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POETRY IN MOTION: Hugo Wolf’s Balanced Marriage of Word and Tone

August 6, 2012

Hugo Wolf, 1902

Musicologists have long held the belief that German Lieder can generally be divided into the camps of Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf.  In this theory, Schubert and his followers represent a compositional style which focuses first on musical matters and then colors words thereafter, much like sketching a line drawing and then adding paint.  For Wolf, however, text is of the utmost importance—both melody and harmony flow freely from the poet’s text.  As a devoted advocate of Wagner, and his new total music-dramas, Wolf strove to create a new standard for the Lied.  Poetry and music should share equal importance, further declaring their inseparability: word and tone should fuse into a new, complete form.  In Wolf’s ideal, all musical devices should support and reinforce the meaning of the poem; all else would be superfluous and contrary to proper declamation.  Lawrence Kramer writes that Wolf: “…understood [poetry] preternaturally well, and ‘expressed’ them [the poems] to perfection by repeating their sound and meaning in the form of music…Wolf was more intent on perfect declamation than most lied composers, and he made a point of demanding high-quality poetry” (186).  After all, Wolf once suggested that poems he set should be read on the stage prior to them being sung, in order to better understand the intricate interminglings he had created.

Many composers of the Romantic period in Germany came later to be identified with their settings of a particular poet who brought out their best work.  Schubert found great inspiration in Goethe’s poetry, Schumann had Heine and Eichendorff as his muses, and Wolf closely identified with Eduard Mörike, a rural pastor from the southwest corner of Germany.  Much as Robert Schumann achieved in his Liederjahr of 1840, Hugo Wolf entered a frenzied phase of composition, stemming directly from the personal resonance found in Mörike’s poetry.  Friends with whom he stayed noted how Wolf would emerge from his studio every morning, announcing that he had just penned his best song to date, the labors of each day surpassing the next.  Setting fifty-seven richly varied texts by this country cleric, Wolf managed to create pieces which offer detailed explications of poetry while maintaining great musical integrity and creativity.

Eduard Mörike’s poem, “An eine Äolsharfe” was written in 1837 in the poet’s hometown of Ludwigsburg in memory of his deceased brother August.  The melancholy which permeates the stanzas of this poem is tempered with a sensuousness of imagery, of ripe spring scents and magical sounds wafting over the hill where the burial mound is only beginning to turn green again.  Wolf matches the shifting moods and delicate descriptions perfectly.  The poem can be separated into three major sections, each of which possesses a distinctive musical character.  The first seven lines of the poem are addressed directly, in a strange combination of demand and plea—begin!—to an airy muse, to whom the strains of the Aeolian harp are attributed.  This section is characterized by strummed seventh chords, with their gentle sort of dissonance, each chord yearning toward the next, even through strange harmonic progressions (a7 – Bb9 – G7 – B – e – C).  The quasi-recitative nature of this portion flirts with the concept of an operatic soliloquy, but the dynamic markings continually restrain the singer from pushing the operatic metaphor too far: this is an intimate piece, with each swell only a shade of piano.

From a remote distance, the Aeolian harp begins to sound in the thirteenth bar, marked pppp (a truly exceptional dynamic marking, as Graham Johnson notes).  The mysterious b-minor feel of the opening section becomes a clean, nostalgic D-major, with an arpeggio figuration on a clear harmonic background.  Here we have an achingly sweet melody, much more lyrical than the first section, which remains rooted in D-major—with one exception at the text “Winde, fern herüber,” where he introduces a G#, making a diminished IV sonority thus representing the initial distance of the sounding harps. The outbursts of affection for the deceased boy in m. 18-19 (“ach, von des Knaben, der mir so lieb war”), which take us to a higher tessitura, and are much less melodic, reverting to the old trick of repeated notes in a high range to express intensity, avoid overt sentimentality by shortening the musical phrase at “frisch grünendem Hügel”—almost as if the singer has not yet learned to accept that his brother is dead and buried.  It is much easier to cry out in general lament than talk of the specific place in which a lifeless body lies.

Aeolian Harp at Schloss Hohenbaden in Baden-Baden, Germany. The largest “wind harp” in Europe, it has 120 strings and is 4.10 meters tall. Photo: Martin Dürrschnabel

After this, the images and accompanying harmonies become much more sensuous and seductive, immediately evident upon first glance at a score, due to the preponderance of accidentals.  Wolf obviously identifies with the pain in this poem, as he breaks with one of his “rules” of poetic setting: he repeats the words “wie süss bedrängt ihr dies Herz” (“how sweetly you besiege my heart”) five times, only written once in the original poem.  Each of these iterations is written with an immediate decrescendo, and a descent of a half-step from ever higher starting points.  Again, Wolf’s (acute) perception of the psychology of the text shows emotionally charged words, which are tightly reined in; the feelings could easily become overpowering, but restraint makes their sharpness even more poignant.  We reach the musical climax of the piece in this second section, at the text, “wachsend im Zug meiner Sehnsucht” (“growing in the wrenching of my longing”).  Here, Wolf begins with the heretofore highest note of D, and begins a slow, sustained chromatic ascent, shooting above the line to F# for the peak note of “Sehnsucht” and then resolving down to E.  A clearer musical illustration of increasingly soul-wrenching longing could not be desired.

A piano interlude of three measures separates the third section of the song.  Here, the right-hand of the accompaniment announces a fanfare-like melody in octaves, and the voice answers in broken phrases.  Moving from nostalgia to pangs of grief, the singer is now more openly emotional, causing fragmentation of thought.  Hence, the piano drives this section, and the voice follows in these shorter responses.  However, this mood does not last the entire stanza.  As the singer declaims, “Und hier, die volle Rose streut, geschüttelt, all’ ihre Blätter vor meine Füße!” (“And here, the swollen rose shakes and strews all its petals at my feet!”), a sense of hypnotic stasis enters, as if the singer has been numbed by his outpouring of feelings and the abundance of beauty around him.  The harmony remains in D-major for two bars, then changes to d-minor, with the same repeated chords and little melodic variation.  The voice does not complete cadentially, with the last words, but rather its inconclusiveness “leaves the singer’s thoughts hanging in the air,” as Graham Johnson says, leaving the piano to resolve and meditate on the themes in a postlude dwindling in dynamics to the pppp marking of the opening.

“An eine Äolsharfe” illustrates Wolf’s great sensitivity to the poetic structure, and his unprecedented acuity at infusing his music with a responsiveness and complete understanding of a given text.  Rather than simply achieving this poetic and musical integration by means of superficially imposed text painting, as his forebears, his sudden shifts of harmony, declamatory melody, and evocative accompaniment set a new standard for lieder composition, matched perhaps only by Debussy in creating works of beauty and poetic integrity.

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