While at the conservatory he met Richard Wagner who gave him encouragement, and he became a rabid disciple of Wagner. He tried his hand at teaching but was temperamentally ill suited to it. Despite his somewhat irascible disposition, he could also be engaging and charming, enough that he gathered financial support from patrons so he could compose for a living.
After the death of Wagner in 1883 his style matured and his songs began to be noticed by Franz Liszt. About this time he began working on larger compositions and also began to write a regular column of music criticism in the Vienna publication Wiener Salonblatt. Between 1883 and 1887 Wolf wrote over 100 articles, and in keeping with his discipleship of Wagner, he took some incredibly vicious swipes at the music of Brahms as well as any other composer that he thought was in the Brahmsian camp. Wolf had this to say about Brahms' 4th Symphony:
He never could rise above the mediocre. But such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as in the E minor symphony has never yet been revealed so alarmingly in any of Brahms' works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of this hideous game!
Wolf set many poems of the Romantic German poet Eduard Mörike to music, 53 of them in 1888. Mörike's poems are known for their humor and simple language. Three of these Mörike lieder are discussed below. The accompanying link to a performance of the songs are sung by the late German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a master of German Lied.
Bei einer Trauung (At A Wedding) - Wolf refined and expanded the direction of the German Lied that Schubert and Schumann had begun; that the piano accompaniment is an equal of the soloist in importance. The piano part of this song gives a hint of what kind of a wedding this really is, even before the soloist sings a word. In plodding, funereal chords, with dissonant grace notes punctuating the sorrow, the piano sets the stage for a marriage of two people who are not in love. It is the nature of Mörike's poetic style that makes the listener wonder if the poem is really an expression of sorrow or a tongue-in-cheek mockery of arranged marriages. Wolf's music seems to emphasize the sorrow.
With no one but aristocrats for witnesses
the couple is being married.
The organ proclaims that all is fine,
but nothing else does!
Just look - she is crying her eyes out,
and he is making a dreadful face,
For you see, I am afraid
that there is no love in this union.
Zur Warnung (Word of Warning) - In the accompanying video, the singer begins this song in the hoarse, coarse voice of one who has spent a night drinking. The perky and rather trite piano accompaniment of the 'garbage verse' with its sudden change of mood is a good example of Wolf's talent for matching music to words. The 'name' Wendehals is an actual variety of a bird of the woodpecker family in Germany. The song is an all together delightful warning to poets with a hangover: have some hair of the dog that bit you if you must, but don't try and write any poetry.
After a night out
I woke up feeling lousy;
I thirsted but not for water,
my blood pounded, I felt disturbed and sentimental.
Almost poetically I begged my Muse for a song.
Pretending sympathy, she mocked me,
and gave me this piece of garbage:
"A nightingale is singing
by a waterfall;
another bird as well,
who signs its name Wendehals,
Johann Jacob Wendehals,
by the plants
of the afore mentioned waterfall."
And so it went until I became very uneasy.
I sprang up: wine! That would be my salvation!
Mark it well, you weepy bards,
when you have a hangover, don't call upon the gods!
Abschied - (Farewell) - A poem that probably reflected Wolf's own feelings about his critics (while ignoring his own harsh criticism of others). How he would have enjoyed kicking his critics in the ass and watching them bounce down the stairs. The music is of shifting moods, from the curt notes of the critic to the racket of the critic bouncing down the stairs. The joy of the critic rolling down the steps is portrayed by the pianist playing a noisy Viennese waltz peppered with accented grace notes:
One evening, without knocking, in came a gentleman:
"I have the honor to be your critic!"
Immediately he took the light in his hand
and gazed long at my shadow on the wall.
He stepped close and then stepped back: "Now, my good young man,
kindly see how your nose looks from the side!
You must admit it is a nose and a half!"
Good gracious - so it is!
My word! I never imagined - my whole life long -
that such a huge world-sized nose was on my face!
The man said various other things about this and that,
but I honestly don't remember what;
perhaps he thought I had something to confess.
Finally he stood up and I lit his way out.
As we stood at the top of the stairs,
I cheerfully gave him
a small kick on the buttocks,
and by golly! What a jolting,
tumbling, and crashing!
I have never seen such a thing,
my whole life long,
a man that went so quickly down the stairs!