Hugo Wolf’s short but fruitful career has left an indelible impression on the lied tradition, yet little scholarly attention has been given to the songs left unpublished during his lifetime. Thirty-six of these songs, chosen from over one hundred that exist in sketches or manuscript form, were published by the Vienna Musikwissenschaftlicher Verlag in 1936. The fourth and final volume of the posthumously published lieder includes a set of songs to the poetry of Robert Reinick that Wolf distinctly numbered 1-6 in the autograph score. Letters between Wolf and his father dated from this period describe the rejection of a group of his songs by several music publishing houses. Owing to the content of the letters and the time frame in which they were written, there is a strong possibility that the songs he attempted to publish were the Reinick songs.
Regardless of whether or not Wolf intended to publish this set of Reinick-Lieder, analysis shows their importance in understanding his compositional process. Wolf purposefully sought to bring the lied to new heights through drama, which stemmed from his allegiance to Wagner and the New German School. He was able to accomplish this goal through a close reading of the poetry he chose, leading to ambiguities in tonality and form, frequent changes in tempo and dynamics, and the continuous development of thematic material. Although these features also characterize Wolf’s later work, their presence here indicates that Wolf had already been using “mature” techniques prior to 1888. The Reinick songs also reveal that Wolf’s style developed through the experimentation and extension of inherited lied traditions, which were primarily transmitted to him through the works of Schubert and Schumann. By altering the techniques of the masters, he simultaneously acknowledged their influence and challenged their authority.
Wolf’s work from 1888 and beyond is often regarded as “mature”; however, this term does not adequately describe the difference between those works and the ones that he had composed before that year. The Reinick songs already incorporate aspects Wolf carried into his later work, such as motifs and chromaticism, but also major differences, such as musical framing of stanzas with repeated piano material and the elimination or repetition of text. A better method of measuring Wolf’s maturity is by his level of confidence and facility. In the Reinick songs Wolf was confident and mature in control over mechanics, although he remained self-conscious regarding matters of style and reliance upon his models. This self-consciousness is most clearly seen in his choice of text and the emendations to his manuscript.
The Reinick songs offer a new and earlier perspective on Wolf’s compositional growth. They show that he had already started developing his signature techniques well before his songs were first published in 1888. At the same time, they evidence his conscious effort to break away from his models. In essence, the Reinick songs represent Wolf’s effort to achieve compositional independence.