An Essay by Susan Youens
Courtesy of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie
The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm V
Geistliche Lieder – Die Verlassenen – Rollenlieder
Essay by Susan Youens
This writer’s homage to Wolf
“Little things can also delight us, little things may also be precious:” the first words of the first song in Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch are a manifesto and a Credo. From within a small song, Wolf asserts that “little things” can be of great value, that it is not only big works (opera, symphony) that matter. Wolf felt keenly the sting of being labelled a Lieder-Komponist (song composer), supposedly confined to songwriting because incapable of the larger genres. If he subscribed in some measure to the prejudice by which song composers were considered second-class citizens, he could recognize when composing his songs that “what I write now, I write for posterity too” . . . not hubris, but a statement of fact. A passionate advocate of Wagner’s music, he brought to song the tonal innovations of the world post-Bayreuth: “Wölferl’s own howl,” he dubbed his unique style. An inhabitant of Freud’s Vienna, a quasi-Nietzschean freethinker (but with a non-dogmatic spiritual side), he was interested in psychological matters, and the musical characters he creates are three-dimensional in their mixed motives, vivid personalities, and capacity for ambivalence.
The great poet Eduard Mörike was destined by his family to become a Lutheran pastor, but his heart was never truly in it: in letters to friends, he wrote, “I am a shorn spirit with preaching” and “I simply cannot preach, even if you strapped me to the rack” (none of his sermons survive). Even his belief in God was a wavering, ambivalent thing. It is therefore ironic that his Gebet has been so popular with nineteenth-century composers (over 130 settings), given the market for devotional songs. But it is a versified quarrel with Lutheran doctrine, beginning with compliance, but ending with an unacceptable assertion of human will: the speaker takes back in stanza 2 what he has just said to God in stanza 1 and begs for “holdes Bescheiden,” neither extremes of rapture nor extremities of pain. Wolf garbs the first stanza—the orthodox prayer—in music evocative of religious convention, and he walks a fine line between indices of sincere piety and the syrupiness to which devotional music was prone. But the sacred “organ” chorale prelude in the piano introduction and the block-chordal writing dressed up with Baroque suspensions (but with hints of doubt built in) are succeeded in the second stanza by Chopinesque elegance and a hint of dancing as the persona breaks free from dogma. The exquisite postlude ends with an “Amen” cadence, but this one makes music itself the religion: a more beautiful spirituality is achieved in art.
But Mörike was capable of truly beautiful religious works as well. Schlafendes Jesuskind is one of Mörike’s ekphrastic poems, or poems about paintings: in a book about Renaissance painters, Mörike found an engraving after a painting by Francesco Albani, who portrayed the baby Jesus asleep on the wood of the cross, with the instruments of the Passion arrayed in front. The Child sleeping on the cross consumes the entire foreground and blocks the middle-ground from view; we catch glimpses of a landscape in the background, but the pictorial prophecy dominates. It is no wonder Mörike, who mingles different states of Time in his work, was drawn to this poem, with its poignant merger of past, present, and future. Wolf sets these words to music that looks “antique” on the page, that combines post-Wagnerian harmonic intensity with chorale-style voice-leading, hints of modal harmony when the “heavenly Child” is invoked, and an inward, musing atmosphere.
Wolf preferred (for the most part) the poetry of earlier generations, and his next songbook project after the Eichendorff and Goethe anthologies was the Spanisches Liederbuch of 1852, translations by Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse both of Spanish “art poetry” and anonymous folk verse; Schumann was among the earlier composers drawn to this poetic work. Wolf’s subsequent anthology of Spanish songs—his Spain a musical colony of late Romantic Germany—begins with ten “spiritual songs,” including Nun wandre, Maria, in which Joseph tenderly encourages Mary on their journey by assuring her that Bethlehem is near and that the travails of pregnancy will soon be over. Wolf fills the right-hand part with the sweet parallel thirds that had become a hallmark of devotional songs, fills the left-hand part with the open fifths evocative of folk music, and “staggers” chromatically into darkness for a brief moment when Joseph observes Mary’s weariness.
