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

An Essay by Susan Youens

Courtesy of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie

The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm VII
Nacht und Träume

Essay by Susan Youens

Lieder Program: List of Songs

Nacht und Träume

(Nacht und Träume song list)

There is perhaps no more pervasive theme in European Romanticism than night and all of its relatives:  the moon, dreams, evening, twilight, nightingales that sing for lovers’ nighttime trysts. It is by night that man or woman looks deeply within to discover who he/she really is; night is when mystic imagination, as opposed to reason and intellect, flourishes (Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht are a stellar example); night impels morbid ruminations on death or allows Eros to hold sway. Night is an obsession of Romantics world-wide, its visions encompassing the gamut of human experience from sorrow to pleasure. And night is, of course, the climate for dreams; Romantics wrote via their imaginings, dreams, and thoughts of what will be. Long before Freud, Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert wrote his treatise Die Symbolik des Traumes, in which he proposed that in dream, the soul speaks a universal hieroglyphic language of symbols stemming from „the poet hidden within us.“ For Wolf, drawn to earlier 19th-century poets and profoundly affected by Wagner (whose Tristan und Isolde is a mammoth „hymn to the night“), it was inevitable that many of his songs would be Lied-nocturnes.

In fact, one of Wolf’s earliest songs is a Nachtlied:  Nacht und Grab to a poem written in 1803 by the late 18th/19th-century writer Heinrich Zschokke and published in vol. 3 of his Novellen und Dichtungen. Wolf was probably in his final months attending the grammar school at Marburg (now Maribor), which he left in June or early July 1875. Wolf, we must remember, was largely an autodidact who, at a young age, believed fiercely in his musical vocation and worked unstintingly to achieve mastery. The songs of Op. 3 (this song, plus four Goethe settings) are elementary works, with only occasional glimpses foreshadowing what he would become, but it is always fascinating to see a composer’s starting point; that he had not yet encountered Wagner is immediately apparent.

Born in tiny Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart in Swabian country 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 styles. 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 dark, daemonic sources of power beneath elegant, graceful, idyllic surfaces.

In Um Mitternacht, written when Mörike was only twenty-three, the allegorical figure of Night perceives the sights and sounds of the nocturnal world which she herself personifies. What she sees – on another order than human sight – is Timelessness and Eternity, and yet she is forced to listen to the “Quellen” babbling of the day just past. The wellsprings of poetry continue their never-ending re-creating and retelling of Time past in the presence of Time transcendent:  this is what poets do. Wolf fills his setting with murmurous pulsations in the piano to suggest both measured Time and the hovering, mysterious nature of what lies beyond it.

Wolf followed his magnificent volume of Mörike songs with an equally large and magnificent volume of Goethe songs, including. The little gem Die Bekehrte is the second in pair of mock-pastoral poems; „Die Spröde“ is the spring morning/lively/teasing antecedent to this song, its melancholy twin at twilight. The same pastoral open fifths in the bass and the delicate right-hand figures that turn around semitone gestures are present, as before, but now suffused with loss. Wolf fashions the piano accompaniment as Damon’s flute; we understand them as sounding in the singer’s memory after Damon himself has gone forever.

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. “Life,” Eichendorff wrote, “with its many-colored images, stands in relation to the poet as an immensely complex book of hieroglyphs in an unknown proto-language, long since vanished, is to a reader.” An ardent Catholic, he filled his poetic world with theology’s centrifugal and centripetal forces:  that which brings men closer to God is good and that which denies God is evil. In his sonorous verse, a small repertory of recurring words—“Frühling,“ “Grund,” “Haus,” “Stimmen,” “Wald,” and more—act as mutable ciphers for a cosmos made magical by the power of poetry. Here, the physical world becomes a diaphanous veil through which mystical meanings glimmer.

Wolf was given to creating songs in which the piano and the singer assume different roles, with the piano mimicking music in the external world (a band of town musicians, a minstrel’s lute, dinner-party music, dance music, and so on). In the exquisite Das Ständchen, we hear a young man first tuning his lute and then serenading his sweetheart while an old man (the singer) watches and remembers when he too wooed a beloved woman, now dead. In mid-song, we hear the serenade rendered more complex, more profound, because it is filtered through the veil of the old man’s memories. At the end, he sweetly, generously, returns both the music and ongoing love and life to the young man, bidding him, “Sing on.”

