'What makes this disc so special is the very obvious enthusiasm of everyone involved' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Genz séduit par un timbre superbe, moelleux, mat, grisé, chamarré dans l'aigu, d'un métal splendide et aisé' (Répertoire, France)
This important recording presents, for the first time on disc, all of Hugo Wolf's settings of the poetry of Eichendorff—26 songs in all, several of which seem never to have been recorded before (a fact which is hard to understand because they are very attractive).
One of Wolf's favourite writers, Joseph, Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857) was the German Romantic poet par excellence and his poems are full of the sounds of nature, the beauty of landscape, religious faith, and much musical imagery, with references to minstrels and other musicians. He was the poet of Schumann's Op 39 Liederkreis, though perhaps the most well-known Eichendorff setting is Im Abendrot from Strauss's Four Last Songs.
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Wolf’s Eichendorff songs have never enjoyed the popularity of his more substantial collections: the Mörike-Lieder, the Italienisches Liederbuch, the Goethe-Lieder and the Spanisches Liederbuch. No complete recording exists and critics have complained, erroneously, that the Eichendorff-Lieder lack the emotional and musical weight of his other volumes, that there is only one acknowledged masterpiece (Das Ständchen), that the songs represent the lighter side of Wolf’s work, and that they were not composed in the state of feverish creativity which characterized his other collections. Even more damning was the opinion of the chief editor of Breitkopf & Härtel, to whom Wolf had originally sent the songs:
Wolf’s lieder are amongst the most absurd things so far produced by the extreme left wing of the New German School [the followers of Wagner], and have nothing in common with what I understand by ‘music’ except for the basic elements of sound and rhythm.
Joseph, Freiherr von Eichendorff had always been one of Wolf’s favourite poets. There is a title-page in the Vienna City Library, probably dating from 1878, when Wolf was eighteen, that lists three Romanzen von J von Eichendorff (Der Kehraus, Das zerbrochene Ringlein and Der traurige Jäger), none of which has survived. Other early settings of his verse include a sketch for Verschwiegene Liebe, dating from 1879, whose vocal line bears no resemblance to that of the celebrated second version; and, from 1880, three songs—Erwartung, Die Nacht and Nachruf—the first two of which were included in the original Eichendorff-Lieder, but omitted from the second edition. The first of these, marked einfach und herzlich, is perhaps the most attractive of Wolf’s juvenilia; the falling thirds which accompany the voice accord well with the poem’s mood of gentle expectation, and though the harmonic texture is unmistakably Brahmsian, especially in the exultant postlude, there is something typically Wolfian about the inflections in the vocal line. Die Nacht, too, with its hypnotic accompaniment, anticipates Wolf’s later mastery in songs such as Nachtzauber, but his obvious debt to Schumann, most noticeably in the Zwielicht-like prelude, perhaps explains why he decided to omit the song from the second edition of the Eichendorff-Liederbuch—he had, after all, scribbled over the unfinished score of an early Chamisso song of 1878 ‘too much like Schumann’!
Wolf next turned to Eichendorff’s poetry in April 1881 when, in the throes of breaking off his relationship with Vally Franck, he composed the six beautiful Geistliche Lieder to poems which deal with death, farewell and resignation to God’s will, among them Resignation (‘Komm, Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht’), that Schumann had set so wonderfully as Der Einsiedler. And in the summer of the same year he wrote In der Fremde I (‘Da fahr ich still im Wagen’), the first of three songs with the same title, and the only one which he, as a struggling Kapellmeister in Salzburg, composed in that gloomy year, described in Daten aus meinem Leben as ‘Bruch. Elend. Jammer’ (‘Break-up. Misery. Distress’). Once again, the influence of Schumann is evident.
In der Fremde II was begun in February 1882 and finished in 1883, a year that saw the composition of five lieder, including In der Fremde III and Rückkehr. The theme of all these songs is the one familiar to us from Schumann’s celebrated Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op 39: the isolation and loneliness of a traveller returning home, unrecognized and unknown. At this early stage in his career Wolf was still tempted to select the type of Eichendorff poem that Schumann had set with such astonishing insight—the result, however, is hardly satisfactory, for though all three of these poems have lines almost identical to those in Schumann’s two In der Fremde songs, Wolf’s music, despite much beautiful detail, fails to crystallize and convince. Small wonder, then, that when in 1888 he decided to compose a complete Eichendorff cycle, he turned his back on the themes of nostalgia and loneliness and concentrated instead on the picaresque gallery of soldiers, students, sailors and minstrels that had until then been ignored by all song composers of Eichendorff’s poetry.
