Brett Dean - Wolf-Lieder

Wolf-Lieder is scored for soprano and a chamber ensemble of 15 instruments and was commissioned by 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 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 Schuele) 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. 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 dramatically irreverent poem about Wolf’s life and illness by the US poet Charles Bukowski, vividly venting something of the precariously anti-social aspects of Wolf’s mental illness, as observed through the vengeful eyes of his fictitious landlady.

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

Brett Dean

First performed by BCMG with soprano Valadine Anderson, conducted by Sakari Oramo on 14 January 2007 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham.