September 25, 2016: Escher String Quartet
Hugo Wolf is known primarily as a composer of nearly 350 art songs, as a champion of Wagner and disparager of Brahms, and as a man who spent the last years of his short life in agonizing insanity. Though Wolf faced many spells when his creative powers failed him, he also experienced great bursts of creativity. The Serenade in G major—he later called it “an Italian Serenade” in an 1892 letter to Emil Kauffmann—was composed in just such a burst, from May 2–4, 1887, in the midst of a larger creative surge during which he was immersed in setting Eichendorff poems.
Wolf’s Eichendorff phase played an important role in the Serenade’s conception. The one-movement work relates thematically to the first of the Eichendorff songs “Der Soldat I,” of which the text concerns a soldier’s love for a lady who lives in a castle. The same subject matter appears in Eichendorff’s novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (Memoirs of a good-for-nothing) in which an Italian serenade figures prominently in the plot. The hero, who leaves home to seek his fortune, is a violinist, which might explain the importance of the solo violin in the quartet version of Wolf’s Serenade. At one point in the novella an orchestra plays a serenade, which may have inspired Wolf’s eventual arrangement for small orchestra (1892).
As he was rescoring the Italian Serenade for orchestra, Wolf clearly had in mind a four-movement work, but attempts in 1893, 1894, and 1897, remained sketches. That he considered the existing one-movement work as a first movement speaks volumes about his approach to form. He made it perfectly obvious, especially as a critic for the Wiener Salonblatt, that he detested absolute music and any sort of academic technique—fugue, pedal points—that first movements inevitably contained. Therefore, instead of following a typical abstract sonata form, he relied on a form that implied some sort of program or narrative, though he never actually specified one. His free rondo form and recitative-like passages create such an effect.
The Italian Serenade leaves the overall impression of playful irony, in part because of its saucy main theme, which returns often enough to overrule any lovesick outburst. In one episode the cello plays an impassioned recitative, which is clearly mocked by the response of the other instruments. At the end Wolf brings back the repeated notes of the introduction, with pizzicato chords providing a last bit of wit.
© Jane Vial Jaffe