Who was Hugo Wolf?

Illustrator Moritz Mayerhofer
traces the life
of Hugo Wolf.

A lively story.

Where was Hugo Wolf born?

Hugo Wolf was born on 13 March 1860 in Windischgrätz/Styria (today: Slovenj Gradec/Slovenia) into a middle-class and (initially) quite wealthy family. He was the second son of master leather worker Philipp Wolf (1828-1887) and his wife Katharina (1824-1903), who had a total of eight children: five girls, two of whom died in infancy, and three boys.

Philipp's father was the third generation to run the leather company with great success, so that the family led an idyllic family life in moderate prosperity, although this was overshadowed by a catastrophic fire that destroyed most of the house, the workshop and the storerooms in 1867. After this, Philipp Wolf was no longer able to build on the wealth and possessions of earlier times.

Hugo Wolf's parents' house is located at 40 Main Square in Slovenj Gradec and has housed the Hugo Wolf Museum since 2010 (

Does Hugo come from a family of musicians?

Even though Wolf did not grow up in a musical household - his father Philipp Wolf was a master leatherworker and ran a leather business - his parents were certainly musically well-educated. His father introduced his children to music at an early age, played various instruments himself and played in private ensembles. At the age of five, Hugo received piano and violin lessons from his father.


However, in Philipp Wolf's eyes, music was purely a private pleasure; he had no plans for any of his children to become professional musicians - on the contrary. He tried to dissuade his second-born son from this course and later saw his attitude towards the music profession confirmed when recognition of Wolf's work was slow in coming and financial success failed to materialize.

Hugo's musician's wish

However, Hugo Wolf was apparently already determined to pursue a career as a musician at the age of six (allegedly after his first major performance as a child prodigy in a Mozart costume at the 1866 carnival) - against the express wishes of his father, who in retrospect was not particularly happy with the development of any of his children.

On 24 December 1879, he wrote to Hugo: "When I now review my children, it turns out that Modesta is badly married, Gilbert is as bad a leatherworker as Max is an ignorant merchant, and finally you [Hugo] have left the 4th class to seek the most uncertain of existences."

But Hugo Wolf's desire to become a musician was so strong, his decision so immovable, that at the age of 15, on 29 June 1875, he wrote to his sceptical father: "For me, music is like eating and drinking."


Hugo's role model

Like so many composers of his time, Hugo Wolf had fallen under the spell of Richard Wagner and his music. In November 1875, a truly formative and incisive event occurred in Wolf's life: He met the revered master in person in Vienna, which he described exuberantly and truly glowing with enthusiasm and awe in letters to his parents - as well as his very first encounter with the music of his idol.

As much as the young aspiring composer admired and emulated his great role model, it was also difficult for him to emancipate himself musically from him and find his own style. "What is left for me to do? He has left me no room," Wolf stated in consternation in a letter to Melanie Köchert in 1882. Like Wagner, Wolf was also known to aspire to grand opera. That was what he actually wanted to compose. But he was not successful in this field. Only one opera and one opera fragment belong to Wolf's oeuvre. His true vocation was the small form, the Lied, which Wolf mastered to perfection - and which was perhaps his answer to the outsized idol Richard Wagner.

Why was Hugo expelled from the conservatory?

Hugo decided to become a musician as a child - against his father's express wishes. His desire to become a musician was so strong that he had to change schools several times, as he apparently only had music on his mind and less school discipline. However, his rebellious, quick-tempered nature may also have contributed to this.


Despite various disputes with his father, who was highly skeptical of his son's professional ambitions, the 15-year-old began studying music at the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. However, this was not to last long: Wolf, who soon found the teaching methods there too conservative and outdated - not least due to his acquaintance with the music of Richard Wagner (and a personal encounter with the idolized genius) - declared to the director of the conservatory even before completing his second year of study that he would leave the conservatory, where he had "forgotten more than he had learned". This led to Wolf's expulsion from the conservatory "for indiscipline" in 1877.


