Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was born in Venice on January 12th, 1876 to the German painter August Wolf and the Venetian Emilia Ferrari. At a very young age Ermanno was introduced by his father to painting and was encouraged at the same time to cultivate his musical studies.
At an early age painting and music profoundly marked his artistic evolution. He took piano lessons with the photographer L. Brusa and then in 1891 he was invited to go to Rome to attend the Accademia di Belle Arti. He subsequently perfectioned his skills at the Holosy School in Munich and from 1892 to 1895 he attended the Akademie der Tonkunst, studying counterpoint for approximately three years with J. Rheinberger and orchestra conducting with L. Abel. When he returned to Venice he dedicated his time to the writing of the libretto and of the music for the opera Irene (1895-1896), which, however, was never performed.
For the young Wolf-Ferrari these were years of great suffering and confusion due to his incapacity to recognize his true artistic identity. It was not necessarily because of his parallel studies in music and painting, but more for the fact that in him there existed two cultures, Italian and German.
In 1897 he moved to Milan when he was called to conduct a German choral society, and here he had the possibility to meet people like Giulio Ricordi, Arrigo Boito and Lorenzo Perosi. When his oratorio La Sulamita, was performed in Venice in 1899, composed using the words of Cantico dei Cantici, his name finally began to circulate in the world of music. However already by the following year his second opera, Cinderella, was performed at the Teatro la Fenice but wasn't very successful. An important period of seclusion in Munich followed this fiasco, during which Wolf-Ferrari subjected the opera to serious revision: reproposed in 1902 at the Bremen Theatre, Cinderella was finally quite successful. This period of reflection led the young composer to comprehend who were the most important two teachers in terms of guidance in his activity as a composer: Goldoni, the poet of his beloved Venice and Mozart, who was for him the emblem of "Zeitloses", (being outside the dimension of time). Also in Munich he composed and staged in 1903 Dante's poem La vita nuova, which was as successful as Le donne curiose, his first opera based on a story by Goldoni. In the same year he became headmaster of the Liceo Musicale B. Marcello in Venice, a position he held until 1909.
Following a visit to the United States in 1911-1912, he returned to Italy to dedicate his time entirely to composition. Soon afterwards, however, the First World War broke out and affected him profoundly, given his spiritual connections both with Italy and with Germany and this led to a crisis which resulted in a long period of inactivity and silence for 10 years.
His return to the public was with the opera I gioelli della Madonna, which was a late representation of a verism opera and only represents an interlude in the artistic course of Wolf-Ferrari. The composer is actually remembered for his comedies, which also contain a moral to the story: these comedies, which are more melancholic and good-natured than ironic and sharp, aim to reach absolute harmony, a harmony that in the 1900s was intended as the aesthetic ideal in which the public could also take refuge. The desire of Wolf-Ferrari was, in fact, primarily to transmit his message to the greatest number of spectators: for this reason he kept his distance from the doctrinarian disputes and dedicated his time exclusively to his research of the Absolute.
Even though he was German on his father's side, he was fully entitled to consider himself an Italian musician, or more precisely, a Venetian musician. The public had, in fact, always considered Wolf-Ferrari as the musician of the Goldoni style par excellence, favouring his operas which were loyally based on Goldoni's works: Le donne curiose, I rusteghi, Il Campiello could still be found on programmes in the theatres long after his death.
Wolf-Ferrari was a cultured and refined musician who was not caught up in the charm of verism theatre or the issues connected to the European avant-garde artists, and it was for this reason that Wolf-Ferrari obtained the best results with Goldoni's works, even if, in reality, only 5 of his works are directly from Goldoni's comedies: Le donne curiose, I quatro rusteghi, Gli amanti sposi, La vedova scaltra, Il Campiello. Also the really successful Il segreto di Susanna, written by the Neapolitan librettist Enrico Golisciani, as well as L'amore medico, based on a story of the same name by Molière, were both inspired by Goldoni's style. Two operas based on librettos by Giovacchino Forzano were clearly inspired by eighteenth-century opera reproposing even the double title used in that century: La gabbia dorata, ovvero Il Legame d'amore della marchesa and Sly, ovvero La Leggenda del dormiente risvegliato.
In 1939 the composer was nominated Professor of composition at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and remained there for a few years before going to Zurich and, in 1947, he returned indefinitely to Venice where he died on January 21st the following year.