Hugo Wolf – The Great Austrian Composer of Songs November 12 2021

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was born in Slovenjgrade, Slovenia. His family was of predominantly German origin. Philipp Wolf, Hugo’s father, forcibly succeeded his father, Franz Wolf in the leather trade. Star conductor Herbert von Karajan was related to him via Hugo's mother. However, he found consolation in music and taught himself how to play piano, the flute and many other instruments. Spanish and Italian Songs reflect his voice and work.

Wolf wrote hundreds of lieder, incidental music, choral music, 3 operas  as well as some rarely heard orchestral, piano music and chamber.


Hugo Wolf Portrait

Hugo Wolf in his mature years



Hugo was the fourth-born in a family of eight children. He was the most talented out of the eight children ; he inherited his father’s musical talents and his mother’s iron will-power that enabled him to bring his talents to full fruition.

Hugo Wolf at 16

Young Hugo received his first music lessons from his father. His musical education then passed out of his father's hands into those of Sebastian Weixler at the age of four. Under Weixler, he made good progress in the study of the piano, laying the foundations of his later remarkable command of the instrument.


[Photo] A very young Hugo Wolf (probably when he was 16)


A group of friends and family members used to assemble regularly at the Wolfs' house in the evenings and it was in this way that a small household orchestra came into existence. In 1866, when Hugo was only six years old, this little orchestra made a public appearance at a fancy-dress ball.

Another extension of young Hugo's musical experience occurred in November 1868, when he was taken to his first opera, "Belisario" by Donizetti at a provincial opera-house in Klagenfurt. This work left a vivid impression in Hugo’s mind that he was afterwards able to play long passages of Belisario from memory.

One day in 1867, a fire broke down in the family’s house and warehouse which caused a catastrophic blow to the family fortunes from which they had never recovered.

In spite of this great misfortune, Hugo's childhood at Windischgraz was mainly a happy one and Philipp made sure that all his sons had the educational opportunities that he had been denied when he was young.



Hugo left the Windischgraz in 1869, having completed the whole course of instruction available there. He entered the lowest class of the Gymnasium in the Lichtenfelsgasse at Graz, the Styrian capital, in 1870. Outside the Gymnasium, Hugo attended the school of the Styrian Musical Association in Burggasse for violin lessons under Ferdinand Casper. He also studied the piano with Johann Bufra.

Hugo Wolf Young

At Gymnasium, Hugo's educational troubles began. His stay there lasted only one term and he ended up back home at Windischgraz. He then joined a religious academic institution named St. Paul located in the Lavant valley in Carinthia in an attempt to complete his education.


[Photo] Hugo Wolf in his youth


His school reports at St. Paul were generally satisfactory but he eventually left because of his difficulties in the compulsory Latin studies. In September 1871, Wolf joined Marburg where he stayed with his brother Gilbert and sister Modesta at his uncle’s house.

Hugo’s stay at Marburg wasn’t a success either, and he ended up quitting after a falling-out with one of his professors. Some speculate that his academic difficulties at Marburg may well have been deliberate since he was now fixed on pursuing pure musical ideas to build his career. He planned on joining Vienna Conservatory to the disappointment of his father, who had hoped Wolf would not try to make his living from music.

In September, 1875, Wolf travelled to Vienna where he stayed with his aunt Katharina. Wolf began his full-time studies at the Conservatory. At first everything went well. He studied the piano with Wilhelm Schenner and harmony and composition first with Robert Fuchs and then with the strict and pedantic Franz Krenn. He made many friends, including the young Gustav Mahler.

Young Hugo’s musical studies were not confined to the hours of his attendance at the Conservatoire, he took advantage of the intense musical life of the capital and absorbed as much art as he could. The opera-house was one of the main attractions in Vienna. Hugo began regular opera-going, but his ultimate favorite was Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.



Parallelly, Wolf started giving instruments’ lessons and playing dance music in an inn at Meidling in order to become self-supporting. He also continued to make numerous compositions, half of which were lost or destroyed by Hugo himself as they didn’t meet his standards.

Hugo Wolf's "Kennst du das Land", sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf


The often-rebellious Wolf was frustrated over the Conservatoire’s conservatism and eventually left of his own accord because he thought that he learned very little there. With his withdrawal from the Conservatoire, Hugo Wolf's formal education was put to halt which extremely troubled Philipp. In the worried father’s eyes, Hugo had now failed in his chosen profession, as well as in his educational career. 



