Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

telling tales

wild wolf

December 06, 2010

A composer is a person, not just a collection of music. When we think of composers as actual people who cried, laughed, slept, and ate, our picture of them tends to widen and deepen. A lot of program notes, at least the notes that I write, tie whatever particular piece is on the program with a time in the composer’s life. As in, “While Beethoven was composing this, he was spending time in Heiligenstadt, resting and coming to terms with his worsening deafness.” Or, “It was while Tchaikovsky was writing this work that his sham marriage fell apart.” One can’t rely too strongly on these connections, of course. They are merely for context. We can’t know how Beethoven felt when writing; we can’t calculate how much Tchaikovsky’s suffering affected his work. No matter how emotional a work is, it is simply impossible to know how or why such emotion became infused into it.

We program note writers suggest connections. “Perhaps,” we say, leaving you to draw the conclusion. As a musicologist, I’m always aware of what can be proven and what can only be argued. I would never claim in ink that a composer definitely felt a certain way while writing because I can’t prove that. But in my own heart, I muse that there must be connections. These are human beings, after all.

While writing the program notes for this concert, I was affected by the story of Golijov’s Last Round: A composer writes a tribute of sorts to his dying mentor. I was also struck by the circumstances of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade. Many years ago, as an undergraduate student in vocal performance, I was interested in Wolf’s orchestral Lieder. They were beyond my ability at the time, and certainly hard to program (does anyone have an orchestra lying around?). But to me, the most fascinating thing about Wolf was his wild emotional nature—he was actually known by the nickname “Wild Wolf“—and his wild emotional music. Even as a young man he experienced terrible mood swings and depression, and his musical output depended greatly on his state of mind.

Wolf’s volatile temperament was further exacerbated by late-stage syphilis. Before he was even forty-years old, he was institutionalized. The most heart-breaking aspect of Wolf’s decline into madness was the genius he showed—if only in flashes—in his mature style. He had great potential, but he was tortured by depression and despondency. Before he slipped away from sanity, he tried to finish an opera. He wrote sixty pages of music. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine knowing that your mind is going and wanting desperately to finish one last work? This poor, brilliant human being, Hugo Wolf. He was real. He was flesh and blood, he was passionate emotion. He was difficult to be around, at times. Wild Wolf wrote wild music, chromatic, rhythmically dynamic, and alive. “Perhaps,” I say, it was his mood swings that allowed such passionate music. Perhaps, it was his depression that allowed him to reveal so much raw emotion. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Listen to the music and decide for yourself.

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