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Italian Serenade for String Quartet

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Wolf
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio with the Miami String Quartet Mon., Nov. 1, 2004, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The inspiration for the Italian Serenade seems to have come to Wolf from the novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (“ From the Life of a Ne'er-Do-Well ”) by the German Romantic writer Joseph Eichendorff. The Serenade was composed for string quartet in the space of only three days (May 2-4, 1887), during a time when Wolf was immersed in setting a number of Eichendorff's verses for voice and piano, and bears a thematic resemblance to the first of the songs, Der Soldat I , about the love of a soldier for a lady who lives in a castle. “The Eichendorff novella has that same theme,” explained Eric Sams. “Central to its plot is an Italian serenade played by a small orchestra.... Its hero is a young musician, a violinist, who leaves his country home and his grumbling father to seek his fortune. He soon charms everyone with his gifts, or antagonizes them with his inconsequence. Wolf could hardly have found a more congenial or compelling self-portrait in all German literature.”

Wolf originally called his work simply Serenade in G major , but around 1890 began referring to it as his “Italian Serenade.” In 1892 he returned to the piece, and orchestrated it with the intention of adding to it two more movements to create a suite for concert performance. The following year he made sketches for a slow movement in G minor, but, already suffering from the emotional turmoil brought on by his impulsive personality and by the syphilis that would send him to an asylum in 1897, could not bring it to completion. If two of his letters from 1894 are to be taken at face value, he did finish another movement early that year, but that score has never been recovered and only 45 measures of it survive in sketches. The last notations he made for this ultimately unrealized project were a few pages of a Tarantella he jotted down in 1897, shortly before he was committed. Though thoughts of the suite based on the Italian Serenade were in his mind for the last full decade of his life, he died in 1903 having finished no more of this proposed work than the first movement, written some fifteen years before.

“The essence of the delicious Italian Serenade is its antithesis of romantic sentiment and mocking wit,” wrote Robert W. Gutman. The work's several sections, joined in a loose rondo structure, allow for the depiction of various moods and characters — the gossamer strains of the lilting serenade serve as the background and foil for the ardent entreaties of the suitor (in instrumental recitative) and the coquettish replies of the lady. The joining together of these contrasts representing the two stylistic poles of Wolf's musical speech within a single piece represents the pinnacle of his success as an instrumental composer, and it is much to be regretted that his short life and his sad last years deprived him of the chance to provide the musical world with further such works as this masterful miniature.