Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Love song in code - Hugo Wolf


On the surface, this song, Hugo Wolf's Epiphanias, sounds like a typical song about the Three Kings bringing gifts. But there's a secret code behind it. The gifts the composer is thinking about aren't gold, myrrh and frankincense but something closer to his heart. The great love of Hugo Wolf's life was Melanie Köchert, the wife of his friend and loyal patron. Köchert was the top jeweller in Vienna, who sold Mahler his wedding rings. Obviously the lovers had to be discreet but the husband had a mistress, too, and adored Wolf, so Wolf was able to spend a lot of time with the family. He concealed the love song within the festive, Christmassy text because 6th January(Epiphany) was his beloved's birthday, and they could pass it off as a birthday offering. So Epiphanias in this case is an epiphany on several levels, particularly as it came in the early part of their relationship.

The song was written on 27 December 1888, while Wolf was spending the holidays with the family. In Goethe's time and quite likely in late 19th century Vienna, household masques like this weren't unknown : indeed, Goethe staged a presentation of this very poem at Weimar in 1781. Moreover, people used to have processions door-to-door bearing a star. The parallel with Wagner children serenading Cosima on her birthday wouldn't have been lost on Wolf if he'd known.

What a wonderful occasion it must have been - the three children solemnly marching in, dressed in colourful costumes, as Wolf played the piano and someone sang (we don't know the details, except that the three Köchert children were carefully coached about the distinctive personalities of each king in the song, so they too had a good time acting it out. Eric Sams, the much missed commentator, stressed the serious solidity of the song beneath its "high spirited burlesque", which anchors the humour in mock-heroic irony. The kings bring gifts, but they've come to drink wine and be merry. "we three can drink enough for six!" . And then the kick in the end "No oxen and asses here, only fine ladies and gentlemen, so we must be on our way" And off the little kids trudge as solemnly as they came in. So, droll jokes within jokes!

It's a wonderful song, but even more wonderful when you know the secret behind it. The clip is Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Wilhelm Furtwaengler, live in Salzburg. Sorry sound quality is poor. But get the recording, or her later versions. Or the hilarious version Wolfgang Holzmair recorded with Thomas Palm about 15 years ago. It's live, and they're responding to a more modern, informal audience. It's very fresh and fun.

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