Hugo Wolf

    Wolf was born on the 13th March, 1860. According to one story he was taken, as a very young man, by an elder loose‑living friend to a brothel. In September 1896, when he had to have a smut taken out of his eye, he was found to have Argyll‑Robertson pupils. On the 20th September, 1897, he was first admitted to a mental hospital, being discharged improved on the 24th January, 1898. Early in October of the same year he tried to drown himself, and on the 4th October he was readmitted to hospital. On the 22nd February, 1903, death occurred in convulsions. A very full account of the illness is given in the biography by Walker (1951), and Decsey (1919) and Newman (1907) are also very informative. There can be no doubt that he died, as the physicians of the time considered, of general paresis, and that is also Juda's diagnosis.

    A parallel is not infrequently drawn between the medical histories of Schumann and Wolf, and some authors, such as Russell Brain (1948), Leibbrand and Balet (1930) and Hecaen (1934) con­sider that the parallel is much closer than in the final psychosis alone. Thus Leibbrand and Balet consider that Wolf showed distinct manic‑depressive traits, and Hecaen diagnosed a definite manic-­depressive psychosis, with circular attacks from the age of 28 to 37. The problem of Wolf's personality will have to be considered in detail in a later paper. There is certainly much to support the view that he was of cyclothymic constitution. But much more than in the case of Schumann one sees also marked schizoid traits. Moreover it seems hardly justifiable to regard him as having suffered from a manic‑depressive psychosis, when he was never psychiatrically ill or in receipt of psychiatric treatment until the onset of the organic psychosis. The existence of very marked ups and downs of mood in the earlier history, however, makes the problem of deciding just when the general paresis had its onset one of some difficulty. He was a man of very unusual personality, impetuous and whimsical, extremely sensitive and ready to take offence, uncontrolled in his behaviour; at times even his most devoted friends found it almost impossible to get on with him. There is, therefore, no well‑marked base‑line of normality from which to take a departure.

    In 1888 and 1889 he was in one of his up‑swings, which in 1891 was succeeded by a severe and lasting state of low spirits and creative incapacity. At this time he was suffering from recurrent sore throats, which have been interpreted as the signs of secondary syphilis. Certainly not all these sore throats were caused by syphilis, since they continued to occur even after admission to the psychiatric hospital.

    The years 1892‑1894 were almost totally barren, and for the greater part of this time he was most unhappy and complaining bitterly of his sterility. These three years constitute the longest and severest of his depressive episodes. One might be tempted to regard it as an atypical prodrome of his later organic psychosis, but that closer scrutinity shows that in essentials it was the same as his earlier depressive phases. There may have been contributory factors, for instance his burning desire to write‑like Wagner‑an opera, and the failure of his attempts to find a suitable libretto. He may also have suffered from general malaise caused by secondary syphilis. Headache, difficulty in concentration, tiredness and ir­ritability, and vague bodily discomforts, are not uncommon during the secondary stage and may also occur in asymptomatic neuro­syphilis (Mayer‑Gross et al. [1954]). We have very little information about the course the disease took in his case before the discovery of the Argyll‑Robertson phenomenon; nor do we know anything of how he reacted to it. In the case of Schubert, the syphilitic infection had a most profound and lasting depressive effect (Deutsch [1946]; Brown [1958]). Wolf's photo taken at about the end of the depressive period shows him markedly aged, sad and bitter (in contrast with the earlier portrait of 1889, also reproduced in Walker's biography); but it is still a noble and entirely composed face.

    In January 1895 his mood improved, and in April he started work on Corregidor. With this he passed into a lastingly excited and over‑active state, so that he completed the opera in 114 weeks. His mental excitement is described in terms which might suggest the onset of a mental illness; yet it was hardly greater than had been shown on earlier occasions. Previously he had rejected Rosa May­reder's libretto of Corregidor; but in January, in a better mood, he changed his mind. We do not think that this change was due to a psychotic failure of judgment. It was his friend Lang who first suggested that he might revise his earlier opinion of it; and there were others of his musical friends who shared his new enthusiasm. Wolf would not have been the first famous composer to use an inferiour libretto. The music of Corregidor fully maintains his standards. The relative failure of the work lies in its dramatic weakness: Wolf, it has been said, is the Wagner of songs but not of operas.

    After the composition was completed, he continued to work through the summer on the scoring, and he remained in a cheerful active mood until the following spring. During this time there is no suggestion of organic nervous disease, or of any change of personal­ity. In the few weeks between the 25th March and the 30th April, 1896, he wrote the entire twenty‑four songs of the Italienisches Liederbuch, all of which show his usual mastery. The Italian songs are, indeed, not only one of the peak products of his artistic creation, but, according to Walker (1955), fully maintain unity of style with the first book of five years before.

    His good mood was interrupted in the latter end of May by a state of apathy, insomnia and dreadful tiredness, from which, however, lie improved in June. This set‑back is partly explained by the circumstances which accompanied the first performance of Corregidor in Mannheim. He was always shy of publicity, and yielded only to repeated requests that he should attend. Moreover the theatrical atmosphere was quite foreign to him, and he was hope­lessly ill equipped to control orchestral rehearsals. He is reported to have shown listlessness and apathy during the performance of the opera'; but this can only have been a mask for his anxiety, and is in marked contrast to his joy when singing the Italian songs to intimate friends a few hours earlier, and his "best of humours" in their company when the performance was over. At this time he left money in a drawer of his hotel room, and afterwards forgot and lost it: this is explicable on normal lines by his natural excitement. This and other similar blunders need no pathological explanation as they fit in with his fanatical absorption in artistic problems (see his letters to Melanie Köchert of April, 1895, quoted by Walker).

