Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Author's Portrait: E. T. A. Hoffmann
E. T. A. Hoffmann ca. 1800
painted by an unidentified artist
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were an important era for literature. It was the time of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism, a highly innovative literary movement altogether and in Germany in particular. Up to this day several German writers of the period are well remembered and read in schools (at least occasionally) as well as by classic lovers of all ages. The most prominent names of German Romanticism are Achim von Arnim, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, Joseph von Eichendorff, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. The last had a strong and lasting impact on literature paving the way for the fantasy, horror and crime genres.

E. T. A. Hoffmann was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia (today: Kaliningrad, Russia), on 24 January 1776. He was the third son of the barrister Christoph Ludwig Hoffmann and his cousin Lovisa Albertina Hoffmann, née Doerffer, but from the tender age of two he grew up in the sole care of his mother and her unmarried two sisters and the older brother because his parents had separated and his father had moved to Insterburg, Prussia (today: Chernyakhovsk, Russia), with the eldest son Johann Ludwig who was ten years old at the time and the only living brother of Ernst Theodor Wilhelm.

In accordance with the family’s long tradition in the law, the boy received a good education. As from 1781 he attended the Burgschule, a Lutheran school in Königsberg where he was taught not only the usual classics and science, but also music, drawing and painting for which he showed an inclination like his father and considerable talent, too. He excelled on the piano and always took great pleasure in writing and drawing. After his graduation in 1792 he studied law at the renowned university of Königsberg and attended some lectures of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. At the same time he gave piano and singing lessons for a livelihood.

His music lessons soon brought Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann into trouble because he became infatuated with his student Dora Hatt who was not only married, but also ten years his senior. His family arranged that the twenty-year-old could begin his law career working as a clerk for his uncle in Glogau, Prussian Silesia (today: Głogów, Poland) and continue his law studies taking the required exams during the course of the following four years. After two years in Glogau, in summer 1898, his uncle was assigned to a better post at a court in Berlin and Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann accompanied him there as his clerk.

Life in Berlin with its cultural life encouraged him to pursue a career as a composer. He offered his operetta Die Maske (The Mask) to the Royal Theatre, but when the answer arrived he had passed his last exams and entered service as a Prussian law officer in Posen, South Prussia (today: Poznań, Poland). He stayed there for two years and married before taking up his new post in Płock, New East Prussia (today: Poland), in August 1802. In the monotony of rural life he killed his time drawing, writing music and stories. A first essay was published in a magazine and his entry for a drama competition, Der Preis (The Prize), received a special mention although not the prize.

In 1804 Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann achieved his promotion to a post in Warsaw. He enjoyed the metropolitan atmosphere there, especially the manifold opportunities to indulge in cultural life. He frequented the literary circles of important writers like August Wilhelm Schlegel, Adelbert von Chamisso, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and Rahel Levin, but at the time his heart was still in being recognised as a composer rather than in becoming a writer. However, the Napoleonic Wars made an end to the pleasant life in Warsaw already late in 1806. As a Prussian law officer he lost his job and had to flee with his family now comprising also a daughter, Cäzilia, born in 1805.

The following months were marked by grave illness, misery and personal tragedy. He depended largely on money that friends lent him, he often didn’t get enough to eat and his daughter died in Posen where his wife had found temporary refuge with her family. Despite all he produced one of his best compositions during this difficult period, the Sei canzoni per quattro voci alla capella. In 1808 Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann and his wife moved to Bamberg where he strove hard to earn their living first as a theatre manager and then as a music critic, a job which brought him some acclaim.

In Bamberg Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann wrote his very first weird tale titled Ritter Gluck (Knight Gluck) which he published in 1809 and signed E. T. A. Hoffmann replacing the “W.” in his initials for the first time with an “A.” for “Amadeus” in homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The short story brought his breakthrough as a writer, but he still had a hard time earning a living. As from 1810 E. T. A. Hoffmann worked as a jack-of-all-trades at the Bamberg theatre and resumed giving music lessons, but once again he became infatuated with his student Julia Marc which wasn’t appreciated by her family. In 1811 his ballet Arlequin was staged.