But 1888 was still four years hence. After the completion of In der Fremde III (30 January 1883) there followed a fallow period of almost four and a half years which began with the death of his idol Wagner in February 1883 and the rejection by Breitkopf & Härtel of a proposed volume of lieder. He was deeply depressed and compelled to eke out a living as a music critic, which left little time for composition. In these four bleak years only three songs were written, including Der Soldat II (14 December 1886), a theatrical tour de force that counsels a carpe diem attitude to life and depicts the onset of death in a succession of repeated phrases, whispered sepulchrally, as the song—Wolf’s shortest in duration?—pants to an ominous close. Nibelung’s anvils can be heard in the prelude and the whole atmosphere of the song reminds us of Wagner. Yet it is also wholly Wolfian in feel, and a wonderful example of what great lieder can accomplish – here, the reducing of an operatic idea to its essence, a hint of things to come.
The five songs which he composed to Eichendorff texts between March and May 1887 are of the same high artistic order, and again we glimpse the genius that is about to explode into song. In Der Soldat I composed on 7 March, Wolf is clearly captivated by the prancing of the little horse that takes him to his beloved’s castle and, when she becomes too possessive and demanding, away into the open countryside and freedom—Eichendorff puns on the word ‘Freien’, which means both ‘wooing’ and ‘out in the open’. Exactly one year later, on 7 March 1888, Wolf was to create another unforgettable prancing motif in Mörike’s Der Gärtner. It is remarkable how in the Eichendorff song the little motif undergoes subtle changes: staccato and self-confident at the outset, lilting and tender at ‘Die mir besser gefällt’, and then robust and arrogant in the final verse as he abandons his fawning sweetheart. There is a striking resemblance between this music and Wolf’s Italian Serenade for string quartet composed two months later, which also owes its conception to Eichendorff, whose Novelle Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts not only contains an Italian serenade but also a poem (Wer in die Fremde will wandern) that Wolf was to set in 1888 as Heimweh.
Having completed Der Soldat I, Wolf set three Eichendorff poems, Die Kleine (8 March 1887), Die Zigeunerin (19 March) and Waldmädchen (20 April), all of which depict women as independent beings, in charge of their own destiny. Die Zigeunerin, with its deliciously flirtatious melismatic triplets, was included in the first edition of the Eichendorff-Lieder, which Wolf chose to end with Waldmädchen, whose virtuosic postlude, marked sehr schnell and, in the final bars diminuendo (pp to pppp within four bars), he presumably regarded as a brilliant climax to his volume. Die Zigeunerin was retained in the second edition of 1898, while Waldmädchen was omitted by the composer, who by that time had written, in the Mörike volume, fairy music of incomparable delicacy. Die Kleine was not published during Wolf’s lifetime since Wolf clearly felt that the lubricious text might offend. The other Eichendorff setting of 1887 is Nachtzauber; marked sanft fliessend and steeped in the sort of romantic enchantment that had so appealed to Schumann. The whole song flows along hypnotically, with a swaying accompaniment that almost seems to anticipate Debussy.
Written on 24 May, Nachtzauber was virtually the last work composed by Wolf that year. His father had died a fortnight before and he now fell prey to a creative paralysis that was broken only the following year by the eruption of Mörike songs that flowed from his pen between 22 February and 18 May. He then decided to postpone the completion of the Mörike-Lieder and finish instead the Eichendorff volume that he had begun, as we have seen, in 1880 with the composition of Erwartung and Die Nacht. The rate of composition was, once again, remarkable: in quick succession he wrote thirteen new songs between 31 August and 29 September, and no fewer than ten in the week from 22 to 29 September. In a letter to Engelbert Humperdinck, dated 12 March 1891, he made it clear that, following the current trend of realism (‘übereinstimmend mit der realistischen Kunstrichtung’), he wished to abandon the romantic element in Eichendorff’s poetry and turn instead to the comparatively unknown, the saucily humorous and robustly sensual side of the poet (‘der ziemlich unbekannten, keck humoristischen, derb-sinnlichen Seite des Dichters’). And a glance at Challier’s Grosser Lieder-Katalog tells us that he was the first lieder composer to have attended to this side of Eichendorff’s poetry.