After his departure from Conservatoire, Hugo returned to Windischgra where he stayed for nearly eight months. During his stay, he worked on a symphony and composed the earliest song that he thought worthy of publication, Morgentau. He then finally returned to Vienna to start his career as a free artist.

Hugo continued to give music lessons to earn his living. Though his fiery temperament was not ideally suited to teaching, Wolf's musical gifts and his personal charm earned him the patronage of generous households, such as those of the actor Ludwig Gabillon and Freud's early collaborator Josef Breuer.

Hugo Wolf Book

1875 was marked by a big event in Hugo’s life. It was in this year that Richard Wagner arrived in Vienna to conduct orchestral concerts of his own music. The composer’s arrival stirred the musical life of Vienna to its depths and Hugo has consequently become heavily inspired by him. He even referred to him as the greatest opera composer of all.


[Photo] Front cover of the book "Hugo Wolf: Life, Letters, Lieder" by Richard Stokes


In the young men’s eyes, Wagner represented modernity, freedom and progress. Through the arrangement of the Imperial Hotel manager, Wolf had an opportunity to speak with his idol, Wagner. This meeting was a crucial experience in Wolf’s life and some speculate that it may have even affected his final decision to seek a career in music. Wolf dreamed of renewing his acquaintance with Wagner, but they sadly never met again.

During his stay in Vienna, Wolf had been living the life of a nomad. He constantly moved between residencies and during his stay in 1877, at Goldschmidt's apartments, he made a lot of influential acquaintances.

Goldschmidt's circle consisted of poets, musicians, music critics, sculptors and painters. It was in this artistical and intellectual milieu that Wolf absorbed and integrated many viewpoints and insights whose impact was later evident in his Lieder.

Early in Wolf's career Wolf modelled his lieder after those of Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Wolf's lieders are noted for compressing expansive musical ideas and depth of feeling, fed by his skill at finding the just right musical setting for the poetry that inspired him.

Adalbert von Goldschmidt, leader of the group, became a great friend and benefactor of Wolf. He introduced him to the works of Edward Morike who became wolf’s favorite poet.

Goldschmidt treated the young Wolf with extreme generosity. He took him to concerts and operas, lent him books, music and money. But this fostering may also have proved fatal, for it was Goldschmidt who took Wolf to a brothel where he caught a syphilitic infection. During this period, young Wolf started avoiding his benefactors’ dinner tables. He only ate foods that would be directly conveyed to the mouth and refused to travel in the same railway carriage as his hosts.

Such conduct then seemed eccentric or boorish, but it was be­lieved that it was founded on medical advice and consider­ation for others. This disease would not only affect Hugo’s physical health, but also his mental well-being. This illness alone made Wolf prone to depression and wide mood swings, which would heavily affect his career all through his life.

 Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra



It was also around this period that Hugo met Valentine Franck, the daughter of one of his benefactors and a relative of the Lang family. Valentine, also known as Vally was Wolf's first love.

Despite having remarkably dissimilar characters, the two developed a strange and unstable relationship that had lasted three years. During their relationship, Wolf went through a burst of creative energy that he referred to as 'Lodi in song’.

Hints of his mature style would become evident in his Lieder and he made many great songs such as Mit schwarzen Segeln and Ernst ist der Frülhling. In Spite of his artistical success during this period, Hugo was struggling financially.

He often asked his father for financial help which made the relationship between the two strained. Philipp remained convinced that Wolf was lazy and irresponsible and often reprimanded him for not being able to afford his own expenses.

However, this didn’t shake the nineteen year old artist’s conviction of his ultimate success. He clings to the idea that he is a born composer, in spite of everything the practical world can do to convince him to the contrary.


Hugo Wolf Working Studio

Hugo Wolf´s Working Studio in Vienna 

In 1880, Dr. Reitzes introduced Wolf to the Preyss family. Victor Preys lived with his wife Frau Preyss, his wife’s sister Bertha von Lackhner, and little Lottchen.