Of all Wagner’s operas, Parsifal had special meaning for Wolf. In 1882, his aunt Bertha bought a copy of the recently published vocal score of this work for her cherished nephew, and a coterie of Wolfian friends and supporters—he always had a circle of devoted allies who loved him—banded together to help send him to Bayreuth for the Parsifal festival in August that same year. He was among the first audiences to hear the work; he went twice, and it was everything he had hoped for: “colossal,” he wrote, “Wagner’s most inspired, most sublime creation.” Mühvoll komm’ ich und beladen is one of Wolf’s most colossal songs: like Wagner’s opera, it is heavy with the weight of sexual sin and guilt (and here, we remember that Wolf spent the remainder of his life post-late teens with the incurable syphilis that would eventually kill him). We also hear his debts both to Liszt and to Schubert in the use of dissonant augmented triads; Liszt was known as “the emancipator of the augmented chord,” and Schubert brings diatonic triads and augmented chords in close, unconventional proximity in songs such as “Der Atlas.” Like Schubert’s Titan, Wolf’s singer is staggering under an unbearable weight and begs his God for release.
The anonymous poet of Herr, was trägt der Boden hier imagines a dialogue between a sinner who asks questions and Christ who answers them, sadly taking unto Himself the thorns of death and pain while giving human sinners the flowers of salvation. Wolf fills the song with inner sighs and stabs of pain, with descending gestures that only momentarily alight on an identifiable harmonic resting place—until the end, and even then, the piano must look beyond the dialogue to the salvific ending in a Picardy third (major mode) cadence.
Auf ein altes Bild is an ekphrastic vision of an unknown work of art—or does it exist only in the poet’s imagination? The poet sees what cannot be literally present in a painting of the Virgin and Child in a beautiful summer landscape and yet claims it is there: the tree for the Cross already “greening,” maturing over time to its appointed future. Summer will become wintry death, the Child who “plays freely” is actually ordained for death, the vanished artificer of the “old painting” is long dead, and the sinless infant will assume the sins of the world and die for them. Did Wolf perhaps imagine a Flemish or Italian Renaissance painting and devise vocal writing whose stepwise motion and symmetry recalls, at a distance, Palestrina or even Josquin? The top and bottom voices in the piano accompaniment are mirrors in contrary motion of one another for much of the song: is this the musical symbol of the polarities/ complementarities of life and death, spirit and flesh, present and future in the words. In the postlude, we hear a motivic stammer, with m. 1 repeated three times before the “death-blow” strikes loudly on a weak beat, followed by a soft, salvific radiance—yet again, Wolf’s own extension of Mörike’s poem.
The historical John of Nepomuk or John Nepomucene was a fourteenth-century Bohemian saint who was tortured and then drowned in the Vltava river on the order of King Wenceslaus (this event and others precipitated his deposition); the monarch had demanded that John reveal what the queen had said in confessional, and the saint refused. In legend, mysterious lights shone above the water when his body was recovered, and worshippers thereafter floated candles on the river on his saint’s day eve in his honor. Goethe subsequently conjured up images of lights and stars vanishing from view, but song will “declare no less what brings a star to the stars.” Wolf was clearly enchanted by Goethe’s images of bells —he locates them in the treble register filled with bell-like, faintly dissonant overtones—and lights on the water. We hear, merged in this music, the swaying of the water, the children’s choir, the bells, and the points of light.
Goethe (no orthodox Christian—he delighted in the moniker “the great pagan”) did a delighted riff on the legend of the Three Wise Men with his Epiphanias. Here, the first king is white-skinned and handsome but no success with the ladies; the second king is brown-skinned, tall, well-versed in women and song; and the third is black-skinned and small but merry (we hear exotic tinkling bells and treble merriment in the piano as he sings). They bring their traditional gifts, but when they realize that no donkeys and oxen are to be found “here,” only handsome men and lovely women, they leave. Wolf’s delightful setting—he was a master of comedy in lieder—was written as a birthday gift for Melanie Köchert and was performed by her three daughters, Ilse, Hilde, and Irmina, in costume on Epiphany Day. In this song, Wolf has great fun with every march-music convention imaginable, including the 18th– and 19th-century tradition of “Turkish marches,” the whole pageant ending (too soon) with one of his typical “dying away” endings.
More church bells chime in Zum neuen Jahr, which Mörike wrote as a contrafactum to a melody from Antonio Salieri’s 1788 opera Axur, re d’Ormus; the opera’s “Wie dort auf den Auen” becomes Mörike’s “Wie heimlicher Weise.” We hear streams of bell-like, child-like parallel thirds in contrary motion, heaven and earth happily reflecting each other on New Year’s Day. In the worshipful middle section, addressed to the God who created the moon and the sun, the bell chimes descend into a warm lower register, with Wolf’s favorite syncopated rhythmic pattern and open fifths in the left hand.
