Hugo Wolf (1860–1903) sits uncomfortably in the pantheon of great composers. He wrote no symphonies, sonatas or concertos, very little chamber music and only one complete (and problematic) opera. His music – densely chromatic, anti-classical, Wagnerian – rests on the cusp of modernism and for all its depth and richness, it lacks the element of instant hum-or-whistle charm that makes for popularity. It is also cruelly difficult to perform.
His personality was conflicted, his life often angry and unhappy. Expelled from both secondary school and conservatoire, he alternated between bouts of frenzied creativity and depressive inertia before becoming incurably insane at the age of thirty-seven as a result of syphilis contracted as a teenager. Yet his genius, focused on the genre of lieder, is undeniable. His 300-odd songs represent a pinnacle of the German tradition, offering an intense response to poetic texts and a complex expressive integration of voice and piano that not even the works of Schubert or Schumann can match.
Their emotional range spans farce and tragedy, magically evocative scene-painting and psychological acuity. Never merely decorative or tuneful, they are exercises in the communication of mood and meaning. Wagner was a major influence, as was Liszt; there is no more potent example of the complex art that resulted