La Scapigliata - Leonardo da Vinci
La Scapigliata - L. da Vinci
I love Wolf very much and, however, I don't often talk about him! Maybe I get carried away by his reputation as "difficult", as if we had not heard more “difficult” composers than him. Wolf is so original and so different from his contemporaries and neighbours Brahms and Mahler, not to mention Strauss, that his songs could sound peculiar the first time we listen to them. But, if we insist just a little, the prize is great; the sentence “to know him is to love him” becomes true when talking about Wolf and when talking about the work I'm introducing today (a promise that I made last summer). Because the Italienisches Liederbuch is a wonderful collection of songs.

This cycle has its origins in Paul Heyse, philologist, translator of Romance languages and writer, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1910. In 1852 (he was then twenty-two), he travelled round Italy thanks to a research grant, and in 1860, he published a songbook, the Italienisches Liederbuch, with translations of some hundred and fifty poems and folk songs he had collected, mostly in Tuscany. Thirty years later, in 1890, Hugo Wolf selected thirty-three of those poems to compose a song cycle. Thus, he could study throughtly folks poems, the spring of that year he had ended the Spanisches Liederbuch, with songs written from the songbook published in 1852 by Heyse and Emanuel Geibel.

On September 25th, 1890 Wolf wrote his first Italian song; the last one was written on April 30th, 1896. Yes, you read that right, it took him five and a half years to write the forty-six lieder that the cycle finally had; Wolf who was able to write in two years, apart from the mentioned Spanish songbook, the Möricke-Lieder, the Goethe-Lieder and half of the Eichendorff-Lieder. The composition of the Italian songbook was full of obstacles; diseases (both physical and mental) and his obsession about composing an opera hampered him from writing his songs fluently, like in recent times. On December 23th, 1891 he wrote the last of the twenty-two songs included in the first part of the cycle; Wolf was very happy with them, and wrote: "I consider the Italian songs as the most original and, artistically, the most complete of all my work." Unfortunately, what should have been a short break before writing the second part became a very long period; He wasn't able to return to the songs until March 1896. A month later, the remaining twenty-four songs were written. You see, the story of the Italian songbook is hard and complicated; if you want to know a bit more about it you could try with this article (in Spanish; if needed, maybe Google Translator could help).

We don't perceive Wolf's angst when we listen to this cycle; the songs are light (and, at the same time, intense), often in a good mood and sometimes very funny, all of them love songs. Well, maybe there's an exception, the first one. We can take Auch kleine Dinge as a kind of vindication of the songs, small works. You may remember an old post that collected ten quotations about Art Song; the tenth quotation was precisely this song. "Even small things can delight us”. We song lovers know that's true!

The forty-five remaining songs really speak of love; there are accepted serenades, rejected serenades, comical serenades, passionate declarations, arguments, reconciliations... Despite being Italian songs, we don't notice it at all in the music; Ernst Decsey, the first Wolf's biographer, said this cycle is "the perfect union between the Italian cult of beauty and the expression of feelings in German music." We hear a female voice in nineteen poems and a male voice in seventeen of them, that's why two singers are usual in performances, and they distribute the rest of the songs freely. The Italienisches Liederbuch is the only Wolf's collection (apart from the three songs by Michelangelo) that can be fully performed in a concert, the songs are short and it has a similar duration to that of the Winterreise; then, we can appreciate the playful exchange of questions and answers. However, it's also usual that a selection of the cycle is performed, because there is only one singer in concert or because only one part of the concert is devoted to it. Even in this case, to listen to the Italienisches Liederbuch is a delight.

Today I wanted to share with you one of my favourite Italian songs, which is one of the serious. You know I especially like the most intimate love songs, the most contemplative, and Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden (What kind of song shall be sung to you) is one of them. It's also a good example of what I said earlier about the cycle: It is as light in its form as intense in its content; it's a brief, delicate, gorgeous song we're listening performed by Hermann Prey and Gunther Weißenborn. Please excuse the sound quality, I love that version! I hope you like it too!
Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden
Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden,
Das deiner würdig sei? Wo find ich's nur?
Am liebsten grüb' ich es tief aus der Erden,
Gesungen noch von keiner Kreatur.
Ein Lied, das weder Mann noch Weib bis heute
Hört' oder sang, selbst nicht die ält'sten Leute.
If you need an English translation please visit this link
And that's the original Italian poem:
Non so quale canzona mi cantare,
Che s'affacesse alla vostra persona:
Di sottoterra la vorrei cavare.
Che detta non l'avesse creatura,
Che detta non l'avesse né sentita
Uomo né donna né persona antica.

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