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Why Hugo Wolf Went Insane

Why Hugo Wolf Went Insane

Why Hugo Wolf went insane is a story few people know. Wolf, Germany's greatest modern art-song composer, went insane and was thrown out of the Vienna Opera. Wolf was half insane most of his life, and died miserably in an asylum. 

Much like Mozart, Wolf became hopelessly ensnared in the politics of music, and lost hand after hand to lady luck and his own foolishness. A few instances serve to show the peculiar life and character of Hugo Wolf. Hugo was high-strung and very nervous.

Hugo Was A Modernist Composer

He had struck on the course of being a composer, and supported the modernist "school" of Liszt and Wagner, as opposed to the older, stodgy school represented by Brahms. The great master Brahms was generally considered to be the old-school inheritor of the mantle of the great Beethoven. He was much beloved in Vienna and by the Vienna Philharmonic musicians there. 

A bohemian like Schubert, Hugo lived by visiting one friend after another. He had no formal lodgings until the very last year of his life. He lived entirely on food parcels sent by his family. Later, Wolf got a prestigious job as a music critic for a major Viennese newspaper. But the position was the beginning of his undoing as a composer.

Hugo Made A Lot Of Enemies

Wolf approached the great composer Johannes Brahms. Wolf wanted to study composition with Brahms. Brahms, knowing of Wolf's affection for the modernists Wagner and Liszt, (the opposing "new school") brushed the young Wolf off with a vague suggestion that he study with one of Brahms' students. 

Wolf, enraged at not being accepted as a student by the master, used all his power as a critic in an attempt to destroy Brahms, a revenge he concentrated on for years with great venom. 

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Hugo Is Blacklisted

Some time later, Wolf proudly presented his orchestral music to the Vienna Philharmonic. He had somehow forgotten the fact that he had slandered the major composer of the Philharmonic, Brahms, for years. Most of the orchestra players had been insulted by Wolf's reviews over the years, and many were personal friends of Brahms. 

The Philharmonic committee rudely dismissed his symphony and told him in a curt note that he could find the "laughable" manuscript he had submitted with the doorman of the Opera House. So the furious Wolf hid away and composed his now-famous, gorgeous songs, sometimes two and three in a day in a foment of fevered inspiration. 

Two years before he died, he began work on a new opera. He worked like a madman and finished the piece in only fourteen weeks, thanks to his friends. They rented him the only real apartment he ever had so he could finish the great work. The opera had a premiere, but was a dismal failure.

The Slide Into Madness 

Wolf went mad the next year. Wolf thought that he was the Director of the Vienna Opera. His delusion included replacing legendary composer Gustav Mahler as the Vienna Opera conductor, a grand honor that existed only in Wolf's fragile mind.

Finally, he broke into the house of Hermann Winkelmann, a famous singer at the Vienna Opera and demanded that the fellow sing for him that very moment. Winkelmann called the police. They arrived in fancy dress so Wolf believed they were upper class guests, not guards ready to take him to the asylum. 

In life, Hugo Wolf was a disaster, but in posterity, his music remains that of a great master few have had the good luck to hear. And that is how a genius goes mad.


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