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The family from which Hugo Wolf sprang is known to have resided in Windischgraz, in the south of Styria, since the eighteenth century. The town is still a small one, possessing to-day only some two thousand inhabitants. It was in the eighteenth century that Max Wolf, the great-grandfather of the musician, settled there. His son Franz, who was engaged in the leather trade, had at least two sons, the second of whom, Philipp (born 1st May 1828) became the father of Hugo. Philipp married one Katharina Nussbaumer; they had eight children, of whom Hugo, born on the 13th March 1860, was the fourth. The family seems to have been fairly prosperous; in 1867, however, Philipp was almost ruined by a big fire, from the effects of which his business never quite recovered. He was apparently an artist by temperament, playing the violin well and having some knowledge of the piano and the guitar; he had been placed in his father's business much against his own will, and always cherished a stronger affection for music than for commerce.
The young Hugo received his first musical lessons from his father, who taught him the rudiments of violin and piano technique. The boy seems to have struck everyone as exhibiting decided musical capacity,—as being, indeed, more than an average child in most respects. Musical evenings were frequently held in the father's house, Philipp himself generally taking the first violin, Hugo the second, Weixler, a local teacher, the viola, and Hugo's brother Max the violoncello, while an uncle played the horn. Weixler took it upon him to give Hugo further instruction in the piano. He apparently never became a virtuoso on that instrument in the full modern sense of the word, but there is abundant testimony from his friends to the power and expressiveness of his later piano playing. It may further be recorded that as a boy he became an expert upon one of the most fascinating of musical instruments, the Jew's harp.
In 1865 he went to the Volksschule at Windischgraz; here he learned everything with his customary facility. He remained at the school for about four years,—until 1869. Even at this early age a literary talent manifested itself in him; it took the form, we are told, of satirical verses upon his father's friends and people of standing in the town. Music-making still went on at home, but there was never any thought of letting the boy become a musician by profession; the experienced father had too keen an intuition of the hardships that attend that career to think of embarking a son of his upon it. The music the boy met with at this time was not of a particularly high order; it consisted mostly of operatic pot-pourris and the usual mixed répertoire of the domestic amateur. Dr. Decsey, who has examined Wolf's early attempts at instrumental composition, finds in them a good deal of the influence of this salonmusik,—much empty flourish and shallow figure-work. In a concerto for violin and piano, for example, written in 1877, the piano accompaniment to the main subject "is at first in semiquavers; later on it bursts out into scales and passage-work à la Theodor Oesten or some other favourite manufacturer of pot-pourris."
In September 1870 Hugo left his father's house for the first time to enter the Gymnasium at Graz, the chief city of Styria. For the next few years his education seems to have proceeded rather unsatisfactorily, either from defects on the part of his teachers, or from lack of application on his part, or from a want of sympathy between them. He entered the first class at the Graz Gymnasium, he and his brother Max having lodgings with a family in the Wielandgasse. His teacher remembered him long afterwards as a rather short, squarely-built boy with plump cheeks and light hair, and of noticeably earnest manner. "His speech was soft and drawn-out, with a Slovenian tang which the children of German parents in Slovenian-speaking districts generally acquire." He stayed only one half-year at the Gymnasium, and left it with an unsatisfactory report. Music had, however, been cultivated during this time with rather more success than his other studies. The brothers took lessons in the violin from Ferd. Casper, in the school of the Styrian Musical Society, and in the piano from Johann Buwa,—though these piano lessons, so far as Hugo was concerned, lasted only a few weeks. Buwa who was still living in 1903, the year of Wolf's death, preserved at that time a faint recollection of his little pupil.
The boy was back in his father's house again in the summer of 1871. In September he was entered in the first class in the Benedictine St. Paul's school in the Lavant valley. Here again he does not seem to have been entirely comfortable. In 1902 Dr. Decsey visited the school and made the acquaintance of the venerable Father Sales Pirc, who had been Hugo's "Studienpräfekt" thirty years before. Father Sales was delighted to hear that the Hugo Wolf who had become so famous was the little Hugo who entered the school in 1871. He was, he said, a healthy, lively, honest boy, and popular with his comrades. He had not given great attention to his general studies, but had always been enthusiastic about music, and had often pleased and consoled the Father with his piano-playing. Music was the one thing, indeed, that the boy did really well at the school. His singing, according to the official report, was "excellent," and he was very useful at the organ in the services in the church. Music was always being sent over from Graz—though mostly only "arrangements" from Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and Gounod. Hugo took the piano part, one Gassmeyer played the violin, and they would occasionally be joined in a trio by Philipp Wolf himself, who used to come to the place on business, sell his hides, and then call at the school to make music with his son. Dr. Decsey and Father Sales turned up the school records and examined the reports made upon Hugo's progress. On the whole they were barely more than satisfactory. The boy, it appears from a letter of complaint he wrote at the time to his father, was not happy in the school. He was of a strong character and a nature that felt deeply and passionately; he regarded some of his teachers as tyrants, while they naturally looked upon him as "proud, perverse, and wilful." The Prefect had more that once written to his father about him, and finally had to recommend his removal to another school, the immediate trouble apparently being Hugo's inability or unwillingness to acquire a knowledge of Latin as rapidly as a rather exacting professor desired.
