Like all of Wolf’s mature songbooks, the Italienisches Liederbuch was composed in feverish bouts. ‘Ich spüre verdächtige Anzeichen zum Komponieren in mir und erwarte jeden Augenblick eine Explosion’ (‘Suspicious signs of creativity are stirring within me, and I expect an imminent explosion’), we read in a letter to Gustav Schur, dated 24 September 1890. He was right. Two days later the first of the songs was penned – Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne. Three more followed in early October and then three in November. A year of creative paralysis ensued, and the letters of this period speak of gloom and self-disgust: ‘Ich bin am Ende. Möge es bald ein vollständiges sein – ich wünschte nichts sehnlicher’. (‘The end is near – may it come soon and completely. That is my most fervent wish’.) Despite a visit to Bayreuth and the support of friends, despair and melancholy were beginning to crush him. ‘Mit dem Komponieren ist es rein aus. Ich glaube, dass ich wohl nie mehr eine Note schreiben werde ...’ (‘I have finished composing. I think I shall probably never write another note’), he wrote to Grohe on June 12. This time he was wrong. Inspiration suddenly returned with the composition on 29 November 1891 of Dass doch gemalt all deine Reize wären; and within the next twenty-five days, fifteen further songs were composed. All of them were now sold, for a fee of 1,000 marks, to Schott, who published them in 1892. Secondary syphilis then took hold. Wolf complained of feverish sore throats, and from 1892 to 1894 composed not a note of original music. There was a recovery, however, in 1895, when he worked feverishly at his new opera, Der Corregidor, which was premièred the following year. And on 25 March 1896 he resumed the Italienisches Liederbuch, composing the remaining twenty-four songs in a spate of inspiration in less than five weeks.
Paul Heyse’s translation of the anonymous Italian poems had been published in 1860. Wolf ignored the ballads and death laments, and concentrated almost exclusively on the rispetti – short love poems that depict a wide variety of emotions. Like much demotic verse (Des Knaben Wunderhorn, for example), the language is simple and the lines usually end-stopped. Almost all the poems set by Wolf concern the lover and his sweetheart, and they chart, against a Tuscan landscape of Orvieto, Siena and the Arno, the everyday squabbles, tiffs, jealousies, flirtations, machinations, frivolities, joys and despairs of men and women in love. Heyse’s translations often intensify the simple, unemotional Italian of the original poems, and almost any comparison shows the German versions to be richer in hyperbole, alliteration and dramatic force.
If Heyse’s translations often intensify the expression of the originals, Wolf’s settings, particularly of the more serious poems, represent a further heightening of emotion. Miniatures they may be, but many of these songs strike unforgettably at the heart. Wolf transforms the punch lines of several of the rispetti into moments of unforgettable poignancy – like the final line of Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund. We expect the crescendo enumeration of God’s creations to climax in the final line; instead, there is hushed adoration at ‘Schönheit und dein Angesicht’, as the singer is struck almost dumb with awe at the image of his beloved’s face. Similar magic is wrought in Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag’ erhoben at ‘die beiden Augen dort’: through a shift in tonality, the pithy point of the poem receives an emotional charge quite absent from the original poem and its translation. Time and again Wolf deepens the translations. The downward leap of a sixth at the close of Wer rief dich denn? Wer hat dich herbestellt? betrays an underlying commotion that is foreign to the angry tone of the poem. And there is new tenderness in many other of Wolf’s settings, such as Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen and Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen, liebstes Leben.
This last song usually occasions a wrangle between the singers as acrimonious as the quarrelling in the songs. Sopranos usually lay claim to it, since most of the serious songs in the collection are given to men – not because of Wolf’s own bias, but because it is in the nature of rispetti to let men speak of passion and adoration. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne, but in general the women’s songs flame more with mockery, scorn, rage and jealousy, than with adoration and passion. The soprano, however, has the best comic songs, which are among the finest in the entire Lieder repertoire. We are introduced to an unforgettable array of oddities in songs that are alternately irrepressibly abandoned (Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen), teasing (Mein Liebster ist so klein, dass ohne Bücken), dead-pan (Ihr jungen Leute, die ihr zieht ins Feld), and affectionate (Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen). ‘Not without humor’ is Wolf’s indication to his interpreters in Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen – and there can hardly be a more comic postlude than this wretched musician’s laborious trill.
