Wonderful composer--all choral conductors should know his Sechs Geistliche Lieder. The Doblinger edition is the best one to get. They're quite challenging, but definitely rewarding for a good choir!
A Lifetime Dedicated to Dear Lieder
Wolf's comparative obscurity should not belie his importance, though when it comes to his legacy the two are connected. Wolf achieved greatness by composing lieder, or German art songs. But unlike Schubert and Schumann, on whose efforts in the form he expanded, Wolf composed little else of note, aside from his brisk "Italian Serenade" and lilting "Intermezzo," both for string quartet. His other scores—including one completed opera and some orchestral works—hold little interest.
Alas, art song, with its delicate marriage of poetry and music, has never enjoyed mass appeal. It ostensibly lacks the brawn of symphonic works or the over-the-top drama of opera. But Wolf scaled new heights in this genre by communicating expansive feelings so effectively that one doesn't notice the compressed form—or rather, one appreciates his achievement all the more because of it.
Despite dying of syphilis shortly before he turned 43, in 1903, Wolf composed some 300 songs, the best of them settings of poems by the German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Joseph von Eichendorff and Eduard Mörike. Though Wolf's lieder may lack the immediate tunefulness that characterizes so many of Schubert's songs—and plenty of Schumann's, too—the compatibility of his music and the poetry he chose to set more than compensates. (Schubert, by contrast, sometimes lavished his great melodic gifts on inferior verse.)
Many of Wolf's songs deal with love, yearning and despair—typical subjects for lieder. But despite the composer's own earnestness, not everything he wrote was as severe as his three "Harfenspieler" ("Harp-player") lieder, anguished laments based on poetry by Goethe. His setting of Eichendorff's "Der Musikant" ("The Wandering Minstrel"), by contrast, reveals a deep appreciation for charm. And he had a sense of humor, too, as is vividly displayed in his treatments of two Mörike poems: "Zur Warnung" ("As a Warning"), about the effects of a hangover, and "Abschied" ("Leave-Taking"), a decidedly joyous depiction of a critic tumbling down stairs. He even dabbled in magic- realism—with Mörike's "Storchenbotschaft" ("Stork Messengers"), in which a pair of storks inform a surprised shepherd that he's been doubly blessed.
Wolf got his first and most important boost into the mass market in 1931, when the English record company HMV released the first of six volumes in a subscription series called "The Hugo Wolf Society." These 78rpm discs were prized at the time for the caliber of the participating artists—headlined by the mezzo-soprano and lieder specialist Elena Gerhardt—and the passing of years has only burnished their reputation. (They were subsequently released on LP in 1981 and on CD in 1998.)
But the posthumous attention for Wolf that these recordings established can be counted among the many casualties of World War II, and it wasn't until 1953 that the composer re-emerged in the public consciousness. That year, the 50th anniversary of Wolf's death, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf —soon to be the wife of Walter Legge, who had produced all the Wolf Society recordings—revived the Liederabend at the annual Salzburg Festival, where she devoted her entire program to Wolf's music, with no less than the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler accompanying her at the piano.
Wolf's sesquicentennial has not prompted celebrations of that caliber, though some attention has been paid. While iterations of the seminal Wolf Society recordings are now available only secondhand, EMI (the custodian of those recordings) did at least recently issue an eight-CD set titled "Hugo Wolf: The Anniversary Edition," featuring such venerable interpreters as Schwarzkopf and the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as artists of more recent vintage like the mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Ottter and the tenor Ian Bostridge. And Deutsche Grammophon has done the composer a service by reissuing, on six CDs, the set of 175 Wolf songs that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau recorded with the pianist Daniel Barenboim in the mid-1970s. There have even been a handful of live events to honor the anniversary—including a celebration in Baltimore that featured the bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, the Wolf scholar Susan Youens and the critic Anne Midgette.
Such relatively muted tributes are unlikely to ignite a Wolf revival on par with what's come before, but it's heartening to observe that there are still music lovers who find this composer's legacy worth celebrating. Of course Wolf's appeal was always limited and is likely to remain so. Or perhaps it's better to say that those wishing to discover and then savor this composer's genius have always had to make an effort. If so, such work is richly repaid with a trove of songs that stand at the summit of their art.
Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.