The songs are a delight. At the head of the published volume he placed Der Freund, a tribute to his friends (Eichendorff’s original poem was actually called ‘Die Freunde’) who had helped defray the cost of publication (Friedrich Eckstein) and had encouraged him through his depression (Edmund Lang and others, like Joseph and Friedrich Schalk, to whom the volume was dedicated). To make even clearer his indebtedness to such friends, he followed the opening song with Der Musikant, a sort of humorous self-portrait, with lute arpeggios in the accompaniment and a delicious modulation to a remote key at ‘Weiss nicht, wo ich abends ruh!’, which conveys the minstrel’s fear of spending the night without a roof over his head.
Next comes Verschwiegene Liebe which, despite Wolf’s resolve to embrace realism, is the most romantic and Schumannesque song of the volume. The poem dates from 1855 and Eichendorff later incorporated it into his verse narrative Robert und Guiscard where it is sung by Guiscard who, standing at his open window in the moonlight, breathes in the scent of lilac, senses his sweetheart Marie nearby, and sings the song ‘from the depths of his heart’. ‘Errät’ es nur Eine, Wer an sie gedacht’ clearly refers to Marie, but Wolf was probably thinking of Melanie Köchert with whom he was already emotionally, and clandestinely, involved. The song, according to Wolf’s first biographer Ernst Decsey, was composed in one single flash of inspiration. Wolf, with a book of Eichendorff poems in his hand, was walking up and down Friedrich Eckstein’s garden immersing himself in the mood of the poem. Unable to bear the noise of the nearby factory, and disturbed by whistling in the courtyard and the persistent sound of carpet-beating from another house, he turned about, entered the house, went up to Eckstein’s room, sat down at the piano, put the book of poems aside, and wrote out the complete song with hardly a pause for breath.
Das Ständchen is a serenade quite unlike any other. The title refers to the song sung by a young student outside his sweetheart’s door, but we only hear his serenade as a lute accompaniment in the piano part as it plays snatches of melody and pizzicato notes in the right hand. Dolce is the crucial marking, for the young student is happy and in love. This contrasts with the sad utterances in the vocal line of the old man, who looks on distraught, as he is reminded of the happiness that he used to enjoy before his sweetheart died. He sings a sort of recitative, often on repeated notes, that never really coalesces into song, so that the contrast with the blithe serenader is made even more poignant; never, that is, until at ‘So in meinen jungen Tagen’, when the vocal line heartbreakingly echoes the lute-like accompaniment, reminding the old man of his own past happinessan —unforgettable moment that strikes to the heart.
This masterpiece is followed by Der Soldat I, Der Soldat II, Die Zigeunerin and Nachtzauber that have already been discussed. Two swashbuckling songs, composed within three days of each other, come next: Der Schreckenberger and Der Glücksritter, characterized by rhythmic energy and enormous panache. Wolf obviously conceived them as a pair, since the processional theme at the end of the first setting, marked pompös and fff, is repeated in the postlude of the second. Der Schreckenberger, which appeared in Eichendorff’s Novelle Der Glücksritter, was inspired by the wildness of the Rettenbach region around Ischl, and Der Glücksritter was actually committed to manuscript paper as Wolf rode in a mail-coach to Rinnbach.
Wolf’s heightened mood of creativity is also evident in the next two songs that were composed on the same day, 29 September. Lieber alles reviews the possibility of becoming a soldier, a student or a poet. Each profession is rejected in turn, for he wants to combine elements of all three—hence the title, which states that he’d ‘rather have them all’. And so he sets out on his horse with a sturdy sword at his side, a lute in his right hand, and a student’s heart within his breast that would duel with anyone. Wolf illustrates the quixotic nature of the young man in the quick succession of different motifs in the prelude, and conveys his distaste for each profession by clever musical means: the mention of soldiery is punctuated by a rest; the singer is instructed to slow down (‘zurückhaltend’) when he describes study; and to depict the prissiness of writing poetry, the pianist is given a succession of chirping semitones that twitter away ineffectually.
