The memorial exhibition, set in the interior of a bourgeois living environment from the end of the 19th century, presents Wolf's life and work through all the characteristic periods of his intense, extravagant and also tragic life, with special emphasis on his childhood in Slovenj Gradec and the narrative of life circumstances in his birthplace and to his family.
Childhood in Slovenj Gradec (1860–1875)
Hugo Wolf was born on 13th March 1860 in Slovenj Gradec as the third child of the family of a tanner and furrier, a respected citizen and music enthusiast Philipp Wolf and his wife Katarina( born Nussbaumer) from Malborghetto Valbrun in the Canel Valley. In the bilingual, but mostly German surroundings of the old medieval town, the Wolfs forgot about their Slovenian origin long ago. In times of intolerant tension between the two nations, they clearly expressed their German nationality, but most of all, they enjoyed an idyllic family life, which was struck by a devastating fire in 1867 which destroyed a large portion of the house, workplace and storehouses. Wolf played piano and violin even during preschool, and was regarded as a musical prodigy with perfect pitch which he inherited from his father, while his mother probably contributed to his resolute and hot-tempered character. He received his first music lessons from his father and from his home tutor, Sebastian Weixler; the social life in the house was infused with music. Little Hugo played the second violin in his father’s house orchestra. He attended the bilingual four-year-school in Slovenj Gradec with success; however, this school remained the only one he actually finished! Ten years old, he went to the grammar school in Graz, which his older brother already attended, but returned home after six months. His next station was St. Paul in the Lavant valley; the majority of subjects caused him problems, and only the music teacher Sales Pirc stood up for him. In 1873, he tried for a third time; but in Maribor he quickly became the victim of his hot-tempered character; after an argument with the teachers and the headmaster, he returned to Slovenj Gradec before the end of the school year 1875. Having failed in most subjects, he devoted himself fully to music. He studied Viennese classics and composed his first songs in Maribor: a piano sonata (dedicated to his father), piano variations, five lieder, among which four were based on Goethe’s poems, some sketches for string quartet and choral works.
The conservatory and the Wagner experience (1875–1877)
His determination to live only for music produced 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.
From September 1875 on, metropolitan Vienna had a fateful effect on Wolf’s life and work as a composer. In the beginning, Wolf was rather successful at the conservatory, however, due to his never-ending hunger for music, he was pulled to the Court Opera’s spotlights. On the 22nd November, it was the first time he heard Wagner’s Tannhäuser – this experience shook his musical sense profoundly. Becoming a devoted Wagnerian, he burned with desire to meet the master in person: after long days of stalking and in agreement with the hotel staff, he managed to schedule a meeting on the 12th December, when Wagner received him in his luxurious suite at the Imperial hotel. Wagner dismissed him in a patronising but friendly manner, but the splendour of the inaccessible luxury fired the imagination of the young composer forever.
After asuccessful first year at the conservatory, he spent his holidays in Slovenj Gradec, Upon the return to Vienna, he moved to his own rented apartment in October. In the next two and a half years he changed, for various reasons, twenty-one rented rooms. He befriended a circle of neo-German Wagnerians, in particular Adalbert von Goldschmidt – the darling of rich Viennese bohemian society. He moved gradually further away from his studies. Following a breach of discipline, he was expelled from the conservatory. In Slovenj Gradec, during the summer of 1877, he created his first choral cycles and lieder (Wanderlied). Determined to succeed, he returned to Vienna in November 1877, where, accompanied by Goldschmidt, he joined a coffee house and dissolute circles in suburban brothels. Not nearly eighteen years old, he contracted syphilis – an incurable illness that influenced his personality and work in the next years until his untimely death.