The Italienisches Liederbuch is unlike any of Wolf’s other collections. The opening song – number 16 in order of composition – states that ‘even small things can delight us’, and Wolf presumably opened his final songbook with Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken to indicate the miniature form of these songs. Of forty-six, only six are three pages long, the majority occupy a mere two pages, while two songs (Heut’ Nacht erhob ich mich um Mitternacht and Nicht länger kann ich singen, denn der Wind) fill a single page. The volume contains no grand scale songs like Goethe’s Prometheus or Mörike’s Der Feuerreiter, there are no passionate songs like Kennst du das Land, no religious fervor, as in the Spanisches Liederbuch, no introspection to match the Harper’s songs. Yet there is an Innigkeit, an emotional immediacy about them and an understanding of the human heart that is in no way diminished by the miniature form.
The novelist Adalbert Stifter, in his preface to Bunte Steine, wrote: ‘Es ist einmal gegen mich bemerkt worden, dass ich nur das Kleine bilde, und dass meine Menschen stets gewöhnliche Menschen seien.’ (‘It has often been held against me that I only depict what is small-scale, and that my characters are always ordinary human beings’). He then proceeds proudly to defend his philosophy. Unlike Stifter, Wolf became increasingly disillusioned by the small-scale format of his works, despite the perfection of his final songbook. The title of songwriter became anathema to him. In a letter to his friend Grohe, he complains that he cannot continue to write songs for another thirty years; instead of being flattered by the increasing success of his Lieder, he saw in the public’s praise an implied reproach that he was master of what was only a minor genre. As the orchestration of some of his songs suggests, Wolf harbored great ambitions, at times bordering on megalomania, to master symphonic form and become a great operatic composer. After Der Corregidor he planned a second opera Manuel Vanegas, but by 1897 tertiary syphilis had set in and his mind gave way. When Mahler, a friend of long standing (they had shared a room as students in Vienna), proved unable to stage Der Corregidor, Wolf claimed that he had been appointed Director of the Vienna State Opera in his stead. He was eventually removed to an asylum. The letters of this period describe plans to tour the world with his own operas. Delusions of grandeur were followed by periods of calm. He attempted to drown himself in the Traunsee. The final years of mental and physical suffering were alleviated by the regular visits of Melanie Köchert, to whom all his songs are dedicated. He died, horribly wasted and shrunken, in 1903, and was buried in the Central Cemetery beside Beethoven and Schubert.
Because Wolf never heard a complete performance of his Italienisches Liederbuch, no established performing tradition developed during his lifetime. In the years since his death, there have been several ways of performing this great work. Singers and pianists often concoct an entertaining order of their own, shuffling the songs in a dramatic way, so that lover replies to sweetheart and vice versa. Or the songs are grouped according to literary provenance: the poems from Tommaseo’s Canti popolari, Tigri’s Canti popolari Toscani, Marcoaldi’s Canti popolari inediti and Dalmedico’s Canti del popolo Veneziano being performed separately. Another possibility is to perform the songs in their order of composition – which means starting, not with Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken (9 December 1891) but with Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne (25 September 1890). But perhaps the best way is to perform the songs, as our singers have chosen to day, in the order that Wolf himself chose in the two volumes published during his lifetime: Part I in 1891 and Part II in 1896. The advantages are twofold: it creates a natural interval (crucial in a recital of 46 songs); and it allows us to see the stylistic differences, particularly in the piano writing, between the two books. Wolf told a friend, Edwin Mayser, that the second part of the Italienisches Liederbuch contained far more ‘absolute music’ than the first part, and that the accompaniments to many of the songs in Part II could be just as well played by a string quartet. The implication is that the accompaniments in Part I strive to depict the character of each poem through musical detail, whereas the accompaniments in Part II are more concerned with providing the songs with a complex polyphonic texture.
© Richard Stokes