Heimweh, with its walking rhythm, tuneful melody and wonderful setting of the word ‘weit’ (on a tied melisma over one-and-a-half bars, to show just how distant his sweetheart and homeland are) has always been one of Wolf’s most popular Eichendorff settings, but not always for the right reasons. At one of the first performances of the Eichendorff-Lieder, on 7 February 1889, Wolf was accompanying Ferdinand Jäger in a performance of Heimweh in the Wagner-Verein when, after the phrase ‘Grüss dich, Deutschland, aus Herzensgrund!’, a roar of applause broke out among the Grossdeutschen in the audience, drowning the postlude. Wolf was furious. He slammed down the piano lid and shouted vitriolically at the offending audience: ‘Und das im Wagner-Verein!’ (‘And in the Wagner-Verein of all places!’). The concert was interrupted and the Grossdeutschen walked out. The same offending line occasioned another amusing anecdote, as Hermann Prey recalls in Premierenfieber. During the interval of a lieder recital with Alfred Brendel in Wiesbaden, Brendel, who had not warmed to the rather conservative audience, offered Prey fifty Marks if he dared change the last line of Heimweh to ‘Grüss dich, Sarah, aus Herzensgrund!’. Prey did not accept the challenge.
The next two songs are sung by a student – content in Der Scholar, despairing in Der verzweifelte Liebhaber. The former is one of Wolf’s most delightful lieder. The student in question is content whatever he does: listening to the birds, the pattering rain or the flashing lightning. Nothing, he says, could deter him from wandering. Free from Mammon, he’ll roam the field of knowledge, think deeply and occasionally drink a glass or two of wine. And when he tires of such study he will serenade his sweetheart. While this sybaritic existence is conveyed by Wolf’s memorable melody for voice and right hand, the left hand is busy interpreting the text in other ways. The quavers are played staccato throughout the first verse, inspired no doubt by the mention of raindrops, and then legato in verse two to convey the idea of a ‘zufriedenes Gemüt’, a contented heart. They return again at the exciting idea of alcohol, but at ‘Rebensaft’, in other words when the wine has been quaffed, the pianist is instructed to play nicht stacc.—the mellowing effect of wine has already been felt! The final verse, which starts by describing the fatigue of work, has no need of staccato quavers either—until he decides to serenade his sweetheart and pluck the strings. The poem appears in Eichendorff’s Novelle Dichter und ihre Gesellen where in Chapter VI the hero Fortunat hears the first two verses sung by a troupe of minstrels who have been surprised by a thunderstorm; verses three and four are sung as they find shelter in a town.
The student in Der verzweifelte Liebhaber expresses his despair in a succession of recitative phrases, interrupted by harsh chords: study earns him nothing, his coat’s unstitched, his zither’s broken and his sweetheart doesn’t love him. He then starts to fantasize, the quavers begin to flow, and he imagines himself walking through a meadow on the arm of the most beautiful lady. The music continues in tongue-in-cheek self-parody: disguised as a dragon (octave quavers), he carries her off and, equipped with armour and lance, puts all the philistines to rout and finally lies down contentedly (dotted minims played piano) beneath the sky.
Unfall, a burlesque, perhaps, of Mozart’s Dans un bois solitaire, tells how the narrator, while going for a walk across country, meets a little boy with a gun in his hand. When he confronts the fellow, the little imp (Cupid in disguise) fires at him so that he falls flat on his face. Discovering the identity of his assailant, the narrator grows thoroughly indignant and cross. The little poem is an ideal vehicle for the Wolfian wit which the composer lavishes on us. The deadpan narration starts in ‘tragic’ D?minor with square-cut phrases, until the narrator starts to run (quavers turn to triplet semiquavers) towards his attacker who fires his gun to the accompaniment of a sforzando dissonant seventh chord. As he falls to the ground the vocal line becomes fragmented and Cupid laughs at him in a flurry of triplet semiquavers.
Liebesglück (the poem is called Der Glückliche in Eichendorff) describes the rapture that fills a lover’s heart when his sweetheart gazes on him. It’s an exuberant and rhythmically vigorous song which needs a singer with considerable breath control and stamina to perform, and a pianist who does not wilt under the pressure of hammering out the dactylic rhythm in both hands.
The collection ends with a farewell, Seemanns Abschied, yet another song that allows Wolf to display his gift for pictorial touches such as the pounding waves (bass octaves), the snapping of shark jaws, the scream of seagulls, and also his remarkable ability to conjure up atmosphere—a seascape reeking of tang and spray and redolent of lashing winds, that we hear in the very first bar of the boisterous prelude, which caused Bruckner, when Wolf showed him the song, to cry out in amazement: ‘Teufel! woher haben Sie den Akkord!’ (‘Where the devil did you get that chord from?’).
Richard Stokes © 1998