Hugo Wolf was born on the 13th March 1860 in Slovenj Gradec as the third child of the German speaking family of a tanner and furrier, a respected citizen and music enthusiast Philipp Wolf and his wife Katarina (born Nussbaumer). Wolf played piano and violin even at preschool and was regarded as a musical prodigy with perfect pitch. He received his first music lessons from his father as well as from his home tutor, Sebastian Weixler, which included playing the second violin in his father’s house orchestra.
After the bilingual four-year school in Slovenj Gradec, he attended the grammar school in Graz, he then went to St. Paul in the Lavant valley, and, in the end, he tried his luck in Maribor, but with no success. Having failed school, he returned to Slovenj Gradec before the end of the school year 1875. He studied Viennese classics and composed his first songs in Maribor: a piano sonata, piano variations, five lieder, among which four were based on Goethe’s poems, some sketches for string quartet and choral works.
His determination to live by music alone finally showed results. His father’s sister Katarina, who lived in Vienna, was willing to house her aspiring nephew, as her daughters Anna and Ida already attended the conservatory. He finished the first year with success; but after a breach of discipline, he was expelled from the conservatory. He moved back to Slovenj Gradec, where he created the first choral cycles and lieder (Wanderlied) during the summer 1877. Determined to succeed, he had returned to Vienna in November 1877, where he, not even eighteen years old, contracted syphilis – an incurable illness that influenced his life and work until his untimely death in 1903.
The period between 1888 and 1891, when Wolf divided his time between between Austria and Germany, was the most creative phase of his life: In 1888, he created the first of the immortal lieder to Eduard Mörike’s lyrical poetry (in the same year, he produced as many as forty-three). The same year, several public concert evenings with his lieder were organised; in 1889, Wolf composed the first songs from the monumental Goethe cycle; in 1890, he travelled multiple times to Germany, where he established a circle of important acquaintances (for example Ludwig Strecker, the director of the famous publishing house Schott. His publications of song-books enabled Wolf’s breakthrough to the wider music public).
As a result of his progressive illness, he did not produce any work in the period between 1891 and 1895. After these years of creative barrenness, he produced a new version of Alarcon’s Spanish novel The Three-Cornered Hat (later renamed Der Corregidor) in 1895, which only reached its full audience after Wolf’s death, in the period between 1902 and 1906. In the last five years of his life, Hugo Wolf was admitted, due to his progressive illness, to the best psychiatric unit of the Lower-Austrian Provincial lunatic asylum in Vienna, where he died on 22nd February 1903.