The fourth son of a leather merchant, an amateur musician who discouraged a musical career, Wolf was expelled from three different schools and was eventually thrown out of the Vienna Conservatory, which he’d entered in 1875, not because of his argumentative nature, his sullen disposition or the neglect of his studies – though all of these were true. He was the innocent victim of a malicious hoax: someone had sent a threatening letter to the director and signed it from Hugo Wolf.
All his life he lived in abject poverty. Unable to live at home, he had to depend on friends for lodgings and funds. He read music constantly and Wagner was his idol – he met the great man once, aged 15, and showed him a song he had written. Wagner brushed the young hopeful aside, telling him it was far too early for anyone to make judgements on whether one had talent or not. When at last Wolf landed a job as assistant conductor to Karl Muck in Salzburg, he arrived with a bundle of clothes under one arm and a bust of Wagner under the other. Inevitably, the job lasted only a few months – he quarrelled with everyone – and he found himself once more back in Vienna.
In 1884 he became the music critic of the Salonblatt, and he held on to this post for three years. His passionately held views made him many friends, for he was devastatingly honest in his criticism and praise. He also made many powerful enemies. But in 1888 Wolf had some encouragement. Some of his songs were issued by a small publishing house. This prompted an amazing outburst of creative energy and in one year he wrote 53 songs; a few months later he set 50 of Goethe’s poems to music within the space of three and a half months. He himself could not believe what was happening – it was as if someone else was composing. He tackled German poems, Italian poems translated into German and Spanish poems translated into German. He had an innate ability to capture the spirit and character of each poem, combining Schumann’s genius for striking exactly the right balance between vocal line and accompaniment with Schubert’s grander rhetorical style.
Wolf’s gloomy life and intense personality are reflected in his music, certainly, but these elements by no means dominate. There is more passion, humour and sunshine than morbidity and Austrian weltschmerz. In 1891 inspiration suddenly dried up like a stream in a drought. He was beside himself until he was able to write again at the end of the year. Again, for two years (1892-94) nothing came; then there was another burst in 1895. By then, there were some signs of recognition and even the formerly hostile dean of critics, Eduard Hanslick, had some kind things to say. Two Hugo Wolf Societies were formed in Berlin and Vienna. But this success was checked by the failure of Wolf’s opera Der Corregidor at its premiere in Mannheim in 1896. When the Vienna Opera turned it down after initially agreeing to do it, something snapped and the syphilis he had contracted as a 17-year-old began to take hold. He was put in a sanatorium for a rest cure but, on returning to Vienna from Italy, he tried to commit suicide in the Traunsee. From 1898 for the remainder of his life he was confined in the Lower Austrian Mental Hospital. His body became more paralysed, his mind more confused.