doubled melody and the singer’s part is among the marvels of this little-known and beautiful song.
Wanderers throng the byways of 19th-century German verse, including the singer of Ja, die Schönst! to a poem from an entire anthology of a “journeying student’s” songs by Hoffmann von Fallersleben. This wanderer celebrates himself as an adventurer to the ceaseless dotted rhythms that impel the music ever onward—alas, his beloved Leonore is the only unconquered fortress. Wolf fills much of the song with over-the-top self-dramatization, followed by a retreat into lovelorn tenderness that engages all our sympathies at the end. In a virtuosic number from the Spanish Songbook Bitt’ ihn, o Mutter, bitte den Knaben, a young woman in the throes of passion begs her mother to intercede with Cupid not to aim his arrows at her; here and elsewhere, Wolf transmogrifies pseudo-guitar strumming in the piano as a real work-out for the pianist.
Mädchen mit dem roten Mündchen is Wolf’s first Heine song, composed at age 16; he was a passionate Schumann advocate in his youth, and Schumann meant Heine. Here, a poet observes his naively romantic self, yearning in adolescent moon-calf fashion for his sweetheart’s petite charms, and jeers: all those cliché diminutives, all that contemptible coziness. Wolf’s music ignores the darker shadings and depicts a happy naïf—all surface and no depth; if he is perceptive enough to delete any sentimentality, he also does not suggest that this is a fool en route to disillusionment, as does Heine.
Nikolaus Lenau was another Schumann poet of whom Wolf availed himself, and in Frage nicht, he found a poem not already colonized by his great predecessor (always a joy for him). In this complex exploration of subjectivity, Lenau separates the heart from the rest of the self and invokes a place in which love of God depends on the beloved’s love for the poet. Wolf depicts that fraught inner world in the piano introduction, while the ending is beautifully “andächtig.”
As the piano introduction to the lament Wer sein holdes Lieb’ verloren circles tightly around a single pitch, we hear anguish already in evidence. A woman the singer loved has confessed her desire for him in the garden of Love, but he, not understanding love, did not respond; now, he cries out over and over again, “If only I had never been born,” to descending chromaticism emblematic of grief centuries before Wolf. Others have performed this song as semi-comic adolescent self-dramatizing, but I hear bitter experience schooling someone now no longer naive.
One of Wolf’s grandest, most wrenching songs is Wo find’ ich Trost? In its first incarnation, this poem is sung by the tormented character Agnes in Mörike’s novel Maler Nolten (The Painter Nolten, 1832) just before she drowns herself. Like Wagner’s Amfortas in his last opera Parsifal, she is tortured by fleshly desires and a sense of sin for which no surcease is possible. No wonder that Wolf invokes both the textures of Lutheran hymnody—the cry, “Watchman, watchman, will the night soon be over?” is taken directly from Luther’s translation of Isaiah 21: 11-12— and the Spear motif from Wagner’s opera. In the postlude, we hear a mammoth dissonance (the moment of death?), followed by progressively softer clashes and, finally, a bright triadic chord at the end, when peace finally comes.
For a Lutheran pastor, Mörike could be astonishingly frank about eroticism. Wolf would later describe his setting of Nimmersatte Liebe as “a regular student’s song”—that students then as now are preoccupied with sex is the implication. Here, a composer in Freud’s Vienna creates a graphic simulation of panting and the motions of love-making, narrated by a young man who assures us that even those as wise as King Solomon are no different in love. Note as well that Mörike pokes fun at men’s expectations that women are really “begging for it” and will lie there like “lambs to slaughter.”
In Ich hab’ in Penna a woman who has heaped fire-and-brimstone imprecations on her ex-lover’s head in the song just before this one boasts of her multiple lovers in this, that, and the other town. Wolf had learned from Schumann how to make the piano postludes of songs maximal; emotions no longer constrained by language spill over into especially intense manifestations in the instrumental ending. Here, no one could mistake the compound of glee, triumph, and virtuosic one-upsmanship in the postlude —“so there” indeed.
Throughout Mögen alle bösen Zungen, sung by another spirited and defiant woman, we hear Wolf’s marvelous depiction in the piano of chattering, gossiping tongues who would assail maidens in love. Pinpricks of dissonance make her condemnation of slander vivid indeed, and the refrain–“den lieb’ ich wieder, und ich lieb’ und bin beliebt”—always features the crucial verb drawn over the barline in emphasis.
In the darling conceit at the heart of Frohe Botschaft, to another genial poem by the genial Reinick, a singer made speechless by love sends emissaries—his eyes as servants, his fingers as page boys, his lips as messengers—to his lady to find out whether his love is returned. How endearing to end this resonant display of Eros as a (mostly) joyous force with this celebration of Love Triumphant, impelled by yet another stream of dotted rhythms—Wolf’s musical corollary to love as the impelling force in life.
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.Website
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The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm IX
“…und Amor ist gut gelaunt…”
Unfall – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), 23 September 1888
Erwartung – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, 26 January 1880
Die Spinnerin – text by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), 5-12 April 1878
Liebesglück – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, 27 September 1888
Bescheidene Liebe – poet unknown, 1876 or 1877
Neue Liebe – text by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), 4 October 1888
Liebe mir im Busen zündet – Spanisches Liederbuch, possibly an original text by Paul Heyse (1830-1914)?, 2 April 1890
Liebesbotschaft – text by Robert Reinick (1805-1852), 18 March 1883
Wenn du mein Liebster, steigst zum Himmel auf – rispetto “Quando bellino, al cielo salirai,” Italienisches Liederbuch, 24 April 1896
An die Geliebte – text by Eduard Mörike, 11 October 1888
Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst – rispetto “Quando incontri i miei occhi,” Italienisches Liederbuch, 19 April 1896
Wenn ich in deine Augen seh – text by Heinrich Heine, 21 December 1876
Sagt ihm daß er zu mir kommen – text by Anonymous, trans. Paul Heyse, Spanisches Liederbuch, 4 April 1890
Keine gleicht von allen Schönen – text by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), 18-25 December 1896
Ja, die Schönst! Ich sagt es offen – text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874), 11 August 1878
Bitt ihn, o Mütter -“Rogaselo madre,” text by Anonymous, trans. Paul Heyse, Spanisches Liederbuch, 26 November 1889
Mädchen mit dem roten Mündchen – Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), 17 December 1876
Frage nicht – text by Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau (1802-1850), 21 July 1879
Wer sein holdes Lieb verloren – “Quien gentil señora pierde,” Anonymous, trans. by Emanuel von Geibel (1815-1884), Spanisches Liederbuch, 28 October 1889
Wo find ich Trost – text by Eduard Mörike, 6 October 1888
Nimmersatte Liebe – text by Eduard Mörike, 24 February 1888
Ich hab im Penna – rispetto “Ce l’ho un amante alla città di Penna,” Italienisches Liederbuch, 25 April 1896
Mögen alle bösen Zungen – “Dirá cuanto dijere,” text by Anonymous, trans. Emanuel von Geibel, Spanisches Liederbuch, 3 April 1890
Frohe Botschaft – text by Robert Reinick, 25 June 1890