Wolf’s greatest musical influence was Richard Wagner, who, in an encounter after Wolf first came to the Vienna Conservatory, encouraged the young composer to persist in composing and to attempt larger-scale works, cementing Wolf’s desire to emulate his musical idol. His antipathy to Johannes Brahms was fueled partly by his devotion to Wagner, and partially by misunderstanding and clash of personality, rather than any ill-will on Brahms’ part.
His true fame is his lieder; Wolf’s temperament and abilities led him to more private and personal forms. Though he initially believed that mastering the larger forms was the hallmark of a great composer (a belief that his early mentors reinforced), the smaller scale of the art song provided an excellent basis upon which to develop basic compositional skills and later came to be his greatest strength. Wolf’s lieder are noted for compressing expansive musical ideas and depth of feeling; his skill at interpreting and depicting texts musically is suited to the form. Though Wolf himself was obsessed with the idea that to compose only short forms was to be second-rate, his organization of poem settings into complete dramatic cycles, finding connections between texts not explicitly intended by the poet, as well as his conceptions of individual songs as dramatic works in miniature, mark him as a talented dramatist despite having written only one not particularly successful opera.
Early in his career Wolf modeled his lieder after those of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, particularly in the period around his relationship with Franck; in fact, they were good enough imitations to pass off as the real thing, which he once attempted, though his cover was blown too soon. It is speculated that his choice of lieder texts in the earlier years, largely dealing with sin and anguish, were partly influenced by his contraction of syphilis. His love for Franck, not fully requited, bore the intellectual children of the Wesendonck Lieder: impassioned settings of works by Nikolaus Lenau. The others were as distant from those in mood as possible; lighthearted and humorous. Penthesilea, too, is tempestuous and highly colored; though Wolf admired Liszt, who had encouraged him to complete the work, he felt Liszt’s music too dry and academic, and strove for color and passion.
1888 marked a turning point in his style as well as his career, with the Mörike, Eichendorff, and Goethe sets drawing him away from Schubertiana and into “Wölferl’s own howl”. Mörike in particular drew out and complemented Wolf’s musical gifts, the variety of subjects suiting Wolf’s tailoring of music to text, his dark sense of humor matching Wolf’s own, his insight and imagery demanding a wider variety of compositional techniques and command of text painting to portray. In his later works he relied less on the text to give him his musical framework and more on his pure musical ideas themselves; the later Spanish and Italian songs reflect this move toward “absolute music”.
Wolf wrote hundreds of lieder, three operas, incidental music, choral music, as well as some rarely heard orchestral, chamber and piano music. His most famous instrumental piece is the Italian Serenade (1887), originally for string quartet and later transcribed for orchestra, which marked the beginning of his mature style.