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Sometimes fewer notes, greater impact: composer Hugo Wolf

Sometimes fewer notes, greater impact: composer Hugo Wolf featured image

March 13, 2019

Hugo Wolf is best remembered for his art songs, or lieder (German for “song”). His music, while technically late Romantic, overlaps with the Impressionistic era, and this blend of eras makes for some compelling listening. Wolf was a temperamental guy, and prone to bouts of depression, which lead to some career strife, but he had plenty of material from his personal life that he channeled into his compositions. He worked as a pianist and violinist, teacher, and music critic, returning to composing in 1887. From 1888 to 1889 is considered his most productive year. By our ears the music is intriguing and mysterious, but during Wolf’s time, performers wouldn’t go near his music. They thought he was too weird. He was derided by music writers; a fellow composer would not appear on the same program as him, and a Wagnerian singer even withdrew from a recital of his works for fear of being blacklisted.

Wolf was influenced by Wagner (who could blend harmonies like nobody’s business) and loathed Brahms for being “too conservative”. Wolf’s trademark was using tonality for emphasis, and to focus on two different tonalities at once to depict ambiguity and conflict – often mirroring the text of his songs. Sometimes music wanders, not quite settling on a key, perfectly depicting the text’s unsettling mood; Wolf was the master of this.

“Das verlassene Mägdlein” (“The Abandoned Maid”) is a song from “Mörike Lieder”, (“Mörike Songs”). “The Abandoned Maid” perfectly embodies Wolf’s signature style, leaving you worried about how the abandoned maid will recover from heartbreak. The piano part is extremely sparse, with notes spread out wide, to imply the emptiness of heart and home. When I tried to learn this song as a voice student, I gave up – required way too much technical finesse –  and worked on the piano part instead as piano is my first love, and I was keen on getting the notes in my fingers. This accompaniment reminds me of Debussy’s piano prelude “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the snow”). Sometimes the music with thinly dispersed, minimal notes causes the most impact.

Soprano Barbara Bonney with pianist Geoffrey Parsons.
“Das verlassene Mägdlein”; Mörike-Lieder (1888)

If you’d like to compare, listen to Debussy’s “Footsteps in the snow” played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (it’s an old recording with a background hiss, but his playing is worth it).

Hugo Wolf was born March 13, 1860 in what is now Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia, and died February 22, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.


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