His next school was at Marburg on the Drave, two hours' railway journey from Graz. Here in the autumn of 1873 he entered the Gymnasium with his younger brother Gilbert, the fifth child of Philipp. Hugo now shaped rather better for a little while, but the reports again were mostly unsatisfactory, and he left the school in 1875. By this time his father must have begun to feel some anxiety about him. The boy seems to have been well-regulated enough in other ways, but he was plainly not of the stuff out of which his father could hope to make a sober and contented man of business. He had already begun to think for himself; with other boys he was rather reserved, and outside the school he did not seek their companionship. One of his Marburg associates, now Dr. Roschanz, has sketched him for us as he was at that time. His musical knowledge had deepened a good deal. At fourteen he was "an excellent piano player," and spoke with enthusiasm of Mozart, Beethoven and other composers, but especially of Beethoven; he would discourse of the great musician and his deafness, and play his symphonies on the piano. The boy had by now realised with perfect clearness that his bent lay decisively towards music, and that he must be a musician or nothing; it was the old longing of the father for a life of art surging up again in the son, and growing, in that granitic, tenacious soul, to a power it had never been able to acquire in the more prudent nature of Philipp. Towards the end of the Marburg school-time Hugo wrote his father a letter in which he speaks in glowing terms of Hummel's "Missa Solemnis," a performance of which had just been given in the Stadtkirche. He himself had been one of the violinists. As a result he had been brought into collision with the religious authorities at the school, and had had a scene with the directors. He is no good at the school, he tells his father; he must leave it and devote himself entirely to music.
The careful Philipp at first tried to dissuade his son from this course, describing to him the dangers of the musical life and the small esteem in which the musician was usually held. This drew a passionate reply from Hugo. "I have loved music so ardently," he cries. "It is food and drink to me. But since you do not want me to be a musician, I will obey. Only God grant that your eyes will not be opened when it is too late for me to go back to music." In spite of his consciousness of possessing musical talent he will, he says, enter some profession, and trust to being happy in it.
Further details as to the combat between father and son are lacking; but the next thing we hear is that it is arranged that Hugo shall enter the Vienna Conservatoire. Thither, accordingly, he went in 1875. His chief subject was to be harmony, his teacher Franz Krenn; as subsidiary study he entered for the piano under Wilhelm Schenner. He made much more progress in his secondary than in his primary subject, perhaps finding himself out of touch with Krenn—a capable but rather dry and formal pedagogue. That he stood in need of a careful grounding in harmony is evident. Dr. Decsey speaks of three choruses for male voices, to words by Goethe, which Hugo had composed in 1875 before going to Krenn, as showing undoubted signs of originality, but being often inexpert in treatment. There is nothing to indicate that he profited much by his instruction in harmony at the Conservatoire; his piano work, however, was satisfactory.
Towards the end of that year the boy had one of the richest experiences of his life. For some time the relations between Wagner and the Vienna Opera House, under the directorship of Herbeck, had not been too cordial. In May 1875, however, Herbeck was succeeded by Franz Jauners, who immediately established a better feeling with Wagner, and finally induced him to come in person to Vienna to superintend the production of "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin" at the Court Opera there. "Tannhäuser" was to be given in the Paris version, and "Lohengrin" was to be played without cuts. Wagner and Wagnerism had not yet conquered the Austrian capital; public opinion upon them was sharply divided, and the visit of the composer led of course to the usual excited and often bitter discussions. Wagner arrived on the 1st November; on the 3rd he conducted the first rehearsal. The performance of "Tannhäuser" took place on the 22nd, and for several weeks there was little talk in the town of anything but Wagner. Hugo's ardent young brain was fired by all this excitement. The great man was staying at the Imperial Hotel, close to the Conservatoire. Hugo sends full particulars to his father in a letter of 23rd November. Wagner, he says, is accompanied by his wife, and has seven rooms at the hotel. "Although he has been so long in Vienna, I did not have the good luck and joy to see him until the 17th November, at a quarter to eleven, outside the stage door of the Opera House. I went on the stage and heard the rehearsal, in which Wagner took part. With a truly sacred awe did I look upon this great master of tone, for he is, according to present opinion, the greatest opera composer of them all. I went some steps towards him and saluted him very respectfully, whereupon he thanked me in a friendly way. From that very moment I felt an invincible inclination towards Richard Wagner, without having yet any notion of his music. Not till Monday, the 22nd November, was I initiated into his wonderful music; it was 'Tannhäuser,' given in the presence of the great Richard Wagner himself. I took my place outside the theatre at a quarter past two, although the opera, on this occasion, only began at half-past six, instead of at seven o'clock as usual. There was such a frightful crush that I got rather anxious about myself. I wanted to get out, but it was impossible, for no one round me would give way. So there was nothing for it but to stay where I was. When at last the door was opened, the whole crowd swept in, and it was my good luck to be drawn into the middle, for if I had got to the side I would have been smashed against the wall. But I was richly compensated for the awful fright I had had. I got my good old place in the fourth gallery. The overture was wonderful, and then the opera—I cannot find words to describe it. I will only say that I'm an idiot. After each Act Wagner was furiously called for, and I applauded so much that my hands were sore. I kept on shouting 'Bravo Wagner! Bravissimo Wagner!' until I became almost hoarse, and the people looked at me more than at Wagner. He was continually called for after each Act, and made his acknowledgments from his box. After the third and last Act he came on the stage, and then the jubilation was endless; after a triple demand he made a short speech to the audience. I will shortly send you the exact words of the Master; I copied them down in my note-book. Particulars about Wagner in my next letter. I have been quite taken out of myself by the music of this great master, and have become a Wagnerian."