Hugo's removals

After failing to attend the conservatory, his father stopped paying his son regularly. From then on, he was to lead the free life of a "romantic" artist - in constant need of money and without an apartment of his own until 1896 (!!). For almost 20 years, Wolf wandered back and forth between various residences - well over 30 different addresses could be mentioned here. Most of these were apartments or houses belonging to friends who invited Wolf to stay with them for a while.


It was not until July 1896, at the age of 36, that Wolf moved into his own apartment for the first time in his life - in Vienna at Schwindgasse 3. Once again, this was only made possible with the help of his friends, above all his Stuttgart patron, the lawyer Hugo Faißt.


Hugo Wolf wrote to his friend Hugo Faißt in Stuttgart on 1 July 1896: "I now live here like a king and rejoice in my existence. It is the first time in my life that I have my own home. Only someone who, like me, has led a nomadic existence for half a lifetime can appreciate how grateful I feel for this blessing. So at last I have settled down, "in the real country, in the homeland, in my own pasture and bliss" as Kurwenal sings. From the walls of my study I am greeted by my precious (in every sense of the word precious) books, which I have missed so painfully. My old Bösendorfer, which languished for years in the piano factory, covered in dust, roars and blares like a trombone when I start playing. [...] Let me kiss and hug you, you dear good man, friend, brother and comrade. I can only exclaim with Florestan: You will be rewarded in better worlds."

Hugo's friends

Friends played an enormously important role for Hugo Wolf throughout his life; after all, it was always friends and close acquaintances who supported him, who himself remained without a family, in all situations in life - financially, by providing him with accommodation and also in musical terms.The conductor and composer Felix Mottl (1856-1911) and the composer Adalbert Goldschmidt (1848-1906) were among the closest circle of friends during his years in Vienna - both supported Wolf in his musical development. He maintained a lifelong relationship with the families of Maria Werner (1845-1914) and Heinrich Köchert (1854-1908), who repeatedly provided him with accommodation in Vienna and took a lively interest in his personal fate.


Socially, Wolf benefited from his friendship with the journalist Gustav Schönaich (1840-1906), who had good connections in Viennese musical and social life. From 1894, he had a close friendship with the Stuttgart lawyer and Wolf admirer Hugo Faißt (1862-1914). Faißt not only founded the Stuttgart Hugo Wolf Society in 1898, but also supported the composer financially until his death.

Making a living from music

After prematurely dropping out of his music studies, Hugo Wolf found himself in a precarious financial situation. His father had stopped giving him regular financial support out of disappointment, and from then on he was saved from destitution by friends who supported him in various ways. Years of nomadic existence followed, during which he moved from one generously provided accommodation to the next. Although some of his now musically mature compositions were published from 1889 onwards, Wolf's hot temper and uncompromising streak only led to mediocre success. Tough contract negotiations, frequent changes of publisher and financially unprofitable publications were the result. In short, there was not enough money for an economically independent life as a composer.


In order to keep his head above water, Hugo Wolf accepted a position as répétiteur, choir director and assistant to the conductor Karl Muck at the Salzburg State Theater in 1881 - without having any relevant training, mind you. After a successful initial phase, however, Wolf fell out with the orchestra and Karl Muck in January 1882 to such an extent that "a fierce exchange of words between me and the director [...] led to both parties resigning" (letter to his father dated 4 January 1882). "The theater here is more a school of intrigue than a school of art," he writes further in this letter. "[...] From the 16th onwards, I no longer belong to this mess." Wolf was once again without a job.


After his return to Vienna, he wrote further compositions and more or less kept his head above water by teaching (mainly piano, but also violin and singing). He held a job as a music critic for the Viennese Salonblatt, which a friend had arranged for him, for three years from 1884 to 1887, before he also ended this activity at his own request. Wolf simply could not reconcile composing with reviewing - he wrote just four songs in the years 1884 to 1886.

To be continued