In 1830, the twenty-six year-old Mörike completed his first major work of prose: the “Romantic artist-novel” Maler Nolten, published two years later. The title character is involved with two young women, both of whom go mad: the gypsy Elisabeth and the forester’s daughter Agnes, a portrait of a female hysteric who only begins to sing as she starts her descent into madness. Both characters were born of a determinative event in Mörike’s life: his love affair in 1823-24 with a mentally disturbed, poverty-stricken, and beautiful Swiss vagrant named Maria Meyer. He cast her out of his life, but he could never convince himself that his actions were right and in his most incandescent poems, he judges himself guilty beyond reparation. The novel is full of inset-songs, all of which Wolf set to music, including the poignant “Rosenzeit, wie schnell vorbei,” or “Agnes.” For this heart-breaking song, Wolf devises harmonies whose warping—this is an ambiguous, shifting, sour pitch-world—tells of encroaching madness, while his rhythmic patterns mimic the monotonous rhythmic rocking of the mentally ill. This poem is included as a separate item in Mörike’s sole poetic anthology, but I am convinced that Wolf knew the novel as well.
Over the course of the 19th century, many composers set Goethe’s tiny masterpiece Erster Verlust to music, including Schubert, Schumann, and both Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. It took a certain bravado on the young Wolf’s part (he was sixteen) to set it to music in the wake of such great song composers. In this Erlebnisgedicht, the poet mourns the lost days of first love and withdraws into an obsessive recounting of his grief. That freshness, that innocent ardor, is gone, he laments, but the freshness of Wolf’s setting is not.
Mörike’s conversion of Maria Meyer into poetry that bursts the bounds of convention began right away with his Peregrina poems: the title tells of pilgrimages, of the ages-old quest—so often thwarted—for love. Peregrina is both a seeker after love and emblematic of Love itself, given to restless vagrancy. Throughout the five poems, Mörike establishes a dichotomy between social convention (“Haus”) on one side and the dark realm of errant Eros on the other; the persona rejects Peregrina and Eros, only to regret it because he rejected real love in the bargain. Wolf set only two of the poems to music; in Peregrina I (also the first poem in Mörike’s set), Peregrina becomes something akin to a paradoxically innocent (a “child”) priestess of sexual desire officiating at an anti-mass, her Communion chalice filled with something other than Christ’s transubstantiated blood. The poet looks into the mirror of her eyes and finds, not the golden holiness he tries to see at the start of this ottava rima poem but sin and death. In Mörike’s “Peregrina IV” (Wolf’s Peregrina II), grief asks “Why?” and summons up ghosts of the past, a fantasy in which the lovers can be together and leave the house hand-in-hand—he cannot let her go just yet. Wolf links the two songs together by a musical bridge: the end of I becomes the beginning of II, repeating wordlessly the words “Tod im Kelch der Sünden.” In fact, “Peregrina II” is spun almost entirely from this figure, but the gesture we most remember is the incandescent leap of longing at the last word “Haus” (surely one of the loveliest 6-4 chords in all of music). It is here that we remember Wolf’s long-standing love affair with Melanie Köchert, a married woman with whom Wolf could never share a house, and realize that composers can and do find their own meanings in poetry.
In his Mörike songbook, Wolf pairs “Der Knabe und das Immlein” (in which a young man sings of the honeyed sweetness of love) with Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag, in which we count the cost of such love in grief. We only hear the lament, in which a little swallow bring news of her lover’s faithlessness; there is a long tradition in folk poetry of just such avian messengers. The hour is shortly before daybreak: the “Mörike hour,” when our psychological defenses are down and flashes of insight, revelation, knowledge strike us all of a sudden. In Wolf’s setting, the phrase we hear so often in this song is circular: it could go on forever, a snake devouring its own tail. Not only is the “Stündlein” doomed to recur in the woman’s memory over and over, but her plight belongs to an eternal cycle. The quarter-note tactus is like the slow ticking of an inexorable clock, while the formal structure is unique in all of 19th-century song: I know of no other song predicated upon two successive semitone modulations upward (“the Mantovani maneuver,” an irreverent theorist of my acquaintance calls it). Within each stanza, a harmonic sequence carries us from the beginning tonality to the dominant chord of the next tonality (circular by spirals). This song is one of the great masterpieces of fin-de-siècle lieder.