Love, bohemianism, doubt (1878–1883)
Because of his situation as an anonymous free artist who was valued only by his closest friends and their families, Wolf was constantly forced to ask his father for money. He mostly gave piano lessons at homes of his acquaintances, where he took advantage of their generous hospitality and expanded his circle of friends. At Goldschmidt’s house at Opernring, he met the Lang family and their Paris-born niece Vally Franck, whom he fell madly in love with. In a state of intoxicating happiness, he composed the first great cycle of lieder to Heine’s poetry. The four years older, educated and lively Vally Franck was in favour of Wolf, but his overwhelming emotions started to suppress her, and she ended the fragile relationship after three years. During the summer months, Wolf found a remedy for his disappointment in the idyllic surroundings of the village of Mayerling in the Vienna Woods, where he was a guest of the Preyss family. He also paid regular visits to the Werners in neighbouring Perchtoldsdorf; they established a strong connection that lasted also into the later years. He began to compose the Quartet in D-minor.
In 1879, together with his friend and conservatory schoolfellow Gustav Mahler, Wolf shared a garret for a few months as well as his enthusiasm for Wagner and Bruckner.
In this period, he met two renowned composers: in the beginning of March 1879, being a great admirer of the esteemed composer, he knocked on Johannes Brahms’ door with his music sheets in one hand, but left the apartment as his sworn enemy; the meeting with Franz Liszt in April 1883, however, took a completely different turn, Liszt was also partly responsible that Wolf began composing the symphonic poem Penthesilea to Kleist’s play.
In 1882, Wolf befriended the Köchert couple; the two-years-older Melanie remained his trusted friend until his death.
Music reviewer (1884-1887)
Wolf was deeply moved by Wagner’s death in 1883. He became friends with the slightly younger Hermann Bahr, a writer from Linz and, in the following years, an influential Viennese art critic; for a while the two shared, together with Edmund Lang, an apartment at the Trattnerhof, the building where had once Mozart resided. The unselfish Köcherts found a solution to Wolf’s financial situation; they recommended him to the editor of the Sunday journal Wiener Salonblatt. From January 1884, he worked for three and a half years for the journal and published 112 pieces. Without the young composer’s knowledge, Heinrich Köchert contributed each month 60 crowns to Wolf’s regular fees. In the weekly column, he published reviews and critiques of Viennese concert events, however, he often took the opportunity to address cultural, political and personal controversies full of sharp criticism and unbalanced outbursts. Of the composers, he particularly attacked Brahms with his most vicious remarks. The only contemporary German composer who Wolf thought was equal to him was Bruckner.
His reviews made him famous overnight and provided amusement to Viennese society. The dubious publicity of the Wild Wolf (Der wilde Wolf) from the Wiener Salonblatt did get in the way of his composition career: In October 1885, the members of the Rosé string quartet rejected the performance of the finished Quarter in D-minor, a year later, the same happened to the planned premiere of Penthesilea by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His family in Slovenj Gradec also had mixed feelings about Hugo’s reviewer activity; his father constantly reminded him to be more moderate, but determined and self-confident. After his father’s death on the 9th May 1887, Wolf suffered from severe depression and quit writing.
Although his first quartet was not a success, he finished his second one entitled Italian Serenade. Afterwards he created a cycle of important lieder to Eichendorff’s poems. He usually spent the summers with his sister Modesta and his brother-in-law Josef Strasser in Styria, where he composed, among other works, also the music to Kleist's work, "Der Prinz von Homburg” of which only fragments remained.
Creative addiction (1888–1891)
After the first two volumes of his lieder had been published in the autumn of 1887 by a small publishing house, found by his friend Friedrich Eckstein (who provided financial guarantee for the publication), Wolf was extremely pleased and found a new creative strength. A state of feverish tension, probably as a result of the developing illness, was released into frantic creation in the ideally peaceful and quiet surroundings of the Werners’ country house in Perchtoldsdorf, to which Hugo withdrew in February 1888. Three days after his twenty-eighth birthday, he created the first one of his immortal lieder to Eduard Mörike’s lyrical poems; by the 9th of May, in this continuous and inspirational creative phase, Wolf had composed as many as forty-three!
