Measure by Measure

Making Art at Three A.M.

Hugo Wolf and insomnia

By Sudip Bose | June 15, 2017
A photograph of Hugo Wolf (Wikimedia Commons)
A photograph of Hugo Wolf (Wikimedia Commons)


There was a time, for a period of a year or two, when I found myself unable to fall asleep on Sunday nights. No matter what time I would go to bed, I’d lie awake, usually until four in the morning, feeling the anxiety mounting in waves, stealing ever more frequent glances at the alarm clock as the hours ticked away. This condition, I realize, is hardly unusual. What seemed odd was the regularity with which my insomnia occurred—always on a Sunday, and this at a time in my life when I was perfectly happy in my job, feeling not the slightest dread for the work week to come. Eventually, I would nod off, but even the knowledge, gained from experience, that I could function the next day with only a couple of hours of sleep brought no solace during the night. I always experienced the recurring panic as if for the first time.

In vain I would get up, watch TV, drink a few shots in quick succession, do pushups. Nothing worked. At least I never resorted to soaking my bed in camphor—which apparently did the trick for Vincent van Gogh, though it might well have led to his death. I always wondered if I should have simply accepted my sleeplessness and committed those hours to work, as Vladimir Nabokov, Walt Whitman, and Marcel Proust did when they couldn’t sleep. (That Proust was an insomniac should come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to read the first 50 pages of Swann’s Way.) This weekend, while dipping into Eric Sams’s brilliant study of Hugo Wolf’s lieder (The Songs of Hugo Wolf, first published in 1961 and reissued several times thereafter), I learned that the Austrian composer was another creative figure who translated his nighttime restiveness into art.

Wolf is known today mainly for his songs. He wrote more than 200 lieder, some of the loveliest in the repertoire—atmospheric, evocative, harmonically rich, revealing a mastery of counterpoint, melody, tone color, and rhythm. This body of work, however, came about through unusual circumstances. Wolf was born in 1860 and died in 1903, but he wrote nearly all of his songs between the years 1888 and 1891, and then only in heated creative spurts, sometimes composing up to three of them a day when the inspiration hit. Wolf was deeply influenced by Richard Wagner—indeed, he took those vast panoramas of Wagnerian music drama and distilled them into short, poetic works for voice and piano. Few composers were as sensitive to the contours of lyric verse, able so deftly to give musical expression to every shade of meaning, every image, every shift in rhythm and pace in a poem. Wolf’s genius, Sams writes, “lay in the creation of melodic ideas, whether in transient intervals or long lines, that are not only appealing or beautiful in themselves but serve to match and enhance the meaning and emotive power of words, to conduct a current of poetic feeling.”

So what are we to make of Wolf’s persistent insomnia? Beginning in his teenage years, it turns out, Wolf suffered periods of intense depression, caused in part by his feelings of inadequacy as an artist but due largely to the angst associated with a syphilitic condition. His mood veered from ecstasy to despondency, and when depressed, he was unable to compose anything; thus the brief but febrile creative bursts. To make matters worse, he fell in love with a woman named Melanie Köchert, the wife of his friend and patron Heinrich, and may have commenced an affair with her in 1884. Heinrich Köchert did not learn of the relationship until nearly a decade later, but Wolf’s days as a productive composer were nearly over by then. He completed his last piece in 1898, then descended into a spell of syphilitic mental illness. He frantically tried to finish an opera he had begun, but it was not meant to be. After a suicide attempt, Wolf had himself committed to an asylum, where he spent his final days.

In The Songs of Hugo Wolf, Sams identifies 40 musical motifs that run through the composer’s lieder—for example, adoration, longing, childishness, freedom, gaiety, serenity, euphoria. The night and wakefulness motif, Sams writes, is assigned to the pianist, and it consists of a repeated figure of triplets or eighth notes in the right hand and a vagrant melody in the left. The motif “occurs infrequently but so characteristically as perhaps to exemplify a deep interconnection between Wolf’s creative inspiration and his personal experience [of insomnia].” The motif can be heard in one of my favorite Wolf songs, Lied eines Verliebten (A Lover’s Song), written on March 14, 1888, during one of those frenzied creative periods when he was immersed in the poetry of Edward Mörike. Wolf felt a deep affinity for Mörike (1804–75), who wrote some of the most enduring poems in the German language while enduring wild mood swings himself. Here is a translation of Mörike’s Lied eines Verliebten:

In the dark hours, oh, long before dawn,
My heart wakes me to think of you,
Though healthy youth would wish to sleep.

My eyes are still bright at midnight,
Brighter than early matin bells:
When would you ever have thought of me, even by day?

If I were a fisherman I’d get up,
Carry my net down to the river,
Take the fish to market with a glad heart.

In the mill at first light the miller’s lad
Is bustling about; all the machinery is clattering.
Such busy activity would be just right for me!

Alas! But I, poor wretch,
Must lie idly grieving on my bed,
Thinking of an unbiddable little girl.

From the start, the musical atmosphere is dark and mysterious, the feeling of unease established in an eight-bar piano introduction, with a rising line made up of short, increasingly anxious, phrases—a series of questions with no apparent answer. The singer enters, but not on the downbeat, and so a pattern is set: piano and voice will never really be in sync in this song, other than during a few moments of solidarity. They represent two narrative strands distinct and apart, unfolding in different ways via counterpoint, one line rising, the other falling, communicating a desperate sense of loneliness and isolation. The semitones, the gentle chromaticism, in the second stanza help to accentuate the general unease, with the mood changing in the penultimate stanza: smooth and fluid until this point, the musical line becomes clipped, the rhythms more urgent—how will the lovesick speaker ever fall asleep now? And lest there be any resolution of this despair at the end, Wolf deploys a lovely harmonic device, concluding the piano coda not on the home key of B minor, but on the dominant, F sharp—an ambiguous harmony that always unsettles my ear, tinged as it is with eternal false hope.

I have lovely recordings of Lied eines Verliebten by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (from a 1955 radio broadcast) and Herbert Janssen (accompanied by the incomparable Gerald Moore). Once on the verge of obscurity, Wolf now has many present-day champions, such as Ian Bostridge, a sensitive and moving interpreter of the composer’s songs, his version of Lied eines Verliebten as impressive as those of his illustrious predecessors. Listen to Wolf’s Mörike Songs and Goethe Songs, his Spanish Songbook and Italian Songbook, and you will hear lieder every bit the equal of Franz Schubert’s or Robert Schumann’s. You just might concur with Bostridge’s judgment that Hugo Wolf, that most tragic of artists, “composed songs like one possessed.”

Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore perform Lied eines Verliebten, in a recording made in 1957:

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