Nothing would satisfy young Wolf now but a meeting with the great man himself. How he managed this he tells in a letter to his father, a couple of weeks after the foregoing one.
"Now to the main point. I have been with—whom do you think? Meister Richard Wagner. I will tell you all about it just as it happened. I will give you the very words in which I put it down in my diary:
"On Saturday, the nth December, at half-past ten, I saw Richard Wagner for the second time, at the Imperial Hotel, where I stood for half an hour on the stairs awaiting his arrival. (I knew, you see, that on that day he would conduct the final rehearsal of his 'Lohengrin.') At last the Meister Richard came down from the second floor, and I accosted him very respectfully while he was still some little distance from me. He acknowledged it very affably. When he got to the door I ran forward quickly and opened it for him, whereupon he looked hard at me for a few seconds, and then went off to the rehearsal. I ran as fast as I could before the Meister, and got to the Opera House before Wagner arrived in his cab. I saluted him again, and would have opened the door for him; but before I could do so the driver jumped down quickly and opened it himself. Then Wagner said something to the driver; I think it was about me. I followed him to the stage door, but this time was not allowed to enter. (At the rehearsal of 'Tannhäuser' I was on the stage, where Wagner was.) As I had often waited for the Meister in the Imperial Hotel, I made the acquaintance of the manager of the hotel, who promised to befriend me with Wagner. Who could have been happier than I when he told me that I must come to him the same day, Saturday the nth December, in the afternoon, when he would introduce me to the lady's maid of Frau Cosima (Wagner's wife, and daughter of the great Liszt) and Wagner's valet. I arrived at the appointed time; my attendance on the maid was very short. I was told to come again on Sunday, the 12th December, at about two o'clock. I went at the appointed time, but found the lady's maid, the valet and the manager of the hotel still at table, and at the end I drank a kapuziner with them. Then I went with the maid to the Meister's apartment, where I waited about a quarter of an hour before he came. At last he appeared, accompanied by Cosima, Goldmark, etc. (He had just come from a Philharmonic concert.) I saluted Cosima very respectfully; she did not however think it worth the trouble to bestow a look on me; she is indeed known everywhere as an extremely haughty and overbearing Dame. Wagner was going into his room without observing me, when the maid said to him in an entreating tone: 'Ah, Herr Wagner, a young artist, who has so often waited for you, would like to speak to you.' He came back, looked at me, and said, 'I have seen you once before, I think. You are ...' (he was probably going to say 'you are a fool'). Then he went in and opened the door for me into the sitting-room, that was furnished with truly royal magnificence. In the centre stood a couch, all velvet and silk. Wagner himself was enveloped in a long velvet cloak trimmed with fur. When I entered, he asked what it was I wanted.
"When I was alone with Wagner I said 'Honoured Meister! I have long cherished the wish to hear an opinion upon my compositions, and it would ...' Here the Master interrupted me, and said: 'My dear child, I really cannot give any opinion upon your compositions; I have far too little time just now,—I cannot even get my letters written. I understand nothing at all about music' When I begged the Master to tell me if I would ever come to anything, he said: 'When I was as young as you are now, no one could say from my compositions whether I would go far in music. You must at least play me your compositions on the piano; but I have no time at present. When you are more mature and have written larger works and I am in Vienna again, you can show me your compositions. It's no use; I can give no opinion.' When I said to him that I took the classics as my models, he replied: 'Well, that's right; one can't be original all at once.' Then he laughed. Finally he said: 'I wish you, dear friend, much joy in your career. Just go on diligently, and when I come to Vienna again show me your compositions.' Thereupon I went away, deeply moved and impressed by the Master.
Excerpted from Hugo Wolf by Ernest Newman. Copyright © 2012 Roelof Oostwoud. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted April 4, 2010
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