Paul Heyse culled Italian folk poetry from six anthologies (one of them compiled by Wilhelm Müller, the poet of the Schubert song cycles) for his Italienisches Liederbuch. Wolf almost neither did not know the Italian originals, nor did he care:  writing to a friend in 1892, he declares, „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 . . .“ The songs he chose include numerous worshipful, ardent declarations of love by male personae and comic songs for vivid women who upbraid, dismiss, scold, and keep their lovers in order. Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag erhoben is one of the most reverential of the male love songs, its piano part filled with doubled “sighing figures”—sighs of hopeless desire—that descend one after the other and overtop the vocal lines. Five of the singer’s phrases in this tiny gem end with leaps of a seventh downward:  in that musical decision alone, we hear the heaviness of the “moon’s” fanciful lament.

…. In Begegnung from the Mörike songs, a village Romeo and Juliet encounter one another in the street after experiencing a “storm” the night before; one need not be Freud to decode that. The winds of passion blow throughout the piano part, sometimes tempestuous, sometimes lighter and more delicate.  Wolf must have had Schubert’s „Rückblick “ from Winterreise in his mind’s ear (this too is a „glance back“) when he composed this song, but the later composer turns Schubert’s dark, frantic pianistic tempest into something to make any listener smile. Here, the sweetness of young love, its liveliness and quickness, is preserved in musical amber.

The cult of Byron made its way into music early and often; that Schumann had set Byron to music in German translation made it inevitable that this poet would come to Wolf’s attention. Byron revised his “Sun of the sleepless! melancholy Star!”—the moon as a pale reflection of the sun, analogous to memories that cannot compare to the real thing—the day before he proposed to Annabella Milbanke (most would agree that this is among literary history’s more disastrous marriages). By the time he composed Sonne der Schlummerlosen in 1896, Wolf had perfected the art of compressing post-Wagnerian harmonies (his own tonal language, not Wagner’s) into a small-scale Schubertian/Schumannian framework. The exquisite treble harmonies in the piano, quivering and oscillating like rays of moonlight, only occasionally “touch down” onto brief cadential certainty, and the duetting/call-and-response relationship between the right-hand part and the singer in the interior section of this song is a matter for marvel.

An den Schlaf is Mörike’s translation of a Latin epigram—he was a classicist who translated poetry both from Latin and Greek—on the time-honored theme of Sleep and Death as both alike and yet utterly different. Wolf turns the topos into music by means of enharmonic transformation, by going from A-flat major on the “flat” side of the tonal system to E major on the “sharp” side:  an enharmonic third relationship. One can spell a pitch in music two different ways (A-flat sounds the same as G-sharp) and thereby take the music in very different directions, a procedure given symbolic import in this grave and beautiful song.

In Eichendorff’s poetry, Die Nacht is a time of danger for poets, a time when all sorts of emotions ebb and flow in the heart like ocean waves, when wishes abound and we cannot discern whether they are thoughts or dreams. Even when we attempt to close off both the heart and the mouth that would love to give vent to lamentation, we can still feel the waves of feeling beating within us. Wolf seized on the opening analogy, “Night is like a quiet ocean,” to create waves of his signature harmonies—one notes the Lisztian enharmony for thoughts (flats) or dreams (sharps); we note as well the typical “verklingendes” piano postlude, in which the last lapping waves die away ppp.

For those Romantic artists who sought an exotic realm of the imagination on which they could displace those passions deemed inappropriate or anti-social in their own countries, Spain was an irresistible lure. Hugo Wolf was among their number, and the first evidence of his Spanish affinities was the Spanisches Liederbuch of 1891 (his opera Der Corregidor is another). Schumann had already discovered this popular collection from 1852, with its mixture of anonymous folk poems and poetry by the likes of Cervantes; so had Brahms in his youth and a host of other composers, but Wolf would set his own seal on Emanuel Geibel’s and Paul Heyse’s compilation. His Spain was a musical colony of late Romantic Germany, fashioned in its composer’s post-Wagnerian image.

The lover who sees his beloved Auf dem grünen Balkon sings of mixed happiness and pain in love, the “yes” and “No” of the beloved’s gaze and gestures. We hear Wolf’s typical chain-of-thirds modulations and a beautifully graceful dance of love for a not-so-serious complaint that the singer does not enjoy his beloved’s full favors—yet. As in a later serenade, “Mein Liebster singt” from the Italienisches Liederbuch, the lilting piano part is virtually independent, filled with graceful triplet figures and strummed “guitar” chords. Surely no sweetheart could resist this music for long.

