by Jack Bryce
Carleton College Professor Emeritus
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Hugo Filipp Jakob Wolf (Windischgraz, Styria, now Slovenjgradec in Slovenia, 1860 – Vienna, 1903), is best known as an extraordinarily fine composer of lieder, art songs, in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann but with extended, post-Wagnerian tonality and expressiveness. He led the classic tortured life of a Romantic. He fought with his father, and was a hopeless academic failure expelled from three schools and the Vienna Conservatory. He approached but was dismissed by the great composers of his time, both Wagner whom he adored to distraction, and Brahms whom he loathed. He contracted siphylis on his first visit to a whorehouse at age 18, and died of it at age 43 after six years of insanity. Also at age 18 he fell hopelessly in love with the society beauty Vally Franck; but she never shared his feelings, and broke up with him when she returned to her native France three years later. His heart was shattered. At age 24 he began a lifelong affair with Melanie Lang Köchert, who remained his faithful protector to the bitter end, along with a host of musical people who did their best to keep him afloat. Among them was Melanie’s husband Heinrich, the Vienna court jeweler, who advertised extensively in the Wiener Salonblatt, where he got Wolf a job as a music critic. Wolf provided a brilliant antithesis to the entrenched Eduard Hanslick (who made a career of hating Wagner) and developed a great following; but—are you surprised?—he quit after three years to get back to composing.
The Italian Serenade was composed from May 2-4 of 1887, when Wolf was 27 and beginning to find his true voice as a composer of lieder. The piece is very short, barely seven minutes long; it was originally planned to have three movements, but Wolf ended by writing an extremely concise work in one. It begins in G major with strumming on open 5ths, possibly mimicking tuning, but this culminates with repeated Ebs, which sound like the wrong key; then a couple of pizzicato chords get the piece back to G major for the main theme, a jolly riding tune, which occasionally morphs into decidedly more passionate utterances. In the middle, the quartet works its way through a variety of keys, and returns to a kind of recap with elaborate comments soaring above from the second violin. It seems as if the end is near, but suddenly there is a passionate passage with a recitative by solo ’cello (in one measure, solo viola) after which the piece gets back to the jolly theme, but in a minor key. Then it works its way through another variety of keys, and ends as it began with the strumming and tuning. Somehow there seems to be a story behind all this; and if so, a likely clue is one of the songs based on poems by Joseph Eichendorff that Wolf was writing at the same time, about a soldier; in fact, the theme of the song is rather similar to that of the quartet. This poem seems derived from a novella by Eichendorff, From the Life of a Ne’er-Do-Well, which includes a section about an Italian serenade encountered at a castle by a knight-errant in Italy. Could the ’cello solo be a passionate declaration of love? Wolf continued to play with this piece, expanding it for string orchestra in 1892 and even attempting to add movements, of which a few sketches survive.