The Preyss family allowed Hugo to occupy a room in their house in the Marienhof and treated him as if he was a member of their family. He spent some of the happiest months of his life with them and found in Bertha, the motherly attention he needed.

She became his 'Aunt Bertha' and he continued to address her as such for the remainder of his life. In addition to this happy family life in the Marienhof, Hugo greatly appreciated the beauty of the surrounding countryside that made his stay at Maierling even more delightful. Wolf spent most of his time there reading. This extensive reading helped him develop the necessary literary background for writing song lyrics.

In April of 1881, Vally Franck left Wolf. This left the 21 year old artist despondent and he returned home at Windischgraz. His stay there was unhappy and almost entirely unproductive. He eventually headed to Germany where he took a job in Salzburg.

Wolf's duties at Salzburg consisted of rehearsing the soloists and chorus in popular operettas. Soon, his undoubted expressive dramatic musical innovations and his punctuality won him a promotion to the post of second Kapellmeister.

Hugo Wolf's "Im Frühling" sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau


However, his career as Kapellmeister eventually ended because of his lack of experience and temperamental unsuitability. Disappointed, Hugo went back to Vienna where he returned to his old drifting existence as a music-teacher and accompanist. He stayed in an old lodging in the Rennweg before abandoning it to go back to the peace of Maierling in the spring.



Wolf eventually went back to the Rennweg in Vienna and began to renew his efforts to achieve the publication of some of his compositions but he was being constantly rejected by the music publishers.

In February, another tragic event occurred in the life of the young composer. His all-time role model, Wagner had died. This made Hugo plunge into a state of despair.

However, his disappointments were finally offset when his faithful friend, Adalbert von Goldschmidt helped him obtain audience with one of idols, Franz Liszt in April. Franz liked that Wolf's previous mentors advised him to pursue larger forms. He played some of his songs and actually got praised by the famous composer.

Hugo Wolf Der Corregidor

It was around this period that Wolf composed the song "Zur Ruh, zur Ruh". "Zur Ruh, zur Ruh" represented a milestone in the composer’s own progress towards mastery and in the history of song. It reflected the influence of Wagner and some even speculate that it was intended as an elegy for late composer.  In 1883, Wolf also became a music critic of the Wiener Salonblatt; his weekly reviews provide considerable insight into the Viennese musical world of his day.


[Photo] Hugo Wolf's comic opera "Der Corregidor" premiered in 1896 - a playbill announcing its performance in 1904.


In 1887, he quit his job as a critic in order to begin composing.  It was also in this year that Hugo’s father died. This tragedy made Wolf completely inconsolable and he couldn't write nor compose any other works.

However, he found encouragement in one of his close friends, Friedrich Eckstein who helped him cover the costs of publishing some of his songs. This left Wolf tremendously happy and encouraged him to compose more songs.

The year 1888 marked a turning point in Wolf’s career and life. It was by this year that he and the wife of his friend Heinrich Köchert, Melanie Kochert became lovers.

It was also in this year that he travelled to the vacation home of the Werner family— family friends whom Wolf had known since childhood—in Perchtoldsdorf, in order to escape and compose in solitude. He took with him the poems of his favor­ite poet Mörike for inspiration. There began to pour from his pen a veritable flood of impassioned songs. He sometimes composed two, sometimes even three songs in just a single day.

The first flush of Wolf's unprecedented creative activity yielded the collection of fifty three songs, Gedichte von Eduard Mörike. This collection is perhaps the best known of his entire output and complemented Wolf's musical gifts. He then sought sanctuary with his longtime friends, the Ecksteins at Unterach where his Eichendorff-lieder followed.

Wolf chose to occupy himself with only one poet at a time so after the completion of the Morike volume, he started off at once on a new cycle of songs using Goethe‘s poems.

In December of 1888, he moved to new winter quarters at dobling, a suburb of Vienna where he finished thirty-seven Goethe songs in ten weeks. At the end of April, Wolf arranged to return to Werners' house at Perchtoldsdorf again.

There, Wolf continued to set music to Goethe‘s poems, and began to orchestrate twenty of his Morike and Goethe songs. Finally, by 13 February of 1889, he had finished the fifty one songs of the Goethe songbook.