And so is Das verlassene Mägdlein. Mörike was drawn to Baroque “emblem books” containing allegorical illustrations with accompanying explanatory morals or poems. In one such book that he owned, we find the image of a servant girl lighting the fire in the pre-dawn hours (the “Mörike Stunde”); this was perhaps the inspiration for this poem, in which the sparks from the fire ignite in an abandoned girl’s mind her night-long dreams of a faithless lover. That she has perhaps been impregnated and then left to her own devices lurks in the background. We hear her resentment of her compulsory service in the dissonances at the repeated verb “muss’ [ich];” her mental conversion of the brightness of the fire into leaden misery with the momentary tonal slide downwards into flat regions, and the shock of the instant of recognition (“Plötzlich”).
In Lebewohl, a heartbroken abandoned woman recalls the word “Farewell” and accuses the lighthearted former lover of not understanding the meaning of the word. For such anguish, Wolf unveils his most potent post-Wagnerian incandescent harmonies, with the word “Lebewohl” echoing and reechoing in the postlude. Like “Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag,” this song is tonally progressive, “ending” in the dominant key: there is no such thing as “closure” for these women.
To say that Wolf revered Wagner is an understatement; when Wagner died, Wolf went to a friend’s house, played the Funeral March from Die Götterdämmerung without saying a word, and then disappeared. But the Janus face of such adulation when the adored one was born in 1813 and his latterday acolyte in 1860 was a sense of oppression. “What is left for me do?”, Wolf once lamented, “He has given me no room, like a mighty tree whose shade chokes the sprouting young growths under its widespread branches.” Then in 1888, he found a way to recover from his self-doubts with the Mörike songbook. Three weeks before the floodtide of Mörike masterpieces began, Wolf wrote a comic song called Gesellenlied to a poem by Robert Reinick, an artist-poet who had been one of Schumann’s chosen sources for song. Reinick’s apprentice, who will remind everyone of the cheeky, darling apprentice David in Wagner’s opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, prefaces each stanza with a proverb clearly quoted from his own master, “Kein Meister fällt vom Himmel!” and then goes on to reinterpret the proverb in light of his desire to be out on his own, freed from all masters, at liberty to find a bride and be a master himself. Wolf’s wonderfully pompous march in crystal-clear C major for the master’s repetitive maxim to his pupils is hardly coincidental: the famous March of the Mastersingers sounds in the background, but with its famous contrary motion chromaticized in Wolf’s manner. Wolf concocts Wagnerian leitmotives for each stanza; if we were David in Wagner’s opera, going through a catalogue of “Töne,” “Weisen,” melodies, that all apprentices en route to mastery must learn, we might call these the Freiheit motif, the Gnaden motif, and the “pretty girl” motif. Wolf aptly mimics the character of the Töne that David demonstrates to Walther in Act I, scene 1 without quoting them: this is Wolf’s contribution to the Mastersinger canon. The timing of this song’s creation is so apt as to be downright delicious, poised as it is on the brink between Wolf’s own protracted, stop-and-start apprenticeship to masters both dead and alive and the beginning of the Mörike floodtide.
One of the poets most beloved by 19th century song composers was Joseph von Eichendorff (born at Schloß Lubowitz near Ratibor, Silesia in 1788, died in Neiße, 1857), who held fast to Romanticism’s aesthetic while history — the Industrial Revolution, the increasing displacement of aristocratic power by modern bureaucracies, and more — moved past him. The scion of an aristocratic family whose fortunes were on the wane, he had to earn his living as a civil servant, first in Vienna and finally in Berlin until early retirement due to ill-health in 1844. For Wolf, it might have seemed especially important to strike a new vein in Eichendorff’s poetry because of the inevitable comparisons with Schumann. To his friend and fellow-composer Engelbert Humperdinck, Wolf boasted that he “has preferred the sharply humorous, robustly sensuous side of the poet, which is virtually unknown.” He was particularly drawn to Eichendorff’s quirky figures outside the bounds of the bourgeoisie (mercenary soldiers, gypsies, sailors, comic Philistines, lazy scholars, and the like): a portrait gallery of endearing eccentrics.
