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Liebesfreud: Music

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903); "Italian Serenade" (1887)

German literature of what may loosely be called the Romantic period is a subject on which I can claim to be an ignorant dilettante. Still, even within the confines of my ignorance, it is striking to see how a recurrent strain of longing for "the South"-- Italy and/or Spain-- emerges. From Goethe in Wilhelm Meister (1795)-- Mignon's desperately nostalgic "Do you know the land where the citruses bloom..." crystallizes the phenomenon-- to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1908), there are frequent reminders of this Northern European hunger for warmth, color, vivid sights and scents, physical beauty and grace, the gift of sensuous enjoyment...qualities associated with life closer to the equator. When Nietzsche renounced Wagner, he rebounded into the arms of Bizet’s Carmen (“music must be Mediterraneanized!” he wrote—in French!) and in The Wagner Issue (1888) there is a mash note to his new love:
[The music] approaches lightly, lithely, politely. It is amiable, it does not sweat. ‘The good is easy, everything godlike runs on light feet’: first proposition of my aesthetics. This music is wicked, cunning, fatalistic: it remains at the same time popular…It is rich. It is precise. It constructs, organizes, finishes: it is therewith the antithesis of the polyp of music, ‘endless melody.’

While the quote is paraded in support of my so-called observation, it may just as well serve as a description of the “Italian Serenade.”

Three compositions for string quartet—the “Serenade,” an almost equally magical “Intermezzo,” and a large, aspiring four-movement work—are Wolf’s only mature achievements which do not involve either setting or illuminating a text. His obsession with poetry and his preternatural sensitivity to its nuances resulted in upwards of three hundred uniquely distilled, intense, perfect songs—written in bursts of feverish creative exuberance separated by months-long, paralyzing depressions. Wolf went mad before he could renounce Wagner, but the “Italian…” and “Spanish Songbook[s]”—eighty (!) songs set to German translations of lately anonymous poets from that part of the world- provide plenty of evidence that he too felt the pull of Nietzsche’s “Mediterraneanizing” impulse So does the “Italian Serenade.” Although there is no text, I think it is permissible to assume a scenario of some kind: the “tuning up” passages at either end, and the “recitatives” in the middle, are highly suggestive. Above all, however, it is a musical conception, completely assured in its own supremely natural shape. All I can add to Nietzsche’s obligingly pre-packaged program note is my own amazement at the absence of anything routine in the music. Every chord, progression, gesture, rhythm, voice-leading detail, is newly imagined. This music should come with a warning: Gazing directly at genius when it blazes so intensely entails risk; it must be handled—if at all—with humility.