Hugo Wolf

Grenzen der Menscheit ("Wenn der uralte heilige Vater"), song for voice & piano (Goethe Lieder)

    Description by Adrian Corleonis

    The 53 songs of the Mörike Liederbuch set the pattern for the songbooks to come: moments of village life caught with startling intensity, vivid portrayals of local "characters," shading into the elemental world of folklore, and the poet's fantasy in such things as Gesang Weylas, Nixe Binsefuss, and Der Feuerreiter. The Eichendorff collection that followed essayed a broader -- urban and national -- spectrum. But with his approach to Goethe in late 1888, the colossus of German letters whose poetry inhabits a mythic, cosmic dimension, Wolf audibly strives for a commensurately exalted utterance. So often possessed by his genius, in confronting Goethe, Wolf attempts to possess his possessor, to raise an already preternaturally intuitive grasp of the poems to a transcendent divination. Throughout the Goethe Liederbuch there are songs in which, while the effect is undeniable, one feels something forced -- the final strophe of Mignon ("Kennst du das Land"), for instance, manages to be inspired and contrived at once. But when Wolf, at the top of his bent, is at one with the poet, the upshot is an extended glimpse into an archetypal realm such as Wagner's Ring operas afford, but more splendid because it is unencumbered by the latter's tortuous dramaturgical apparatus. As Wolf's biographer Frank Walker noted, "Prometheus, Ganymed and Grenzen der Menschheit, the last three songs in Wolf's Goethe volume, are among the grandest, the most inspired things that he ever wrote. The poems illustrate three aspects of man's relationship to divinity. In the first...we have the rebel, Prometheus...." In Ganymed, Goethe "saw a figure through which to express his own pantheistic moods, his love and worship of nature......the clouds descend to carry him off, to the arms of the 'All-loving Father.' No greater contrast with the foregoing can possibly be imagined...Grenzen der Menschheit passes far beyond either love or revolt. Man recognizes his own littleness, in space and eternity, and has no more room in his heart for anything except awe and submission." Goethe conjures a terrifying vision of cosmic indifference upon whose waves man crests for a tiny moment, and Wolf matches him with a deepening, and at last inscrutable, aura of the oracular, composed at Döbling on January 9, 1889. Wolf's orchestration of Prometheus is extant, that of Ganymed is lost. It is to be regretted that he did not orchestrate Grenzen der Menschheit as its conception asks for orchestral realization. The song is closely identified with its first recording, in 1933, by bass Alexander Kipnis.

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2014
    Signum Classics
    SIGCD 369
    2010
    Deutsche Grammophon
    477 870-7
    2010
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4778707
    2010
    EMI Classics
    2009
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099926490
    2008
    Deutsche Grammophon
    447515
    2005
    Orfeo D'Or
    339050
    2004
    EMI Classics
    562188
    2000
    Testament
    1197
    2000
    Orfeo
    543001
    1998
    EMI Music Distribution
    566640-2
    Preiser Records
    89204
    Music & Arts
    661
    EMI Music Distribution
    66642
    Accord
    202792
    Documents
    223089303