Wolf made a habit of writing songs whose poetic scenarios involve musical performance, and the wandering minstrel of Der Musikant was perfect for him. The settled, money-making, married life is not for such as this charming creature, content with his impecunious lot; I would guess that Wolf enjoyed this “send-up” of the economic and psychological difficulties of his own artistic profession.
In his affectionate portrayal of the contented student in Der Scholar, Wolf underscores the youthful pomposity of the words “Uncorrupted by Mammon, I will stroll in the field of knowledge, think deep thoughts, and from time to time, savor a mouthful of wine” by means of large melodic leaps in the piano which at the same time inch upwards—strolling—by degrees. Somehow we are not surprised that the song culminates with the intent to serenade the beloved.
Perhaps Eichendorff’s most vivid Rollenlied is Die Zigeunerin, with its gypsy girl who awaits her properly nut-brown and bold lover by night, singing La-la-la as she passes the time. Wolf fills the piano accompaniment with atmospheric soft forest rustlings in the beginning and ending sections; in the middle, when the lawless gypsy girl shoots at a cat, Wolf indulges in darting, catlike figures, with yowling and leaping and the gypsy girl’s laughter. The songs fades to its end with gypsy-music-inflected la-la-la’s.
In Germany’s folklore, hunters are “macho men,” irresistible to women and resistant to the strictures of civilization. Mörike puts a marvelous comic “spin” on the legendary figure in his Der Jäger, in which a hunter sulks because it has rained for three solid days and his sweetheart is out of sorts with him (and vice-versa). Given his “relationship problems,” he tries to rejoice in Nature’s storminess, as hunters should do, but ultimately can hardly wait to rush back indoors to his sweetheart and beg her pardon. Wolf has a marvelous time creating “sulky music” at the start, filled with tritones and augmented fifths and offbeat accents, not to mention thunder, lightning, and a stray shot reverberating in the night. We hear the hunter’s true feelings when he imagines his sweetheart weeping, to music filled with “sweet, expressive” sighing figures. The ending in the piano postlude is an exultant rush back home to his beloved.
Wolf was a fan of the writings of the Swiss master of literary realism Gottfried Keller, famous for Der grüne Heinrich and Die Leute von Seldwyla. He also wrote poetry, and Wolf set six of his poems to music under the collective title Alte Weisen, including the virtuosic Das Köhlerweib ist trunken. “Wild,” Wolf directs the performers as they perform this thumbnail-sized portrait of a former beauty overthrown by alcoholism and now singing drunkenly in the forest. The pianist in particular is given a work-out: trills figures, emphatic octave stamping, wild leaps from grace-noted heights, and the most emphatic conclusion in all of Wolf’s songs.
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 III
Gebet – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike (1889) text by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), 13 March 1888
Schlafendes Jesuskind – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike. text by Eduard Mörike,6 October 1888
Nun wandre, Maria – from the Spanisches Liederbuch (1891), text by Francisco de Ocaña (flourished ca. 1600), trans. by Paul Heyse (1830-1914), 4 November 1889
Mühvoll komm’ ich und beladen – from the Spanisches Liederbuch, text by Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884), 10 January 1890
Herr, was trägt der Boden hier – from the Spanisches Liederbuch, text by Anonymous, trans. by Paul Heyse, 24 November 1889
Auf ein altes Bild – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 14 April 1888
Sankt Nepomuks Vorabend – from Gedichte von Goethe (1890), text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), 15 November 1888
Epiphanias – from Gedichte von Goethe, text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 27 December 1888
Zum neuen Jahre –from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 5 October 1888
Agnes – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 3 May 1888
Erster Verlust, Op. 9, No. 3 – text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 30 January 1876
Peregrina I & II – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, texts by Eduard Mörike, 28 April 1888 and 30 April 1888
Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 22 February 1888
Das verlassene Mägdlein – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 24 March 1888
Lebe wohl – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 31 March 1888
Gesellenlied – from Drei Gedichte von Robert Reinick (1897), text by Robert Reinick (1805-1852), 24 January 1888
Der Musikant – from Gedichte von Eichendorff, text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), 22 September 1888
Die Zigeunerin – from Gedichte von Eichendorff, text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, 19 March 1887
Der Jäger – from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, text by Eduard Mörike, 23 February 1888
Das Köhlerweib ist trunken – from Alte Weisen, Sechs Gedichte von Keller, text by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890), between 7 and 23 June 1890