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Music Text

Emanuel Geibel, Hugo Wolf, Jana de Boniface, Kerstin Schüssler-Bach after Karl Kraus, Paul Heyse (G)


Abbreviations (PDF)



This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.

World Premiere
CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Valdine Anderson, soprano / Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Sakari Oramo
Composer's Notes

Wolf-Lieder is scored for soprano and chamber ensemble and was commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s Sound Investment scheme. The 19th Century Austrian composer Hugo Wolf was a man whose work strongly reflected aspects of his personal life, in particular his mental health and eventual estrangement from society. This cycle of five movements is an exploration of his music and his madness.

Wolf-Lieder is book-ended by paraphrases of Wolf’s own music, where movements I and V are based on songs from his Spanish Songbook. In both cases, I have taken Wolf’s original vocal line and, to some extent, harmonies, to create reflective and meditative opening and closing movements.

In between, there are three movements that deal with Hugo Wolf the man, the texts of which come from diverse sources. The first of these is a setting of a short extract from one of Wolf’s letters. Here he writes to his friend Josef Strasser about his social difficulties.

The second is a setting of a specially compiled text (by Jana de Boniface) which reflects on aspects of his mental illness, incarceration and decline in a Viennese institution. He was, for example, convinced that he had fired Gustav Mahler and taken over his former friend’s position of director of the Vienna Opera. Legend has it that he was brought to the institution dressed up in tails, under the pretence of being brought to the Opera House to sign his contract. During the following weeks, Wolf also claimed to be the director of the “madhouse” itself, and also to be Jupiter, god of light and sky.

Following on from this, the third is a setting of a scene about Wolf’s last days, compliled by Kerstin Schüssler-Bach and inspired by an article by the Austrian satirist and essayist Karl Kraus in his magazine „Die Fackel“ from 1903. Hugo Wolf is scolded by the Judges of Eternity for his affronts against the great German poets and is buried on Mardi Gras Tuesday at the Vienna Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) – against his final wishes.

Wolf-Lieder is dedicated to its first performers, soprano Valdine Anderson, conductor Sakari Oramo and the BCMG.

© Brett Dean 2006

Reproduction Rights:
This programme note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

Press Quotes

"Dean’s five-movement cycle is a hyper-sensitive, thrillingly imaginative exploration of Wolf’s music and his madness ... The five pieces together form a beautifully ordered collage of a disordered mind. The music expires in string tremolos and a voice that is little more than a death rattle. To achieve all this with such subtlety reveals the true stature of a composer whose violin and viola concertos will be premiered this year." (Hilary Finch, The Times, 17 Jan 2007)

"The five-movement cycle begins and ends with transcriptions for a resourcefully-deployed chamber orchestra of songs by the composer [Wolf] himself, the concluding one becoming particularly poignant in the context of the deterioration we have witnessed. Along the way Dean draws a richness of scoring reminiscent of the achievements of Wolf’s contemporaries Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in their familiarising reductions of major orchestral works by Mahler, Debussy and others. At one point he provides a rippling underlay evocative of the drowning of Berg’s Wozzeck, and elsewhere expressionistic wispishness provides nightmarish textures." (Christopher Morley, The Birmingham Post, 16 Jan 2007)

"Brett Dean’s striking new song cycle is a portrait of the 19th-century Austrian composer, Hugo Wolf, who ended his days in a Viennese asylum... Dean creates a vivid portrait of crumbling sanity... The highly charged soprano lines are surrounded by instrumental textures that are always in flux, whether whirling past in high speed, interlocking skeins, or melting into amorphous masses of pitches and pulses... the meshing of the two elements [voice & instruments] was precise, and the psychological state they suggested vivid." (Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 18 Jan 2007)

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