Hugo Wolf, Italian Serenade

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)

Italian Serenade in G major (for string quartet), 1887

Hugo WolfHugo Wolf was an elusive figure remembered primarily for his masterful lieder, his trenchant criticism of Brahms and his eventual decay into dissolution and madness. He was a fierce disciple of Wagner and the “new” German school and can be regarded as a late Viennese Romantic before the turning of the tide with Schoenberg after Wolf’s death. Leaving only a few works for small ensemble, his lone and rarely performed string quartet in D minor is the closest thing we have to Wagnerian or even Mahlerian chamber music. Wolf also penned a two single movement works for string quartet, a substantial Intermezzo and his one “outlier”, the celebrated Italian Serenade. Completed in 1886, the Italian Serenade occupied Wolf for some time with the word “Italian” added to the simple title Serenade only in later revisions. Nonetheless, the predominantly buoyant music, tuneful, colorful and rhythmically animated, seems to naturally support free associations with things Italian if not in some way enhanced by association with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence written only a few years after Wolf’s musical postcard. A lithely ornamented melody warbles to the evocation of strumming guitars with a strong penchant for dance if not even a suggestion of operatic comedy.

The word serenade historically implies music of honor, tribute or amorous entreaty, music that is calm, “light” and suitable for relaxed social evenings. Music that entertains and possibly dazzles with delight. Wolf’s bright serenade largely conforms to this character. But there is more than just this in the music. The rhythmic and occasionally contrapuntal writing is skillful and meticulous with a rich variety of textures weaving throughout. The music develops into a sharply articulated adventure with a bit more intrigue one might expect of a little “night music.” Wolf’s late Viennese Romantic sensibilities emerge in the middle as the texture dramatically falls apart into dissonant recitative, a kind of expressionistic call and response accompanied by disorienting swirls, mocking echoes, parody and a brief touch of the macabre. But it seems entirely consonant with an Italian evening, particularly the wild intrigue of a psychedelic Venetian carnival. And just like a group of masked figures that approach, pass and disappear into the night, the intrigue evaporates and the music resumes its giddy serenade.

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