Edward Wolff (1814-1880), pianist and composer1. Born on November 15, 1814 in Warsaw1, Edward Wolff was the son of physician and arts patron Józef Wolff and Eleonora Oestreicher. His sister Regina Wolff was the mother of Henryk and Józef Wieniawski. The two brothers benefited greatly from the kindness and generosity of their uncle, who took care of them during their studies at the Paris Conservatoire and helped them take the first steps in their respective concert careers.
Wolff began his piano performance studies with J. Zawadzki in Warsaw; but in 1828, he left for Vienna to continue his education with W. Würfl. Four years later, he returned to Warsaw and carried on his studies by, among other things, taking music theory and composition lessons with J. Elsner. Then in September 1835, Wolff left for Paris, where he settled permanently, very quickly gaining renown and recognition. He was considered one of the foremost virtuosi of his era; critics lavished praise on his compositions, which found eager publishers. His huge compositional output – a catalogue of nearly 350 items – was published almost in its entirety in Paris.
Wolff carried on a very active concert career, establishing himself as one of the most distinctive pianists. Though he performed most often in Paris, he also concertized in other cities in France and abroad. In accordance with performance practice of the time, these were ‘mixed’ concerts containing various music genres presented by many different performers. Solo recitals were relatively rare. He performed almost exclusively his own works, enchanting audiences with brilliant technique and a beautiful cantabile. Most applauded were the Chanson polonaises, Chansons bachiques, Études, Tarantelle fantastique, Marche triomphale and Bacchanale. He also appeared frequently at salons run both by artists (such as L. Massart, J. Pape and C. Pfeiffer) and in aristocratic circles. His maintained close contacts with the Erard company, whose instruments he promoted while touring and at the World Expo in 1878.
The response of the Parisian press was very positive. Already in 1840, on the pages of the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, he was compared to F. Liszt and F. Chopin. The enthusiastic reviews were written mainly by H. Blanchard, but other critics were favorable to him as well, among others L. Kreutzer, G. Kastner and M. Bourges. His performance artistry was highly regarded by such virtuosi as S. Thalberg, H. Herz and P. Zimmermann.
His longest tour abroad took place in 1862. At that time, he went to Romania, concertizing on the way in Germany and Austria. He spent eight months in Bucharest, giving his first public concert on November 3, 1862. Even the Parisian press reported on his rapturous reception there. Another major tour took him around France in 1868 with the Ulmann Ensemble comprised of, among others, C. Patti, H. Vieuxtemps and F. Godefroid. The artists scored great success; inspiring particular enthusiasm were Wolff’s Tarantelle, Bolero and duets for violin and piano performed with H. Vieuxtemps.
After 1873, Wolff curtailed his concert appearances because of poor health. He suffered from a chronic stomach ailment that eventually led to his death. The composer willed a large sum of money to the Association des artistes musiciens. He died in Paris on October 16, 1880, and was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery.
Wolff’s Output in the Context of his Era
Wolff’s enormous compositional legacy is comprised, above all, of piano works. These works fit perfectly into the aesthetic and cultural context of the era. They represent the fashionable genres of the time, both virtuosic and lyric. Constituting an important thread are works maintained in Polish national style: mazurkas, polonaises, chansons polonaises. Particularly noteworthy are his etudes, esteemed by F.-J. Fétis, who included them in his collection Méthode des méthodes de piano, and S. Thalberg, who used them as teaching material. A. Marmontel, in turn, advised his students to work on Wolff’s Grand Allegro de concert op. 39 (dedicated to Chopin), because he considered it a fantastic work to hone one’s pianistic technique. While he did state that its allusions to Chopin are on occasion too direct, he did add that this was probably the composer’s intention, as a way of paying homage to an artist he adored.
Great popularity at the salons was enjoyed by Wolff’s dance pieces, especially the waltzes and tarantellas. These brilliant, graceful compositions were intended, above all, to please and put audiences in a good mood. H. Blanchard wrote that one could use them to improve one’s physical and mental state, for they possess ‘pharmaco-musical [properties] which are
effective for capricious, phlegmatic and hypochondriac individuals, and especially persons suffering from attacks of spleen’2. Equally important in the salon repertoire were his lyric miniatures, among others his rêveries, prières, mélodies and pensées poétiques. Filled with a note of melancholy and sadness, they represented a musical response to the need for immersion in a world of dreams and poetic fantasies. They testified to the Romantic sensitivity, one symptom of which was to enclose oneself in a sphere of privacy and focus on experiencing one’s own self. His skill in awakening subtle emotions was esteemed by M. Bourges, who discerned in Wolff’s works ‘a true poetry borne of a sensitive soul able not only to feel, but also to accurately depict those feelings’3.
In the concert halls, great acclaim was enjoyed by his spectacular variations and fantasies, based on well-known opera themes and arranged for violin and piano. His long-term collaboration with distinguished violinists (Ch. de Bériot and H. Vieuxtemps) bore fruit in the composition of approximately 40 such duets. With A. Batta, on the other hand, Wolff wrote three duets for ’cello and piano.
Wolff’s output fits into the virtuoso and salon thread well established in 19th-century European tradition. At the same time, his works in Polish national style, especially the Chansons polonaises, meant that he made a strong impression of musical distinctiveness. As L. Kreutzer wrote, ‘one can say that this is the flower of his talent, that which separates him from an entire horde of fellow composers whose formless muse in no way demonstrates its origin’4. That peculiar ‘local color’ had a lively effect on audiences, inspiring their emotions and imagination. He was associated with something faraway and unknown, but at the same time very close by virtue of the sense of solidarity they felt with a suffering nation deprived of freedom. These ‘Polish songs’ were often cited by French critics as the best testimony to Wolff’s originality and creative contribution to piano music.
Renata Suchowiejko is an Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University’sInstitute of Musicology, where she chairs the 19th–21st-century Music Methodology and History Group. She is involved with 19th-century music history, in particular with the history of violin performance and the phenomenon of instrumental virtuosity. She also conducts research on the presence of Polish music and musicians in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Wolff’s oeuvre is situated within the framework of her broader research project devoted to the activity of Polish pianists in Paris in Chopin’s time.
1 I quote the date from the tombstone inscription: À la mémoire d’Edouard Wolff, compositeur de musique, né à Varsovie le 15 novembre 1814, mort à Paris le 16 octobre 1880. Sa famille et ses amis. In the subject literature, Wolff’s birthday is given as September 15, 1816.
2 Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, September 27, 1840, p. 478.
3 Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, January 11, 1840, p. 147.
4 Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, April 10, 1853, p. 132.