Hugo Wolf, a native of Windischgraz (now Slovenjgradec, Slovenia), in the Austro-Hungarian province of Styria, was born on March 13, 1860 and died on February 22, 1903, three weeks before his 43rd birthday -- like Schubert, German music's first great lieder composer, of tertiary syphilis. Like Schumann, the other great lieder composer (also syphilitic), Wolf died in an insane asylum after trying to drown himself in October 1898. (He had committed himself a year earlier, but was discharged after four months.) Also like Schumann, he composed in manic bursts between periods of depression, once the disease entered its second stage, and like two predecessors, was an unsuccessful composer of stage music.
Wolf completed only one opera, Der Corregidor (1895-1896), based on the same Spanish comedy Falla later used in The Three-Cornered Hat. Indifferently and with difficulty he also composed incidental music for two plays long forgotten. As a teenager, he began but never finished a violin concerto and two symphonies (in 1879 he lost the manuscript of a third symphony while traveling). His orchestral repertory amounts to Penthesilea (after Kleist; 1883-1885), a turbidly scored, Liszt-Wagnerian symphonic poem; Christnacht, a choral work both naive and sublime (1886-1889), and the Italian Serenade (a 1892 arrangement of his charming 1887 Serenade in G for String Quartet).
Despite haphazard education that ended in a series of expulsions, Wolf the lieder composer was possessed of (and by) a psychological insight that revealed as early as 1878 what poured forth later between arid stretches -- some 300 songs, the finest of them both emotionally penetrating and musically profound. Mörike, Goethe (the Mignon - Lieder are incomparable), Kleist, Lenau, and Heine were his favorite German poets, plus Eichendorff when Wolf reached the expressive summit in 1887. For three years prior he had been an outspoken critic -- the only job he ever held -- in Vienna's weekly Salonblatt. Pro-Wagner and anti-Brahms, he was as honest as Berlioz had been, and thus made powerful enemies who took revenge later on. Wolf habitually lived hand to mouth, supported by a circle of friends who provided shelter and sustenance for ten years, and finally in 1896 gave him his own apartment. By then, however, the disease had entered its third stage, and his mood swings alienated many who cared deeply. On September 19, 1897, he cracked -- blaming Mahler, his friend of 20 years and onetime roommate, of sabotaging Der Corregidor at the Hofoper.
In October 1889, Wolf had turned his attention from German poetry to translations of Spanish poets. Between Halloween and the following May, he composed 44 songs called the Spanish Songbook. Then, between September 1890 and December 1891, he composed 22 song translations comprising Part I of an Italian Songbook. Thereafter he didn't write a note of original music until March 1895, when he undertook Der Corregidor, completing all four acts in piano score within twelve weeks. After laboriously scoring it, he wrote twenty-four songs in isolation between 25 March and 30 April 1896 -- Part II of the Italian Songbook. He spent the next months revising Der Corregidor. After setting his last songs in March 1897, three somber sonnets by Michelangelo, Wolf worked tirelessly on another Spanish opera, Manuel Venegas, which amounted to 60 pages of piano score, before his breakdown. Following his death, he was buried alongside Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna's Central Cemetery, impoverished to the end but officially a cultural hero.