In the autumn of the same year, the first public concert evenings took place with the help of the Viennese Wagner association; in the Köcherts’ salon, his Mörike lieder aroused passionate interest in the well-established, although somewhat aged tenor, Ferdinand Jäger, who promoted them in the next years with great enthusiasm. An almost demon-like creative urge drove Wolf to compose for new Mörike poems, with ten new lieder he crowned the Eichendorf cycle; in the beginning of the 1889, he wrote the first lieder from the Goethe cycle. Although he wanted to experiment in opera, he refused the first libretto by Rosa Mayreder based on a Spanish novel. After the romantic and dreamy flirting with the mystical frivolity of the South, he started composing lieder from the Spanish and Italian songbooks cycles.
From October 1890 on, he travelled a few times throughout Germany, where he established a new cycle of friends and acquaintances, among others Detlev Liliencron from Munich, Emil Kauffman from Tübingen and Oskar Grohe from Mannheim. In Mainz, he met Ludwig Strecker, director of an important publishing house, Schott. His publications of songbooks enabled Wolf’s breakthrough to the wider music public.
Travels, opera attempts (1892–1894)
The creative compulsion to compose disappeared after four years in the same manner that it had arisen in the beginning of 1888. From December 1891 till April 1895, he was not able to compose a single lied! The complete creative barrenness could be linked to the state of his illness in the extreme pre-paralytic phase; he became extremely sensitive to external stimuli (a slightly louder noise or rumble would drive him crazy) and suffered from severe depression.
After the tours across Germany, where the audience had not been enthusiastic about his music, he was even more affected by the critiques. With the help of his German friends, Wolf finally hit on an idea for an opera he was enraptured with; he planned to write a musical interpretation of the Spanish novel Manuel Venegas, however, he turned down several different libretto proposals.
The concert evenings of his lieder finally also achieved success in Austria. In 1893, the Graz dentist and devoted music enthusiast Heinrich Potpeschnigg, who stood by Wolf’s side till his death as some sort of a voluntary impressario, promoted Wolf’s lieder with success in the provincial capital of Styria; the first independent concert with Wolf’s lieder exclusively, held on the 3rd April 1894, was unexpectedly successful as well – Wolf on the piano and the singers Ferdinand Jäger, Hugo Faißt and Frieda Zerny had to repeat almost half of the programme in the encore. The latter two left a deep mark on Hugo’s life. Wolf met Hugo Faißt, a lawyer and an amateur bass-baritone, who became his devoted follower, an extremely generous patron and a trusted friend, at Grohe’s in Mannheim. In January 1894, Wolf met the four years younger mezzo-soprano Frieda Zerny in Darmstadt. The prominent diva was so overwhelmed by Hugo’s songs in Mainz that she left the stage and devoted her full attention to Wolf’s concert tours. At the same time, they fell into a passionate love affair.
In 1893 was the last time Hugo visited his mother and his birthplace in Slovenj Gradec.
Der Corregidor (1895–1896)
Finally, after years of tireless search, Wolf found an appropriate text for an opera and the possibility to fulfil his most desirable wish: to become a famous (and rich) operatic composer. After three years of barrenness, his creativity returned. On the 12th March 1895, he started working on the new version of the text by Rosa Mayreder based on Alarcon’s Spanish novel The Three-Cornered Hat (later renamed Der Corregidor) in the remote Perchtoldsdorf village, where he accepted his friends with reluctance only at the weekends. On the 16th May, he received an invitation from the Baron von Lipperheide to continue his work at the Matzen castle in Tyrol. Already on 9th July, he finished his piano excerpt and on the 22nd December the opera instrumentation. He started negotiations with the publishing house Heckel in Mannheim to print the score. The first disappointment: Viennese State Opera showed no interest in Wolf’s work. His friend Oskar Grohe, nevertheless, managed to arrange the premiere in the same concert season. On the 7th June 1896, the Court and National Theatre in Mannheim performed the opera with great success, however, despite this fact, it was not scheduled for the next season.
