About this work
Wolf composed the 53 Mörike Lieder between February 16 and November 26, 1888. The Mörike Lieder were strikingly original, as contemporary critics noted, despite Wolf's contention that he was continuing the tradition of Schubert and Schumann.
Eduard Mörike (1804-75), a Swabian poet, was a favorite among late nineteenth century German composers. A Protestant pastor with leaning toward Catholicism, Mörike had, while young, encountered a woman he called, "Peregrina" (wanderer), who was apparently unstable and had wandered into his town. The exact nature of their relationship is uncertain, but he wrote numerous poems about her that are filled with emotional and erotic tension.
Several aspects of Wolf's songs are traditional, such as the repeated phrases in "Er ist's," or the occasional selection of texts for their musical potential as opposed to their poetic greatness. Most of the songs, however, are original in conception, featuring Wolf's unfailing instincts for text setting and his ability to portray the meaning of both single words and an entire poem through rhythm and harmony. Also, Wolf's predilection for reading through piano reductions of Wagner's operas comes through in many of his piano parts.
"Das verlassene Mägdlein" (The forsaken girl) had been set over fifty times when Wolf completed his on March 24. Every morning, a young woman rises very early to light the fire in her home. As she watches the flames, she remembers dreaming of her former, unfaithful lover, and hopes daybreak will banish her dreams of him. In A minor, the simple, transparent piano part portrays the stillness of early morning, while a shift to A major conveys the brightness of the flames. Also, unsettling augmented chords support her mention of the unfaithful lover. The lively triplet accompaniment of "Er ist's" (It's spring), of May 5, is sometimes juxtaposed with duplets in the voice. An extended, energetic piano conclusion makes the work a great concert piece that is very unlike Schumann's introspective setting of the same poem.
Variation technique appears in "Storchenbotschaft" (The storks' message) (March 27), in which two storks try to tell a man he has twins. Unable to speak, the birds must gesture while the man tries to guess what they mean. The music becomes increasingly animated until the final outburst when the man realizes the truth. Wolf alters the melody of his strophic "Um Mitternacht" (At midnight) (April 20) in order to emphasize certain words, particularly "süsser" (sweet). Rhythm is often the unifying factor of a song, such as the 5/4 meter of "Jägerlied" (Hunter's song) (February 22), which reflects the trochaic pentameter of the poem, while the pace and rhythm of "Fussreise" (Walking-tour) (March 21) evokes walking.
Wolf set two of Mörike's poems concerning the mysterious "Peregrina." The poem of "Peregrina I" (April 28) concerns Mörike's earliest feelings of physical desire for the woman, while Wolf's "Peregrina II" (April 30) sets the fourth of Mörike's five poems on the subject, in which the image of the woman haunts the poet after he has rejected her. Both of Wolf's songs build erotic tension through the same descending chromatic motive.
Homesick wanderers appear frequently in German lieder, and Wolf's idyllic "Heimweh" (homesickness) (April 1) is a perfect example, in which the lethargic accompaniment matches the unenthusiastic gait of the traveler.
The profound "Der Genesene an die Hoffnung," which Wolf placed at the head of the Mörike Lieder, was completed on March 6. As the subject of the poem gradually overcomes his illness, the music becomes more triumphant, climaxing with fanfare-like passages.