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

An Essay by Susan Youens

Courtesy of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie

The Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903): Programm X
“Es weihnachtet sehr…”

Essay by Susan Youens

Lieder Program: List of Songs

“Es weihnachtet sehr…”

(“Es weihnachtet sehr…” song list)

“What I am now committing to paper is also written for posterity,” the twenty-eight year-old Hugo Wolf wrote to a friend in 1888 from a freezing-cold house in the village of Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna, where he had gone to compose in the solitude he required. No doubt many composers have said similar things in hopes that the future would oblige, that their wish might become a reality, but Wolf was merely stating a fact. An inheritor of a tradition shaped by Schubert and Schumann, he both honored those traditions and made something new of them: “the Wolfling’s own howl,” he called his idiosyncratic style.

When Wolf decided to interrupt his spate of Mörike songs for the month between 31 August and 29 September 1888 to compile a small volume of Gedichte von Eichendorff, he turned to a less-colonized vein of the great poet’s verse:  Rollenlieder, or poems conceived as being spoken by a particular individual who characterizes himself through what he or she says. In Der Freund, the speaker selects as his ideal friend not someone gently rocked on life’s waves (to exquisite triplet rocking motion in the piano) but someone with grits, guts, and courage, who tackles life head-on and trusts in God and the stars. The storm of thundering octaves and blustery dotted rhythms in the piano requires guts on the part of the pianist as well.

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, and he retired early, but he could and did write exquisite spiritual poems on occasion. Auf ein altes Bild is an ekphrastic vision (“ekphrasis” is a description in literature of a work of art) of an unknown painting—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. The top and bottom voices in the piano mirror each other in contrary motion for much of the song, perhaps reflecting the polarities/ complementarities of life and death, spirit and flesh, present and future in the words. At the postlude, we hear a motivic stammer, with the first measure of the song repeated three times before the “death-blow” strikes loudly on a weak beat, followed by a soft, salvific radiance. This is Wolf’s own exquisite extension of Mörike’s poem.

One of the most popular poetic sources for song composition in the second half of the 19th century was the Spanisches Liederbuch of 1852, containing translations of Spanish poetry by Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse, the latter a Nobel Prize winner in 1910. The two men were not field ethnographers; in fact, Geibel never even went to Spain, although he learned the language and studied its literature to a fare-thee-well. He and Heyse relied instead on printed sources, especially one Nicolas Böhl von Faber’s 3-volume collection of “antique Castilian poems” published between 1821 and 1825. From their bookish repertory, the two poetic collaborators chose thirteen “Geistliche Lieder” for the initial section of their anthology and ninety-nine “Weltliche Lieder” or secular songs.

Wolf’s Spanish Songbook begins with ten “spiritual songs,” seemingly an odd direction for a Nietzschean anti-cleric like Wolf to take. His mother Katharina was devout, so he was brought up to attend mass, but he had lost his faith by the early 1880s and possibly even sooner. He did not hide his dissatisfaction with formalized Christianity and the hypocrisy of some of its adherents from his mother, despite her conventional beliefs and his love for her, expressed often in his letters. But he wanted her to know and understand him as he truly was; in a letter written in 1892, the year after the Spanish Songbook was published, Wolf characterizes himself as an unbeliever and states his own faith in godliness defined as the highest manifestation of pure humanity. Between the lapsed Catholic composer and the Spanish sinners of the Geibel-Heyse anthology, sinners who writhe in anguish beneath the weight of their transgressions, there runs a common spiritual current:  in his late teens, Wolf contracted syphilis in unknown circumstances. The consciousness of incurable disease incurred in what the Church deemed sin was his burden from early on. When the persona of the very first song in the Spanish Songbook, “Nun bin ich dein,” “Now I am yours,” confesses his immense shame and the harsh punishment he must endure, and then begs for safe harbor should death come soon, we can imagine Wolf’s shared knowledge of such feelings.

In Nun wandre, Maria, we hear Joseph’s reassurance to the pregnant Mary on their journey to Bethlehem. In the right-hand part, we hear a nonstop stream of parallel thirds: both a musical symbol for the journey and (perhaps) symbolic of the divine Child, since children’s songs are often harmonized in this manner. In the left hand, you hear a repeated rhythmic pattern that also impels us onward, as well as “open” intervals with lots of parallel fifths:  ordinarily forbidden in traditional compositional practice, these sounds were used to evoke antiquity or the Middle Ages or exotic locales or folkloric contexts that go back in time. Over and over, Joseph circles back to the promise of shelter in a wistful E minor, melancholy because they are not yet arrived in Bethlehem; the most “advanced” harmonies sound when Joseph agonizes that he cannot relieve Mary’s suffering. The piano postlude is a mixture of the bright, warm E major chord, only appearing here at the end, with pitches from E minor. Truly, we are close to our destination, this music promises. When Wolf completed this song, he told his friend Friedrich Eckstein, “If you wish to experience this event [the flight into Egypt], then you must hear my music.”

