Wolf was a prolific songwriter with more than 350 art songs (lieder) to his credit. Many critics put him in the same exclusive circle with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, some even as the first among equals
Along the way, he declared his allegiance to Richard Wagner’s “New School of Music”. Wolf’s fealty to Wagner’s “progressive” cabal necessarily meant that he rejected Brahms’ competing “conservative” school which drew its essence from the masters of the past. The old garde which Wolf disdained championed absolute non-programmatic music based on well-established classical forms, like the rondo. A rondo relies on a repeating central theme and contrasting intervening episodes.
To underscore his bona fides as a progressive Wagnerite, Wolf openly savaged Brahms’ “reactionary style”. Turned critic, Wolf wrote about Brahms’ First Piano Concerto that “whoever can swallow it with relish may look forward with equanimity to a famine.”
Italian Serenade for string quartet is one of Wolf’s few instrumental pieces. True to his vocal moorings, it is song-like and implies a program or a narrative although he never said what it might be. The main hop-skip-and-a-jump theme is lively and energetic, almost saucy. Overall, the piece radiates Italianate effervescence.
Now here’s the rub. The man who derided classical forms uses one, the rondo, to structure and to lend musical coherence to this piece. Its recurring opening theme is interrupted by contrasting discursive episodes followed by a return of the main theme in new musical garb. Call it “rondo light”. What’s the point? Music without some kind of form (or words) is just noise. But a form cannot turn noise into music, only a genius can perform that miracle. Welcome to Wolf.