A neglected great gets his due
by James Leonard
So if Hugo Wolf is the greatest song composer in the history of the German language, how come he wasn't famous? Because he had syphilis and died insane? Schubert had syphilis, and Schumann died insane, and no one held it against their songs. Because by the fin de sicle, songs had become passé and only operas and symphonic poems were considered acceptable as great music? Wolf's contemporary, Strauss, wrote operas and symphonic poems, but no one held that against his songs. So why isn't Wolf famous? I'd guess it's because his songs are so concentrated, so intense, so expressive, and so original that they were too much for most people, even most song lovers, to grasp.
Even a century after his death a century in which the greatest singers performed his songs with the fervor of evangelists Wolf still isn't famous even in Ann Arbor, a veritable hotbed of song lovers. The Kerrytown Concert House WolfFEST on October 11 and 12 could help change that. With a pair of concerts featuring some of Wolf's best songs on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon along with a master class led by accompanist Martin Katz on Friday and a lecture on Wolf's love life by Wolf scholar Louise Urban Saturday afternoon the Concert House is doing all it can to convert the unbelievers.
The master class and the lecture will no doubt be interesting; Katz is a marvelous teacher, and Urban's writings on Wolf are fascinating. The Sunday afternoon concert, featuring siblings Deanna and Gary Relyea and Gary's wife, Anna, singing some of Wolf's greatest individual songs, will no doubt be wonderful. But the centerpiece of the festival promises to be the performance of Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook) on Saturday night. Featuring two young singers Jesse Blumberg, baritone, and Deborah Selig, soprano, with Martin Katz at the piano the performance itself may or may not be the highlight of the festival; the
Relyeas are, after all, seasoned professionals with strong and supple voices. But the Italienisches Liederbuch is undoubtedly Wolf's supreme achievement as a composer.
Written in three bursts of inspiration in the autumn of 1890, the winter of 1891, and the early spring of 1896, the forty-six songs of the Italienisches Liederbuch are settings of Italian folk poetry from the sixteenth century and earlier, in German translations. Most of the songs are two pages long and take less than two minutes to perform. There are serious songs and silly songs, passionate songs and sarcastic songs, rapturous songs of love and bitter songs of heartbreak. Each song is complete in itself, and each is completely different from the others. Each one is an ideal fusion of words and music, and taken together, they form a compellingly intimate portrait of life in all its beauty and endless variety.
[Originally published in October, 2003.]