In 1878, Wolf planned to assemble a Liederstrauß of songs to poetry from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder of 1827, a favorite source of texts for Lieder composers throughout the century and famously dear to Schumann. Of eight completed songs, he left out Wo ich bin, mich rings umdunkelt and offered the remainder to the music publishing firms of Breitkopf & Härtel, André, and Kistner, with no success; the Heine songs remained unpublished until after his death. But he was right to be proud of them:  in these works, his autodidactic apprenticeship as an imitator of Schumann reaches new heights (he would achieve “the Wolfling’s own howl,” his own voice, in time). In this instance, he was setting a poem about a near-fatal case of acedia, of depressive lethargy so all-encompassing that one longs for death without being able to muster any energy to bring it about. Wolf gives us the musical rendering of deathly torpor, roused briefly to dramatic horror when the abyss of ancient night yawns open at the singer’s feet.

Robert Reinick, both an artist (albeit hindered by gradually failing eyesight) and a poet, is yet another writer Wolf would have met through Schumann; Reinick’s Liederbuch eines Malers of 1837 is one of the loveliest of all Lied text sources. Many of his poems are Biedermeier sweetness at its gentlest and kindest, including Nachtgruß, which Wolf marks “möglichst zart.” Each of three invocations of a cosmos at rest ends with reiterated calls of “Gute Nacht;” first, we go from the heavens in which earth rests, watched over by the moon and stars; then to a garden in which a little house is watched over by a singing bird; and finally to the sleeping sweetheart, in whose heart the heavens are at rest and the angels keep watch:  we have come full circle. In this gently nonstop song, one notes the way in which the piano echoes and extends the refrain “Good night;” feelings released from words continue to blossom.

At the mid-century mark, Robert Schumann had set Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh’ as a gorgeous duet in his Spanisches Liederspiel; Wolf, who taught himself to compose in part by imitating Schumann’s songs, only set poems the earlier master had chosen when he believed that a different conception was required. Recognizing that the persona of this poem is all alone, sleepless in anguished passion, Wolf sets these words as a solo song, beginning with the almost imperceptible syncopated bass beats that tell of a heart disturbed and swelling to a Wagnerian climax at the word “Liebe.”

Again, it was probably Schumann who led Wolf to the melancholy verse of Nikolaus Lenau, an Austrian poet born in a part of Hungary (Csatád) that is now Romania and the foremost representative of Byronic Weltschmerz in the German-speaking world. His restlessness led to a brief adventure in America, on a homestead in Ohio and the New Harmony colony in Indiana, but he soon returned, living in Stuttgart and Vienna until his lapse into insanity in 1844. It is both comic and touching that Wolf so meticulously recorded when he began this set of three songs (Thursday, 4 January 1877, 10:00 in the evening) and when he ended them (24 February 1877, 10 o’clock in the morning). Abendbilder is Wolf’s nod to Beethoven’s structure for An die ferne Geliebte, in which each song leads into the next, with a piano “corridor” in between. The first ode, in which Nature is cradled as tenderly as a child by an unnamed but implicit God at nightfall, is a tiny slice of tonal boldness:  we begin and “end” in D-flat major, but the middle section shifts with Schubertian swiftness to F major. The effect is magical. A small patch of recitative introduces a more motion-filled second ode, in which Philomel sings and a pair of lovers listen raptly. After the tiny poem ends with a jubilation of sheeps’ bells, Wolf depicts quiet literally descending upon the forest in the piano interlude, leading to the third and final ode, which begins with birds singing in the treble trees. Forest murmurs in the piano lead to a quasi-prayerful conclusion.

Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert began life as the anonymous folk poem, “Mucho ha que el alma duerme,” translated by Emanuel Geibel, and then set to music by Wolf as the eighth of his ten spiritual songs at the start of the Spanisches Liederbuch. Wolf was not what anyone would call an orthodox Catholic, despite his pious upbringing, but he knew the weight of what others called sin:  the sexual source (whatever it was) of his syphilitic infection and his longstanding love for the married Melanie Köchert. He created tender portraits of the Virgin and Child and wrenching musical depictions of the psychological agony that results from sin in these ten songs, and this one begins with stark tritone intervals emphasized in the piano:  diabolus in musica. The weight of sin is followed by exhortations to see the light, to cheer up:  we hear brief flashes of the Trinitarian key of E-flat, but it is not fully achieved until the very end.