In Vienna, he stayed with the Mayreder family in the first place; in the spring 1896, he returned to the village of Perchtoldsdorf for a while, where he created twenty-four lieder for the second part of the Italian songbook. During the summer, another great wish came true: On the 4th July, he moved to an apartment at Schwindgasse Nr. 3 in Vienna, which was the first home of his own. For only fifteen months he could enjoy the large furnished apartment with a work cabinet and a Bösendorfer piano that his generous friends provided for him. In August, a doctor discovered the symptoms of progressive palsy.
Collapse and the end (1897-1903)
His life’s work was crowned with three lieder to Michelangelo’s masterpiece sonnets, which he composed between the 18th and 28th March 1887 in Schwindgasse. The song Alles endet, was entstehet (Everything ends which comes to be) is a heart-shaking memento of the death choir, echoing deeper and deeper into the abyss of Wolf’s illness. The arrival of Gustav Mahler at the State Opera raised some hope for the performance of Der Corregidor in Vienna. Numerous new attempts with the opera Manuel Venegas had taken place, but the renewed libretto by Rosa Mayreder did not spark his creativity enough and merely fragments of the grand plan remained. In September 1897, Wolf tried to convince Mahler for the last time during his visit to the office of the Opera director. When it became clear that an early performance of Der Corregidor would not take place any time soon, the two childhood friends got involved in a bitter quarrel that was the breaking point for Wolf's sanity. In a state of mental delusion, Wolf proclaimed himself the new director of the opera who would fire the disobedient conductor Mahler. On the 20th September, desperate friends took him to a private clinic ran by Dr. Svetlin, where his medical condition slowly stabilised. On the 24th January of the following year, he was even discharged; changed and indifferent, Wolf went on a journey to Italy, he also visited his sister in Celje, and had a brief encounter with his mother at Velenje rail station. After his return, he was given the opportunity to reside near the Traun lake, where he tried to commit suicide in September 1898. On the 4th October, he was admitted to the best psychiatric unit of the Lower-Austrian Provincial lunatic asylum in Vienna, the newly established Hugo Wolf association led by Michael Haberlandt collected the means to cover the nursing costs. Until his death, Melanie Köchert visited him three times a week, regular visitors were also his other friends. His brothers and sisters came a few times, and, in spring 1901, even his mother came to see him. Wolf died on the 22nd February 1903.
Posthumous glory and success
Haberlandt took care of Wolf’s death mask. The property of the unfortunate composer, especially his clothes and books, was valued at a paltry 1,364 guilders and 56 kreutzers; Wolf also left 925 guilders and 58 kreutzers in debts. The body of Hugo Wolf was laid to rest on Shrove Tuesday, the 24th February. A large number of dignitaries attended the funeral mass in the Votive Church at Ring, which provoked Karl Kraus to publish in his newspaper Die Fackel a satiric article titled “Has Torture been Abolished in Austria?”.
Only a few weeks after Wolf’s death, in spring 1903, the first part of the monumental monograph by Ernst Decsey was published. The tragic life story of the romantic and stormy artist moved the public and his work gradually aroused their interest. His lieder became part of the regular repertoire at concert evenings. Wolf had been paid by the publishing house Schott a total of 85 marks in royalties; his family in Slovenj Gradec, however, received from the publishing house Peters 260,000 marks for copyrights! During the years 1902 and 1906, Der Corregidor was performed on numerous Austrian and German stages. In 1910, the English musicologist Ernest Newman placed Hugo Wolf in his monograph at the head of the song-writers of the world, even surpassing Schubert. Various Hugo Wolf associations, not only in Austria and Germany, but also across Europe and even in America and Japan, have promoted Wolf’s work as a composer. Wolf was also promoted as one of the main figures of German musical creativity during the national socialism, this was the reason why the public temporarily lost an interest in him after the end of World War II. The masterful German classical singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was responsible for Wolf’s resurrection and exaltation in the international music scene. It was largely owing to the principal of the Slovenj Gradec Music school, Jože Leskovšek, that Wolf gained his deserved appreciation also in his home town Slovenj Gradec and across Slovenia.