String Quartet in d minor
Wolf wrote his only string quartet between 1879 and 1884. It is a powerful, highly dramatic work, which unfortunately received its premier in 1903, only a few months before the composer's death. Despite certain youthful flaws, it met with acclaim and several critics noted that if it had been premiered immediately after it had been composed, it would have placed Wolf in the front rank of contemporary chamber music composers.
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was born in what was then the Austrian town of Windischgraz. He showed an early predilection for music and studied both piano and violin as a boy. He attended the Vienna Conservatory but was expelled, but continued to study composition on his own, which was of seminal importance to his development as an experimental composer, especially in his instrumental works. Temperamentally unable to hold a steady position, Wolf worked for most of the rest of his life as a critic and music teacher in Vienna. As a composer, Wolf made his name as a composer of songs (lieder) and is generally regarded as the greatest master, after Schubert, of this art form.
Wolf was under the spell of Wagner and became a representative of the so-called New German School which adhered to the use of the chromaticism and other innovations that were to be found in Wagner's music. He became a fierce opponent of Brahms and the old guard. In the realm of chamber music, Wolf is known for his Italian Serenade, which was also orchestrated. A fine and evocative work which has found its way into the concert repertoire.
The first movement of his string quartet, Grave, leidenschaftlich bewegt, bears the motto "You should do without, do without" and the movement, besides its explosive powerful and drama, also exudes a sense of desperation. The huge second movement, simply marked Langsam (slow), lasts nearly 20 minutes. To say it ranges widely is an understatement. The ethereal opening immediately brings Late Beethoven to mind. The powerful scherzo, Resolut, which follows begins with a direct quote from the third movement of Beethoven's Op.95 quartet. The music is thrusting and muscular. In the bright and lively finale, Sehr Lebhaft, we hear a different sounding Wolf, the Wolf who wrote the Italian Serenade. This is because the finale, a replacement for the original with which he was unsatisfied, was written five years after the first part of the quartet and by then Wolf's tonal ideas had clearly changed.
Over the years, this Quartet has had its critics but also its ardent supporters and when given a chance, it makes an indelible impression.