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In ‘Michelangelo-Lieder,’ Hugo Wolf pondered fame AND futility

On Sunday afternoon, continuing a series surveying works of Felix Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolf, Emmanuel Music presents a concert including Wolf’s “Michelangelo-Lieder,” settings (in Walter Robert-Tornow’s German translation) of three of that Renaissance artist’s poems. Composed in the spring of 1897, they were the last songs Wolf completed; later that year, a massive mental breakdown signaled his descent into syphilitic insanity. He lingered until 1903, dying at 42. The 200-plus songs that anchor his reputation resulted from less than a decade of intense activity.

Inevitably, the “Michelangelo-Lieder” have been perused for hints of Wolf’s incipient madness. The second of the songs, the stark, fatalistic “Alles endet, was entstehet” (“Everything that exists, ends”), almost irresistibly seems to foreshadow Wolf’s crisis. (Wolf regarded the song as “the best I have yet knocked off.” Previous songs had been similarly judged. Wolf lived his life in superlatives, everything either apex or nadir.)

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But perhaps the more interesting subject of the “Michelangelo-Lieder” was one never far from Wolf’s mind: fame. The opening, “Wohl denk’ ich oft an mein vergangnes Leben” (“I often think of my past life”), is ostensibly a love song — his beloved’s devotion has inspired the narrator to illustrious heights — but a pointedly one-sided one, ending not with intimacy or tenderness, but rather a burst of self-importance, over an almost ironically-obvious fanfare: “Everyone knows that I am here.”

Wolf’s career aptly concluded a century in which renown and celebrity became forever entwined. He was initially derided by the musical establishment — Wolf’s years as a vitriolic music critic alienated too many potential champions. But a devoted cadre of friends and patrons formed Hugo Wolf Societies, mounted concerts, and otherwise kept his music before the public until his genius was recognized. The often impulsive Wolf nevertheless instinctively played the game, aiding the societies while keeping enough distance to create the sense of a grass-roots campaign. Single-mindedly devoted to music, Wolf nevertheless recognized fame as the new currency of success.

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The “Michelangelo-Lieder” rebukes such worldly esteem, the first song’s triumph answered by the second’s mortal futility, leading (in the third song, “Fühlt meine Seele”) to an ambiguous, unresolved longing for grace. But maybe Wolf himself never quite abandoned the notion of personal prestige as shield and portion. In his final years, his mind failing, Wolf would sometimes regard his diminished state and wonder what might have been, sighing, “If I were only Hugo Wolf.” Matthew Guerrieri

Emmanuel Music presents music of Mendelssohn and Wolf on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Parish Hall of Emmanuel Church,
Newbury Street. Tickets $30-$55;
www.emmanuelmusic.org.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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