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Composed: 1887; 1892
Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo viola
It’s difficult to equate the light-hearted ebullience of the Italian Serenade with the grim reality of Hugo Wolf’s painful life and death in an asylum at the age of 42. Suffering from a syphilitic infection contracted when, at 18, he was taken to a brothel by a friend, Wolf managed, with intermittent lapses of illness, to pursue a brilliant career as a composer. After he attempted to drown himself (shades of the story of Robert Schumann decades earlier), the last five years of Wolf’s life were spent in confinement, until his merciful death in 1903.
The brilliance of his career is associated almost entirely with Wolf’s extraordinary gift as the writer of songs – hundreds of songs for voice and piano. With uncommon sensitivity to every aspect of song – the poetry, melodic intensity, keyboard collaboration, harmonic coloration – he achieved an exalted expressiveness that, according to historical consensus, set him apart even from Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms in the very special world of the Lied. It should be mentioned that not only the sung word but also the written word had an important place in Wolf’s life, for he functioned as a (very tough) music critic for a short period.
Although he focused his creativity primarily and overwhelmingly on song, Wolf ventured other kinds of compositions. He completed an opera, Der Corregidor, after Alarcón’s El sombrero de tres picos, and a symphonic poem, Penthesilia, but left several orchestral, choral, and chamber works unfinished. In light of his physical disability, his industry was nothing less than remarkable. In the matter of the Italian Serenade, it began in 1887 as a string quartet, was expanded in 1892 for small orchestra, and was meant by him to be the first movement of a multi-movement composition that, however, never materialized.
The Italienische Serenade is so deftly realized one can only regret that the planned-for second and third movements were stillborn. The music fairly dances with a kind of intimate spirit that is immediately appealing. The instrumentation is perfectly suited to the material, with the solo viola emerging from within the orchestral texture as a supremely wise and confident voice. It’s significant that Wolf the master of song should feature the voice of an alto ‘singer’ in an instrumental piece; he seemed always to be thinking in terms of vocal music.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.