About the Composer spacer Sly

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948)


Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was born in Venice in 1876, the son of an Italian mother and a German father. Although he studied piano from an early age, music was not the primary passion of his young life. In fact, as a teenager Wolf-Ferrari wanted to be a painter like his father; he studied intensively in Venice and even traveled abroad to study in Munich. It was in Munich that Wolf-Ferrari began getting serious about music. He enrolled in the conservatory there and began taking counterpoint and composition classes. These initially casual music classes eventually completely eclipsed his art studies, and music took over Wolf-Ferrari’s life.

At age 19, Wolf-Ferrari left the conservatory and traveled home to Venice. There he worked as a choral conductor, married, had a child, and met both Boito and the great Verdi. Just a few years later Wolf-Ferrari debuted his first opera, La Cenerentola, based on the story of Cinderella. The opera was a failure in Italy, and the humiliated young composer moved back to Munich. German audiences would prove more appreciative of his work; a few years later, a revised version of La Cenerentola was a hit in Brennan, while the beautiful cantata La Vita Nuova brought the young composer international fame.

Wolf-Ferrari now began transforming the wild and witty farces of Renaissance playwright Carlo Goldoni into comic operas. The resulting works were musically eclectic, melodic, and utterly hilarious; every single one became an international success. In fact, until the outbreak of World War I, Wolf-Ferrari’s operas were among the most performed in the world.

World War I, however, was a nightmare for Wolf-Ferrari. The young composer, who had been dividing his time between Munich and Venice, suddenly found his two countries at war with each other. He eventually moved to safety in Zurich, but the stress and sadness of the war brought him to a complete creative standstill. It was not until after the war’s end that Wolf-Ferrari moved back to Munich and began working again. A new melancholy vein appeared in his post-war work; his operas grew darker and more emotionally complex. Among these darker operas was Sly, an opera about a comic buffoon which transforms midstream into a tale of emotional torture and suicide.

However, over time Wolf-Ferrari began to wend his way back towards the light-hearted style of his youth. He returned to work on the plays of Goldoni--almost as if he wanted to recapture the sparkling joy and popular success that had once come so naturally to him. However, this return to comedy was threatened by the outbreak of World War II. Wolf-Ferrari was not directly threatened by Hitler’s policies, but was utterly repulsed by the Nazis. He abandoned Germany and moved to Rome, continuing to write operas and working increasingly on instrumental music. A few years later he returned to Germany to accept a teaching position at the Salzburg Mozarteum, but found teaching conditions impossible and retired to the Austrian countryside. Near the end of the war he was eventually able to move to Zurich, but in just a few months he returned to Venice to live with his brother. He died there in 1948, a few days after his 72nd birthday.

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