Hugo Wolf

Hugo Philipp Jacob Wolf was a German composer who took the art of Song (or Lieder in German) to new heights. He was born on 13th March 1860 in Windischgratz in modern Slovenia and died on 22nd February 1903 in Vienna, Austria aged 42.

Major Works

“Der Corregidor” (1895)
Goethe-Lieder” (1889)
“Dem Vaterland” (1890) 
“Spanisches Liederbuch” (1891)
“Italienisches Liederbuch” (1892, 1896)

Biography Timeline

Hugo Wolf was born on 13th March 1860, in Windischgraz, Austria. His father taught him how to play the piano and violin at the age of four and later he was taught music theory and piano by  Sebastian Weixler. He was expelled from his first secondary school and described was as “wholly inadequate”. He left the second himself after not being able to do Latin and falling out with his tutors.

1875: Much to his father’s disappointment he goes to the Vienna Conservatory but is again expelled due to his outspoken criticism of his teachers. He meets Richard Wagner who encourages him. He becomes a music teacher but is not suited to the task, however several benefactors enable him to survive and carry on composing. He falls in love with Valentine Franck and they are together for three years. 

1878: He composes “Liederstrauß” to texts by Heinrich Heine.

1879: He meets Johannes Brahms who encourages him to broaden his musical interests. He also becomes a friend of Gustav Mahler. Around this time, he contracts syphilis which will ultimately take his mind and kill him.

1881: When Valentine leaves him just before his twenty first birthday, he is distraught. He returns home, although relations with his father are poor who feels he will never make anything of himself. He has a brief spell as second Kapellmeister in Salzburg but is not suited to conducting the repertoire there and leaves in less than a year. 

1883: He becomes the music critic of the “Wiener Salonblatt” newspaper providing weekly reviews. Richard Wagner’s death in February affects him deeply and he composes the song “Zur Ruh, Zur Ruh” which is thought to be an elegy. He begins work on the Symphonic Poem “Penthesilea” based on Heinrich von Kelist’s play. The premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter was not a success as the orchestra hated the fact that he had criticised Brahms in his columns.

1884: He falls in love with Melanie Köchert who is married to his friend Heinrich Köchert.

1887: He gives up his job as a critic and begins composing once more. He composes more Lieder and the one movement “Italian Serenade” for string quartet. His father dies leaving him bereft and he cannot compose for the rest of the year.

1888: He composes ‘Mörike-Liede” , 53 songs to poems by Eduard Morike whilst on holiday in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna.

1889: He composes “Eichendorff-Lieder” and 51 Lieder to words by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

1890: He composes “Dem Vaterland” (The Fatherland) to words by Robert Reinick, the painter and poet.

1891: He begins work on the “Spanisches Liederbuch” to poems by Paulk Heyse and Emanuel Geibel and begins the “Italienisches Liederbuch”. His mental health takes a turn for the worse at the end of the year which stops him from composing. Meanwhile his works are performed widely even gaining favourable reviews from Johannes Brahms himself.

1892: He orchestrates the “Italian Serenade”.

1893: Heinrich Köchert discovers his affair with his wife but remains Wolf’s patron and Melanie’s husband.

1896: He completes the “Italienisches Liederbuch”.

1895: He composes the opera (The Spanish Official). 

1896: “Der Corregidor” is a failure at its premiere in Mannheim, Germany.

1897: He holds his last concert appearance in February and composes “Michelangelo Lieder” to texts by Michelangelo Buonarroti in March. He begins work on his next opera “Manuel Venegas” but this is never completed. He then loses his mind after a bad review from Gustav Mahler but this is more likely the effect of the syphilis and he is confined to a mental institution.

1898: He is temporarily discharged but tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. In October he asked to be put in the asylum in Vienna. Melanie visits him until his death but her unfaithfulness torments her and she kills herself in 1906. 

Hugo Wolf died on 22nd February 1903 in Vienna, Austria and is buried in the Zentralfreidhof (Central Cemetery) in the city. On the same day a revised “Der Corregidor” was produced at Strasbourg, France.


Wolf’s greatest musical influence was Richard Wagner whom he met whilst a student at the Vienna Conservatory and who encouraged him to work on a larger scale. Although a contemporary of Johannes Brahms he disliked his music as he saw him as an arch rival to Wagner. Of earlier composers he owes some debt to Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt.

Englebert Humperdinck was an enthusiastic admirer of Wolf and the two became friends. He was particularly impressed by the way Wolf had removed the tight strictures of previous German Song writing and introduced a new tonality full of chromaticism and dissonance to give meaning to a particular text.

Further Information

List of works by Hugo Wolf.

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