Auf eine Christblume I & II are among Mörike’s Dinggedichte, in which intense scrutiny of an object (a Greek urn, a flower) calls forth universes and visions in the mind. The “Christblume” is the helleborus niger, a member of the ranunculus family; it is not, botanically speaking, “lilienverwandt” athough Mörike associates it with the Virgin Mary, whose emblem is the lily. Folk superstition said that the hellebore bloomed on the night of Christ’s birth; one of the few flowers to blossom in winter, it was traditionally planted on graves and used in funeral wreaths. Here, the singer is awe-struck to find the flower in a cemetery; as a living thing among the dead, it is rendered sacral, its crimson spots symbolic of Christ’s wounds. In the first of his linked poems, Mörike places the hellebore on an unknown grave that could perhaps be that of a youth or a maiden, the words “Jüngling” and “Jungfrau” implying “lilienverwandt” chastity as well. Wintry death is here contrasted with a freshly blooming, living assurance of life everlasting. By bringing the ghost of the summertime butterfly (an antique poetic symbol of the soul to the winter flower it will never actually encircle in II, Mörike makes all Time eternal as only poets can do. For such poetic profundity, Wolf marshalled some of his most profound music. In I, he hints that both D major and F-sharp major are tonic, without resolving the matter, analogous to Mörike’s polarities that likewise do not resolve but rather co-exist:  elves and Christianity, death and life. There are many beautiful aspects of this song, but the passage in which the singer finds the flower’s source at the chapel by the crystalline pool, with its duet between singer and bass line while the right hand tolls a chiming bell, is exquisite. The same passage comes back, varied and rendered elfin, at the end. In the second song, a fluttering figure is repeated over and over but not completed until the dying-away ending in the high treble.

Die ihr schwebet um diese Palmen was set to music both by Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf; the latter’s antipathy to the former was such as must originate in admiration turned sour and did. In Wolf’s portrayal of sacred maternal solicitude, the Virgin must repeat her pleas to the palm trees and the angel overhead because the winds and rustling noises continue unchecked to the end. We hear Wolf’s favorite “chains-of-thirds” modulations, both ascending and descending, throughout much of this song, split into halves in which the second is a variation of the first. Only at the end does Nature accede to the Virgin’s pleading as the tempest dies away and the motion ceases.

The Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, most famous for his semi-autobiographical novel Der grüne Heinrich, wrote poetry as well, including Wie glänzt der helle Mond. An elderly working-class woman, distant from bygone youth and beauty, gazes at the moon and conjures up a vision of heaven in which she will look in wonder on her newly white hands. Heavenly music here consists of pure triads in unusual progressions. A poetic character on the brink of death would want to see other humble workers in Paradise:  St. Peter, squatting by the gate and mending old shoes to a Wolfian reminiscence of cobbling from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with its cobbler-poet Hans Sachs.

A sinner begs the Virgin, Die du Gott gebarst, from his inmost being for surcease from torment and terror. Above a slow, ritualistic march of chords in the left hand (and we note the traditional modal descending fourth symbolic of grief in music sounding in the first four measures, at mid-song, and again at the end), the right hand part is saturated in semitones or sighing figures that saturate the music with chromatic intensity. Of such economic materials is such a great song made.

Schlafendes Jesuskind is another 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 (1578-1660), 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 habitually mingles different states of Time, 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, and an inward, musing atmosphere.

The parallel thirds that Wolf deploys multiple times for the Christ Child’s music are on gentle display in Ach, des Knaben Augen, in which a worshipper looks into the Child’s eyes and is wholly won over to God’s service. When the singer tells us that if Christ looked into his or her eyes, He would see His image there, Wolf deflects to a rich, warm key a minor third away. We hear the deepening, the inwardness, of heartfelt emotion in the swerve.

Again, we hear the dulcet streams of parallel thirds associated with the Christ Child in Führ’ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem as the singer begs Christ to lead him or her to Bethlehem and to God. The scalar gestures divided between the left and right hands are in a call-and-response relationship to each other, as if the Child is already leading the singer to the divine goal.