Ich stand in dunklen Träumen was the second song in Wolf’s Heine-Liederstrauß and another exercise in Schumannesque style. The words are, of course, famous via Schubert’s “Ihr Bild” in Schwanengesang, and the listener therefore has the eerie experience of juxtaposing the memory of Schubert’s song against Wolf’s different stylistic model and interpretation. The tonal and metrical uncertainty of the piano introduction (and postlude) gives way to clarity with the arrival of the voice. It took derring-do for later composers to tackle this famously complex poem (Narcissus in modern garb), and Wolf was nothing if not bold.

Heine’s dream sequences, including Mir träumte von einem Königskind, are not so much dreams as dramas of the ordered imagination. Here, the poet and his princess-sweetheart lie under the linden tree, the traditional rendezvous of German poetic lovers since the Minnesingers. She has “nassen, blassern Wangen,” an alliterative clue to the ectoplasmic-necrophiliac end of the dream. The traditional frisson of Schauerballaden culminating in death is deepened here by the doubly spectral–a ghost in a dream–sweetheart’s promise of recurrent nocturnal visitations. A rêve d’amour turns into nightmare. Wolf sets each stanza as a different episode in a continuing tale, airless and unbroken to the end. When Wolf sets an entirely diatonic initial phrase to a chromatic progression in the piano, he tells us that beneath a seemingly calm surface, something dark and unsettled is in motion.

In October 1878, Wolf returned to Heine and a planned second volume, this time to poems from the Neue Gedichte of 1844. After the parting from his first love, Vally Franck, Wolf added two more completed songs to the set in 1880, including Wie des Mondes Abbild zittert, and eight bars of a third; with that fragment, Wolf’s attraction to Heine for song ended. We have already heard the later song, “Sonne der Schlummerlosen,” in which Wolf further develops the alternating duplets and triplets we find here as musical metaphor for moonlight. In Wolf’s setting, Heine’s exquisite analogy of the moon’s quiet reflection in stormy ocean waves to the beloved’s image in the singer’s shattered heart begins with clear open fifths and returns to the opening point at the end.

After a night spent dreaming, serenading, suffering, pondering mysteries, and remembering days of yore, we awaken to a glorious new day under God’s bright skies in Morgenstimmung, a day in which we shall struggle and achieve victory. From tonally uncertain beginnings, we have a brief moment of clarity at the immortal words “Es werde Licht!” on E-flat major, while new day and triumph happen in E major; if that is the key signature at the start, we do not achieve it until we have struggled richly through a variety of other harmonic areas. That the sun’s rays shine in a rising chain-of-thirds (E major/A-flat major/C major) is a lovely example of this signature Wolfian hallmark.

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 VII

Nacht und Träume

(Susan Youens on Nacht und Träume)

Nacht und Grab, Op. 3, no. 1 – text by Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), 1875

Um Mitternacht, from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike (1889) – text by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), 20 April 1888

Die Bekehrte, from Gedichte von Goethe (1890) – text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), 12 February 1889

Das Ständchen, from Gedichte von Eichendorff (1889) – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), 28 September 1888

Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag erhoben, from Italienisches Liederbuch, Part I (1892), 13 November 1890

Begegnung, from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike (1889) – text by Eduard Mörike, 22 March 1888

Sonne der Schlummerlosen – from Vier Gedichte nach Heine, Shakespeare und Lord Byron (1897) – text by George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824), 29-31 December 1896

An den Schlaf, from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike (1889) – text by Eduard Mörike, 4 October 1888

Die Nacht, from Gedichte von Eichendorff (1889) – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, 3 February 1880

Auf dem grünen Balkon, original text „Miradome esta mi nina“ from Spanisches Liederbuch (1891) – text by Anonymous, trans. by Paul Heyse (1830-1914), 12 December 1889

Wo ich bin, mich rings umdunkelt – text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), 3-4 June 1878

Nachtgruß – text by Robert Reinick (1805-1852), 24 January 1883

Alle gingen, Herz, zur Ruh, original text “Todos duermen, corazon,” from Spanisches Liederbuch (1891) – text by Anonymous, trans. by Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884), 2 November 1889

Abendbilder – Drei Oden – texts by Nikolaus Lenau (pseudonym of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau, 1802-1850), 4 January – 24 February 1877

Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert!, from Spanisches Liederbuch (1891) – text by Anonymous, trans. by Emanuel Geibel, 19 December 1889

Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen – text by Heinrich Heine, 26-29 May 1878

Mir träumte von einem Königskind* – text by Heinrich Heine, 16 June 1878

Wie des Monds Abbild zittert – text by Heinrich Heine, 13 February 1880

Morgenstimmung, from Drei Gedichte von Robert Reinick (1897) – text by Robert Reinick, 8 September – 23 October 1896

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