Hugo Wolf The Complete Songs

Hugo Wolf was a prolific composer of songs during his lifetime


After his summer visits to Bayreuth and to his mother in Windischgraz, Wolf returned to Perchtoldsdorf at the end of October 1889 and instantly began work on his Spanish song book. He finished a collection of forty-four songs of Spanisches Liederbuch, nach Heyse and Geibel in April, 1890 which was published by Schott of Mainz in 1891.

During May and June of the year 1890, Wolf composed another collection ; entitled alte Weisen, sechs Gedichte von Keller and in September, he began to work on ' oh the Italienisches Liederbuch nach Paul Heyse which was published by Schott of Mainz in 1892. During 1890 and 1891 Wolf also composed incidental music for a production of Ibsen's Das Fest auf Solhaug.

Hugo Wolf Austrian Postal Stamp

Meanwhile the reverberations of Wolf's fame were spreading outside Austria and his works were often praised in reviews. Even Brahms and the critics who had previously revealed Wolf now, gave favorable reviews.


[Photo] Austrian postal stamp celebrating Hugo Wolf's life and work


The first critical article published about his work article 'Neue Lieder und Gesange' was by his old friend, Heinrich Rauchberg. Far more influential, however, was Joseph Schalk's ‘Neue Lieder, neues Leben' that appeared in the widely-read German newspaper, Münchener allgemeine Zeitung on 22 January 1890.



In 1892 Wolf fell victim to the feverish throat inflammation, to which he had been prone since 1891. This inflammation was, undoubtedly, one of the symptoms of secondary syphilis.  From 1892 through 1894, Wolf fell into a period of relative inactivity.

The exhaustion from his prolific past few years combined with the effects of syphilis and his depressive temperament caused him to stop composing for the next several years, certainly not the opera also. He only arranged the short string quartet, Serenade· in G, for small orchestra and Oer Feuerreiter for chorus and orchestra in 1892. In addition, Wolf reorchestrated two of his Goethe Lieder, Mignon and Anakreons Grab, in 1893.  

Hugo Wolf Letters to Melanie Kochert

During these inactive years, Wolf continued to seek distraction in continued travel and concert tours. He visited many places including Darmstadt where he became infatuated with the soprano Frieda Zerny of the Mainz opera, and formed wild plans of emigrating with her to the United States of America.

These plans somehow became known to Melanie Kochert. However, Wolf renewed his allegiance to her; and the summer months of 1894 were spent first at her country home in Traunkirchen, and later with the Lipperheides near Brixlegg in the Tyrol.

[Photo] Hugo Wolf's Letters to Melanie Köchert - his confidante, where he reveals his artistic aims and convictions, as well as the torture of his mental illness and the closeness of their relationship.

In 1895, Wolf's creative urge was once again kindled. A close friend of his, Rosa Mayreder, provided him with an opera 'libretto which is based on the story of the novel The Three-cornered Hat by Pedro de Alarcon.

Wolf had scornfully rejected the libretto when it was first presented to him in 1890, but his determination to compose an opera blinded him to its faults upon second glance. Or perhaps, it was due to the fact that he could now relate with the story about the adulterous love triangle after his long-lasting affair with Melanie.

On 1st April, Wolf was at Perchtoldsdorf, throwing himself 'like a mad man' into composing. The opera was completed in nine months and was initially met with success, But the enthusiasm abated in later performances because of the weakness of the text.

After years of moving between his friends' hospitable shelters, Wolf returned to Vienna to occupy, for the first time in his life, his own home at Perchtoldsdorf, at -Unterach, Rinnbach, Traunkirchen and Matzen.

In 1896, he settled down in Werner's summer residence at Perchtoldsdorf and returned to composing songs. He wrote Part II of the Italiensches Liederbuch. Also, Wolf's Orei Gredichte von Robert Reinick, Orei Gesange aus Ibsen's Oas Fest auf Solhaug, and Vier Gedichte nach Heine, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron were completed.



Hugo Wolf's last composition was written in 1898, before he suffered a mental collapse caused by syphilis. He was eventually placed in an asylum in Vienna where he died on 22 February 1903, after years of insanity and general paralysis.

After his death, Melanie gave way to remorse and melancholy and committed suicide in March of 1906.

(From "Hugo Wolf" by Frank Walker)



- Hugo Wolf's "Der Corregidor" (Playbill)

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