From The new Grove
Wölfl [Wölffl, Woelfl], Joseph
(b Salzburg, 24 Dec 1773; d London, 21 May 1812). Austrian pianist and composer. His earliest musical instruction was as a chorister at Salzburg Cathedral from 1783 to 1786, where he studied with Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn. In 1790, on his father’s advice, he went to Vienna, apparently to study with the younger Mozart, though it is unclear whether he ever became his pupil and how close their relationship actually was. Some authorities claim, however, that it was through Mozart’s intervention that Wölfl was appointed composer to Count Ogiński in Warsaw, where in 1792 he made his first public appearance as a pianist.
Having established a reputation both as a performer and a teacher, Wölfl returned to Vienna in 1795, where his talents propelled him to the forefront of public attention. He was soon regarded as the only serious rival to Beethoven; indeed, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung preferred his ‘unpretentious, pleasant demeanour’ to Beethoven's more emotionally charged style and praised him for playing that showed ‘not just a pleasing originality, but also a very rare combination of power and delicacy’. In 1798 he married the singer Therese Klemm and the following year embarked on a lengthy concert tour that took him to Brno, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. He was well received everywhere (in Hamburg his skill at improvisation led to favourable comparisons with C.P.E. Bach), but nowhere more so than Paris, where his welcome was every bit as rapturous as that he had received in Vienna, with the Journal de Paris describing him as ‘one of the most exciting pianists in Europe’.
In addition to his activities as a performer, Wölfl was also establishing a reputation as a composer. His first opera, Der Höllenberg, to a libretto by Schikaneder, was well received on its first performance in Vienna in 1795, as was Der Kopf ohne Mann three years later and the pasticcio Liebe machen kurzen Prozess. In Vienna he also began to compose instrumental music in earnest (his first two piano sonatas op.1 were probably composed several years earlier), dedicating his three piano trios op.5 to Haydn and his set of three piano sonatas op.6 to Beethoven. These activities continued in Paris, where in early 1804 his opera L’amour romanesque was performed to considerable acclaim.
The reasons for Wölfl's sudden departure from Paris in 1805 are unclear. Some authorities ascribe it to the lukewarm reception accorded his next opera, Fernando, though that seems unlikely given the high regard in which he was otherwise held. What is almost certainly true is that neither of two other popular explanations has any basis in fact: either, as Fétis would have it, that he fell in with the bass singer Ellenreich, who was a notorious card sharp and dragged Wölfl into some unspecified scandal; or, according to Schilling, that he became music master to the Empress Josephine, accompanied her to Switzerland following her divorce, and thence made his way to England.
In May 1805 Wölfl arrived in London and immediately set about establishing his reputation. He was enthusiastically fêted both as a performer and as a composer. His G major Piano Concerto op.36 (known as ‘Le calme’) was especially popular and performed at four concerts within the space of just two months; among his orchestral works, the G minor Symphony op.40, which he dedicated to Cherubini, was highly regarded. As in Paris, Wölfl tried to make his mark as an operatic composer, but apart from two well-received ballets, given at the King's Theatre, he failed to secure a commission. He died suddenly in May 1812, but for almost two years there was speculation, fuelled in part by the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, that he was still alive.
Tomášek has left a vivid description of Wölfl: ‘tall, very thin, with huge hands that could easily stretch a 13th’. He noted, however, that ‘Wölfl's peculiar virtuosity apart, his playing had neither light nor shade – he was entirely lacking in manly strength’. His piano compositions in many respects bear out this verdict. While they make, by the standards of the day, high technical demands, they generally lack emotional substance. Indeed, the commentary in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung on the op.6 sonatas has a rather wider application: ‘they are, on the whole, in the style of Clementi's best work, though are rather more learned and less delicate’ (AMZ, i (1798–9), 237). Though rarely performed today, Wölfl's piano music maintained its place in the repertory for several decades after his death and was only supplanted when its technical demands were overtaken by the advances of Schumann's generation.
Posterity has treated his other instrumental music even less kindly, for it passed out of circulation even more quickly. Here, Wölfl once again demonstrated his capacity for composing music whose essentially facile construction was cleverly masked by an instant melodic charm and grace. Above all, he was adept at writing for amateur performers: his flute sonatas op.35 were judged to be ‘just the kind of sonatas that second-rate dilettantes, especially the English, will want’ and which ‘a composer like Wölfl would write in his sleep’ (AMZ, x (1807–8), 110). At his best, however, as in the contrapuntal minuet of the G minor Symphony, Wölfl demonstrated a mastery of formal technique that is rarely encountered in composers of his kind. Despite his ardent desire to achieve recognition as an operatic composer, Wölfl achieved no lasting success with his stage works. Der Höllenberg contains some engaging melodies, but suffers from a weak libretto whose flaws Wölfl proved unable to mask satisfactorily.
As a teacher, Wölfl had a significant influence: his most distinguished pupil was Cipriani Potter. His pupils described him as exacting, and his Méthode de pianoforte is testament to the importance he placed on securing a rigorous and thorough technique. Several of his concert works were also written with a pedagogical purpose in mind. Of these, the most famous was his sonata ‘Non plus ultra’, whose final movement is a set of brilliant variations on Nägeli's song Freut euch des Lebens.