Why Hugo Wolf went insane is a story few people know.
Wolf, Germany’s greatest modern art-song composer, went insane and was thrown out of the Vienna Opera.
Wolf was half insane most of his life, and died miserably in an asylum.
Much like Mozart, Wolf became hopelessly ensnared in the politics of music, and lost hand after hand to lady luck and his own foolishness.
A few instances serve to show the peculiar life and character of Hugo Wolf.
Hugo was high-strung and very nervous.
He had struck on the course of being a composer, and supported the modernist “school” of Liszt and Wagner, as opposed to the older, stodgy school represented by Brahms.
The great master Brahms was generally considered to be the old-school inheritor of the mantle of the great Beethoven, and much beloved in Vienna and by the Vienna Philharmonic musicians there.
A bohemian like Schubert, Hugo lived by visiting one friend after another and had no formal lodgings until the very last year of his life. He lived entirely on food parcels sent by his family.
Later, Wolf got a prestigious job as a music critic for a major Viennese newspaper. But the position was the beginning of his undoing as a composer.
At about the same time, Wolf approached the great composer Johannes Brahms and asked to be taught composition by the great master.
Brahms, knowing of Wolf’s affection for the modernists Wagner and Liszt, (the opposing “new school”) brushed the young Wolf off with a vague suggestion that he study with one of Brahms’ students.
Wolf, enraged at not being accepted as a student by the master, used all his power as a critic in an attempt to destroy Brahms, a revenge he concentrated on for years with great venom.
But his brutal criticism of Brahms backfired when Wolf presented his orchestral music to be played by the Vienna Philharmonic. Most of the orchestra players had been insulted by Wolf’s reviews over the years, and many were personal friends of Brahms.
The Philharmonic committee dismissed his symphony and told him in a curt note that he could find the manuscript he had submitted with the doorman of the Opera House, a terrible insult meant to humiliate Wolf.
And Brahms wasn’t the only music legend Wolf insulted. Many musicians had been attacked by Wolf in his column, most for petty personal reasons on Wolf’s part.
So Wolf hid away and composed his now-famous, gorgeous songs, sometimes two and three in a day in a foment of fevered inspiration.
Two years before he died, he began work on a new opera. He worked like a madman and finished the piece in only fourteen weeks, thanks to his friends who rented him the only real apartment he ever had so he could finish the great work.
The opera had a premiere, but was a dismal failure.
Wolf went mad the next year.
Wolf, in his final madness, believed that he had been appointed Director of the Vienna Opera, replacing legendary composer Gustav Mahler, a grand honor that existed only in Wolf’s mind.
Finally, he broke into the house of Hermann Winkelmann, a famous singer at the opera and demanded that the fellow sing for him that very moment. Winkelmann slinked away and called the police, who arrived in fancy dress so that Wolf would believe they were upper class guests, not guards ready to take him to the asylum.
In life, Hugo Wolf was a disaster, but in posterity, his music remains that of a great master few have had the good luck to hear.
Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press