In 1813 E. T. A. Hoffmann became musical director of an opera company performing in Dresden and Leipzig. He kept this job until September 1814 when the Prussian Kingdom was restored after Napoleon’s defeat. The same year he brought out a short story collection titled Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier (Fantasy Pieces in the Style of Callot). Apart from Ritter Gluck it included the Kreisleriana, Don Juan, Nachricht von den neuesten Schicksalen des Hundes Berganza (News of the Latest Fate of the Dog Berganza), Der Magnetiseur (The Magnetist), The Golden Pot (Der goldne Topf; last published in The Golden Pot and Other Tales), and A New Year’s Eve Adventure (Die Abenteuer der Silvesternacht; last published in The Best Tales of Hoffmann).

Back in Berlin E. T. A. Hoffmann was appointed a high position at the Kammergericht, a court of appeals that literally translates as Chamber Court, and in 1816 he became a councillor at the Supreme Court. However, the pleasure of a secure income and living at ease didn’t last long. As a consequence of alcohol abuse and syphilis his health began to deteriorate considerably in the late 1810s and left him entirely paralysed by 1821. In addition, he was drawn into several legal disputes. Nonetheless, he continued to write stories and music although he had to rely increasingly on his wife or his assistant to put his ideas to paper.

During the last seven years of his life E. T. A. Hoffmann published The Devil’s Elixirs, Volume I and Volume II (Die Elixiere des Teufels: 1815-1816), he brought his opera Undine (1816) on stage, he combined new stories under the title Nachtstücke (1817; Night Pieces) including the famous short story The Sand-Man (Der Sandmann; published in several English-language collections like Tales of Hoffmann). His most important tales of this period, however, appeared in The Serapion Brethren, Volume I and Volume II (Die Serapionsbrüder: 1819) containing some of his best stories, among them The Story of Krespel (Rat Krespel), Nutcracker and the King of Mice (Nußknacker und Mäusekönig) and The Mademoiselle Scuderi (Das Fräulein von Scuderi).

The most notable and enchanting of his late works certainly is the volume titled The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (Lebensansichten des Katers Murr: 1819-1821), the fictional autobiography of a cat that parodies the novel The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Other late works that deserve a mention are Princess Brambilla (Prinzessin Brambilla: 1820) and Master Flea (Meister Floh: 1922) which are both included in the collection The Golden Pot and Other Tales. The latter caricatured the Ministerial Commissioner Kamptz who took legal measures to prevent its publication and in fact the book was first brought out without the offending passages.

E. T. A. Hoffmann died in Berlin, Brandenburg, Kingdom of Prussia (today: Germany) on 25 June 1822, but his work had a lasting impact on literature, notably in the USA and in Russia. Among his prominent admirers were Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, and Franz Kafka who appreciated the fusion of the macabre and supernatural with the real in his stories. 

The tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann also inspired many composers. One of the best known compositions based on one of the author’s fantastic stories, namely on Nutcracker and the King of Mice (Nußknacker und Mäusekönig), certainly is the Christmas ballet The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which premiered in Saint Petersburg in December 1892. In his ballet Coppélia the French composer Léo Delibes combined the two stories The Sand-Man (Der Sandmann) and The Doll (Die Puppe). And in 1881 the opera The Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d’Hoffmann) of Jacques Offenbach was put on stage for the first time causing quite an outcry. Also Richard Wagner’s opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) is based on some of the stories of The Seraprion Brethren (Die Serapionsbrüder), while the opera Cardillac by Paul Hindemith was inspired by The Mademoiselle Scuderi (Das Fräulein von Scuderi). Robert Schuman wrote his piano suite Kreisleriana with the character from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tale in mind.

Of course, all of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s works are meanwhile in the public domain including many translations. Several German and English as well as some French, Finnish and Dutch editions can be found on Project Gutenberg, on and on Feedbooks.

This portrait is based on
  • the English and German Wikipedia articles
  • the biography on the Finnish site books and writers
  • the biography published on the website of The European Graduate School in Switzerland

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