Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari

1876 1978

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari



Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was a German-Italian composer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works represent the influence of both cultures, which can be summarized as seriousness from the German side and cheerfulness from the Italian side. The Italian influence is also seen in his use of bel canto and counterpoint.

Wolf-Ferrari was born in 1876 as Hermann Friedrich Wolf in Venice to a Venetian mother and German father. His father was a painter who copied 15th and 16th century paintings for Count Friedrich von Schack. At the young age of six, Wolf-Ferrari began his first piano lessons. Though he was quite accomplished at the piano, he was also very talented at drawing and from 1891 studied visual arts at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. He also studied in Munich at Simon Holosy’s private school.

After a year of art studies, Wolf-Ferrari quit to pursue music studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich. His decision to switch studies was largely due to his passion for the music ofJohann Sebastian Bach. He pursued studies in counterpoint with Joseph Rheinberger and conducted the world premiere of his Serenade for Strings. It was at this time that he adopted the stage name Ermanno Wolf-Ferarri.

Wolf-Ferrari returned to Venice in 1895 after his studies, pouring through a large amount of Baroque and Classical Italian music although he never completed his final examination. Wolf-Ferrari became a protégé of Arrigo Boito and spent a great deal of time in Milan where he conducted a German choir. His choral works from his time in Milan includeOtto Chori (1897), Talitha Kumi (1897) and La Sulamithe(1897). In the mid-1890s, he also attempted to compose two operas, Irene(1895-6) and La Camargo (1897), both of which he abandoned.

His works were also rejected by Giulio Ricordi. A recurrent theme throughout Wolf-Ferrari’s life was his music’s acceptance in Germany and rejection in Italy. This is noteworthy even in 1900 with the premiere of his operaCenerentola (1900) which failed at the Teatro La Fenice and succeeded in Bremen in 1902.

Wolf-Ferrari’s first great success was his choral-orchestral cantata La Vita Nuova (1903), which premiered in Munich. The same year featured his opera Le donne curiose (1903) at the Residenz Theatre in Munich. After these successes, Wolf-Ferrari was appointed director for life of the Liceo Musicale Benedetto Marcello, but he quit after seven years to devote his life to composition. Several years later Wolf-Ferarri also had success with the operasI Quatro Rusteghi (1906) and Il segreto di Susanna (1909). He moved back to Munich, though he visited Venice regularly.

It is for these comic operas, composed up until 1909 that Wolf-Ferarri is most famous for. It is around this time that he finally became known as a serious composer.

In 1911, before leaving for the USA, his opera I Gioielli della Madonna was premiered at the Berlin Kurfürstenoper. In 1916, Wolf-Feraarri moved to Zurich, taking refuge from World War I. The war hit him hard, and he suffered many bouts of depression and confusion due to his German-Italian roots. He composed very little during this time, enduring a great creative crisis. He also divorced his wife, Clara Kilian and took up drawing again. His drawings from this period include 130 nudes.

In the years just after the war, his works were irregularly performed and met with mixed reception. During these years he re-married to Wilhelmine Funck.

The mid 1920s marked his return to composition with the operas Gli Amanti Sposi (1925) andLa Vesta del Cielo (1927). In contrast, the 1930 were primarily dominated by instrumental music and the Italian songbookIl Canzoniere (1935) based on Tuscan folk poetry. Two of Wolf-Ferrari’s operas were premiered in the late 1930s,Il Campiello (1936) and La dama boba (1939).

In 1939 Wolf-Ferrari was appointed professor of composition at the Salzburg Mozarteum. After coming in contact with the virtuoso American violinist Guila Bustabo, Wolf-Ferarri composed his Violin Concerto in D major (1943), on which he inscribed ‘Guila Bustabo, in admiration.’  The premiere of the concerto was delayed due to the bombing of Leipzig and Munich. In response to the violence, Wolf-Ferarri fled to Austria. His final opera,Der Kuckuck von Theben (Gli dei a Tebe) was also premiered in 1943 in Hannover.

The Violin Concerto was premiered the next year with Bustabo and the Munich Philharmonic in Munich and later in Paris under Willem Mengelberg. In the following years, Wolf-Ferarri composed hisSinfonia Brevis (1944), Cello Concerto Invocazione (1945), Small concerto for Cor Anglais (1946) and his Duet for Viola d’amore and Viola da gamba (1946). The two works from 1946 were composed in Zürich, where he spent time with friends. He then moved back to Venice, where he died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Of Wolf-Ferrari’s early works, only his Serenade in E is representative of his later style. His other early works include many chamber pieces which are quite German in style and include theSinfonia da camera (1903), representing the influence ofMendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. Wagner’s influence is also notable, especially in the Violin Sonata in A minor (1902), which echoes Tristan in the second movement. The extreme chromaticism is also reminiscent of Max Reger’s works.

Wolf-Ferrari’s La vita nuova was perhaps his most popular work, having been performed more than 500 times by 1937. However, it is important to note that only two of these performances took place in Italy. This orchestral-cantata owes a great deal to Bach and is at times similar to the music of Brahms.

A master of the opera-buffa style, Wolf-Ferarri’s first opera Cenerentola is just a precursor of the comedic style to come. His next works,Le donne curose andI quarto rust­­eghi, were inspired by works of Mascagni and Goldoni, respectively. Of Wolf-Ferrari’s instrumental music, hisIdillio-concertino for oboe (1932) was quite successful.­­­­­­ Other instrumental music was composed throughout the 1930s and includes hisSuite Concertino for bassoon (1932), Suite Venezianafor small orchestra (1936), a string quartet and a quintet.

Images courtesy of, and public domain