Wunden trägst du, mein Geliebter is one of the two Passion dialogues between an unnamed sinner-singer and Christ on the Cross; Wolf imagines sighing figures drenched in chromaticism throughout the sinner’s music and pulsating, celestial treble chords for Christ’s loving responses. “Would I could bear this in Your place,” the singer tells his suffering Lord at both the beginning and the end, his compassion framing this long, eloquent work.

In the other dialogue-Passion song, Herr, was trägt der Boden hier, the sinner’s questions to Christ descend like Stations of the Cross in short, tortured progressions with no resolution in sight, each one a musical stab of pain, while Christ’s answers are mostly pure triadic chords in rich, full textures. But the two seeming dichotomies of tension/complexity/no resting place on the one hand and utter rich sweetness on the other are actually very closely related:  Christ’s music answers the preceding anguish with mystic certainty. Not until the last measure of the song do we hear the promised tonic key appear:  when Christ sings, “The garland of thorns is for me, the one of flowers I give to thee,” there is a deceptive move on His last word to a dark, rich sonority (the submediant of E major) before the piano quietly brings us a Picardy third on the promised key of E in the brightness and warmth of major.

Mörike’s Gebet was enormously 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 are succeeded in the second stanza by Chopin-like 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.

For the penitential song Nun bin ich dein, Wolf once again had recourse to the Wagnerian roiling, writhing sea of chromatic harmony that he had learned practically at Wagner’s knee. Here, he puts the “tragic key” of D minor—indelibly associated with death’s immensity from Mozart’s Requiem onward—and its pastoral relative key of F major into a blender, sets it on “High,” and swirls them together. In rich organ diapason chords that span a majestically wide range, the harmonies shift and change incessantly. If passages often begin on the F major sweeter possibility for which the persona longs, it is only at the very end that we achieve its “safe harbor.”

Vincenz Zusner was a minor Austrian poet, now descended into deserved oblivion, who left prize money to the Austrian Conservatory for the best setting of his feeble verses each year. Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker were among the winners, but not Wolf, for whom no financial inducement could tempt him back to Zusner after Abendglöcklein. Zusner contrasts the serenity of the valley with its church bells pealing and the poet’s melancholy (a cliché topic in poetry), but the teenage Wolf devised lovely pianistic bells in the beginning and more plaintive bells at the end, anticipating when they will toll for the poet’s death.

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 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. Here, Wolf has fun with march-music conventions (including the 18th– and 19th-century tradition of “Turkish marches”). The whole pageant ends (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.

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 X

“Es weihnachtet sehr…”

(Susan Youens on “Es weihnachtet sehr…”)

Der Freund – text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), 26 September 1888

Auf ein altes Bild – text by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), 14 April 1888

Nun wandre, Maria – Spanish text by Francisco de Ocaña (flourished 1600), German translation by Paul Heyse (1830-1914), 4 November 1889

Auf eine Christblume II – text by Eduard Mörike, 26 November 1888

Die ihr schwebet um diese Palmen – Spanish text, “Cantarcillo de la Virgen” from Los pastores de Belén by Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562-1635), German translation by Emanuel von Geibel (1815-1884), 5 November 1889

Auf eine Christblume I – text by Eduard Mörike, 21 April 1888

Wie glänzt der helle Mond – text by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890), 5-23 June 1890

Die du Gott gebarst, du Reine – Spanish text, “O Vírgen que á Dios pariste,” by Nicolas Nuñez (flourished 15th century), German translation by Paul Heyse, 5 November 1889

Schlafendes Jesuskind – text by Eduard Mörike, 6 October 1888

Ach, des Knaben Augen – Spanish text by Juan López de Úbeda (flourished 16th century), German translation by Paul Heyse, 21 December 1889

Führ’ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem – Spanish text, “Llevadme, niño, á Belen,” by Anonymous, German translation by Paul Heyse, 15 December 1889

Wunden trägst du, mein Geliebter – Spanish text, “Feridas teneis mi vida” by José de Valdivielso (1560-1638), German translation by Emanuel von Geibel, 16 December 1889

Herr, was trägt den Boden hier – Spanish text, “Qué producirá mi Dios,” by Anonymous, German translation by Paul Heyse, 24 November 1889

Gebet – text by Eduard Mörike, 13 March 1888

Nun bin ich dein – Spanish text, “Quiero seguir,” by Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita (ca. 1283-ca. 1350), 15 January 1890

Abendglöcklein – text by Vincenz Zusner (1803-1874), 24 April 1876

Epiphanias – text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), 27 December 1888

Zum neuen Jahr – text by Eduard Mörike, 5 October 1888

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