    In September 1896, the pupillary abnormality was discovered; but neither his letters nor accounts given by friends indicate any mental disturbance in the whole of that year. In February, 1897, he gave his last concert, and was described as having been pale and looking as if he was in another world. Nevertheless in that month he first met Haberlandt, who became one of his most active supporters, and the two men took an instant liking to each other. On his birth­day on the 13th March he played parts of Corregidor to his friends, and was described by Ilaberlandt as "like a boiling volcano, about to burst into flame, lightnings coming from his head, and sonic felt even the thunder" (Decsey). During the second half of March, 1897, he wrote his four Michelangelo songs, which are a supreme achieve­ment except for the fourth, which Hugo Wolf himself regarded as inferior to the others.

    At some time towards the end of March or the beginning of April, according to Decsey, he was in a puzzling heavy‑laden tired­ness, having sleepless nights or troubled by nightmares. In April the wife of the composer Humperdinck was struck by his shy, changed, irritable conduct in a restaurant where they met. A letter to Kauffmann, dated the 10th, makes a virulent attack on Humper­dinck as a "composer for street‑organs", and has been considered by some to be so extravagant as to suggest the psychotic. The hyperbolic language is, however, of a type habitual with Wolf, and the letter is orderly and coherent. There is an insolent remark in a letter to Kauffmann of the 8th May, but again nothing more than could be accounted for by his personality. During June, he was trying to learn to ride the bicycle, and having so many falls that he was injuring himself. The suggestion has been made that this was due to a tabetic ataxia.

    In July, 1897, he was beginning work on Manuel Venegas, and by the second week of the month was in the old fever of creation, working morning to night. The same state persisted in August, but now observers speak of the familiar traits of his work and talk having become distorted and exaggerated; he was failing to answer his letters, and trying to support himself on an unusual indulgence in wine. In September, looking like a ghost, he said he felt divinely well: "I am blissful, raving". Taken out to a meal on the 19th, he ate like an animal. He asserted he was the new director of the Vienna Opera, a kind of revenge on Mahler, the actual Director, who had recently turned down the idea of giving there a performance of Corregidor. The next day he was taken to the mental hospital. At his home fifty pages of the first act of Manuel Venegas were found, and Walker states that they are fine powerful stuff, showing "no trace of incipient insanity" or any failure or weakening of his creative powers. It is noteworthy that a letter of the 7th September to Rosa Mayreder, his librettist, though somewhat exaggerated in tone and vague in matter shows no obvious psychotic features, un­like the plainly psychotic letters to Melanie Köchert of a week later. In his letters to Rosa Mayreder written after March 1895 one is struck by his urge towards an increasing intimacy. But the same phenomenon occurred as early as 1881 in the correspondence with Henriette Lang, who seems to have taken exception to it. It seems that this was his way with his female friends. Letters written to male friends from 1895 onwards are in a much more sober style and make no insistent demand for familiarity.

    On this evidence, it seems unlikely that the general paresis can be dated any earlier than March 1897, and very probable that it was beginning in April of that year. The observation of Argyll‑Robertson pupils in September 1896 does indeed indicate that the central nervous system was affected at an earlier time. But the pupillary abnormality can be regarded as evidence of tabetic changes, a view which is supported by the appearance of tabetic ataxia nine months later.

    If this view is correct, of his last works Corregidor, the second book of the Italian song cycle and, probably, the Michelangelo songs were composed before the onset of the paresis; while Manuel Venegas was the product of a mind which was already pathologically disturbed. However, the psychosis remained in its incipient stage until September; and the work he put into Manuel Venegas (and the Michelangelo songs too, if the illness is dated back to include them) quite maintain his old quality. As effects of the illness one can at best refer to the relative inferiority of the fourth of the Michelangelo songs, and to the fact that he could not complete the first act of Manuel Venegas, possibly because psychotic restlessness interfered with concentrated work. During the composition of Manuel Venegas he went, to begin with, into a state of creative excitement entirely similar to his state in previous phases of creative inspiration. There is little evidence that the incipient phase of general paresis acted as a stimulant (as Lange‑Eichbaum [1956] has suggested as occurring in other cases), or that it produced an alteration of style (as suggested by Jaspers [1949] in the initial phase of schizophrenic illness in Hölderlin), or led to a markedly increased rate of production as in the case of van Gogh (also suggested by Jaspers). From the time the patient went into hospital, all that has survived of subsequent compositions is artistically valueless, although scoring is still perfect. He himself realised the lack of worth in the work of his re­mission and actually destroyed some of it.

    The published letters written by Hugo Wolf during his re­mission from the 26th January to the 20th October 1898, are in their form in no way disordered. Most of them are short accounts of minor events, meetings with friends, the weather, excursions, food, and housework carried out by himself! There is no reference to musical work done by him, nor to music in general. Their temper, compared with his pre‑psychotic letters, is descriptive and almost unemotional. Though they do not lack all insight into the change he had undergone, they produce a deadly impression.

[1] "Amid laurel wreaths and garlands that fell about his feet, he stood ab­stracted, profoundly earnest in mien . . . his dark burning eyes seemed to gaze away over the heads of the cheering audience, far beyond into the unknown future... He bowed briefly and took one of the laurel wreaths in his hands; the rest he did not seem to be aware of" (Walker).