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E(rnst) T(heodor) A(madeus) Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822)


German writer, composer, caricaturist, and painter, known for his stories in which supernatural characters reveal people's hidden secrets. However, Hoffmann was by training and profession a jurist. He changed his third name, Wilhelm, to Amadeus in 1813 in homage to the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Hoffmann's early aspirations were towards music and painting – he left behind a symphony, nine operas, and two masses. Other compositions include vocal, chamber, orchestral, and piano works. Hoffmann's opera The Water Sprite is still occasionally performed. In middle life he became interested in writing. Most of his best work was the product of his last ten years, before his early death following an illness. Hoffmann's fiction is considered the first flowering of the horror and fantasy short story.  Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, among others, were fascinated by his work.
--The Pope was silent for a few moments. Then he continued with a serious expression:
--"What if Nature were to follow in the realm of the spirit the physical law by which an organism can only reproduce its own kind; if propensity and desire, like the in-dwelling power which makes the leaves green, were to be handed down from father to son, obliterating free will? There are whole families of robbers and murderers. This would then be the original sin, and eternal, ineradicable curse on a guilty house, for which no sacrifice could atone."
(in The Devil's Elixirs, tr. Robert Taylor, 1963)

Ernest Theodor Amadeus (originally Wilhelm) Hoffmann was born in Köningsberg, the son of Christoph Ludwig Hoffmann, a barrister, and  Luise Albertine Dörffer. After his parents separated he was raised in the house of his maternal grandmother. In his youth he became interested both in sciences and arts – music, drawing, painting – and learned everything easily. He entered the university of Köningsberg, where he studied law and had then an unsettled career. In 1802 he married Maria Thekla Michaelina Rorer-Tracinska (Micha), the daughter of a town councillor. Their daughter, Cäzilia, was born in 1805; she died two years later.

Hoffmann worked as a Prussian law officer and then had several positions as conductor, critic, and theatrical musical director in Bamberg and Dresden until 1814. Recognizing that he would never be a great composer, he turned to writing. In 1813 he had written on Beethoven: "Beethoven's music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and awakens just that infinite longing which is essence of romanticism." These same themes became central in his literary works.

"It is the most romantic of all the arts – one might almost say, the only genuinely romantic art – for its own sole subject is the infinite." (Hoffmann about music)

'Ritter Gluck' (1809) was Hoffmann's first weid tale. It juxtaposed interpretations of madness and possession in a musician who believes that he is the composer Gluck. To pursue his interpretations of music, Hoffmann created an alter ego in the form of an imaginary character, Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a gifted but misunderstood musician. Kreisler first appeared in short prose pieces, which Hoffmann wrote during his stay in Bamberg.

Hoffmann's musical background is seen among others in the stories 'Don Juan' (1813), in which a hotel guest undergoes supernatural experience while watching a performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, 'Councillor Krespel' (1816), in which a young girl dies when encouraged to produce the perfect voice, and 'Der Kampf der Sänger' (1818), based on a 13th-century tale about a contest of minnesingers, in which one of the competitors has the devil on his side.

In 1816 Hoffmann attained a high position in the Supreme Court in Berlin; before it he had suffered from poverty in Leipzig. An additional problem was Napoleonic Wars which shook Europe from 1792 until 1815, and forced occasionally him to move from town to town. His struggle between two roles, as a bureaucrat and as an artist, underlined many of his works, which attacked against bourgeois world. In 'Der Goldene Topf' (1814) Hoffmann depicted the battle between the artistic world and the philistine, and 'Das Fräulein von Scuderi' (1819) was about a goldsmith, a highly respected citizen, who becomes at night a criminal.

There was also a divide between his private life, and his life in public: he had a satisfactory marriage but maintained an unconsummated love for an erstwhile music student, Julia Marc. She was only thirteen when Hoffmann began giving her voice lessons in Bamberg. At the age of sixteen she was married to a rich merchant from Hamburg. Hoffmann never saw her again. She inspired many of his heroines, including Aurelia in Die Elixiere des Teufels (1816). As a singer Hoffmann was a fine tenor.  

Hoffmann's shorter tales were mostly published in the collections Phantasiestücke  (1814-15, Fantasy Pieces) and Nachtstücke (1816/1817, Nocturnal Pieces), which inspired Offenbach (1819-1880) to compose his opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach portrayed the author as the dreamy central character. In the prologue the poet enters a tavern and tells the stories of his three great loves. Olympia is a mechanical doll who nearly danced him to death. Giulietta is encouraged to steal Hoffmann's reflection, after which he sings: "J'ai perdu mon reflet!!" She leaves him to fight with one Schlemil, who has been likewise bewitched. Hoffmann wins, but Giulietta disappears. Doctor Miracle treats Antonia for her disease by making her sing, and Hoffmann finds her dead from frantic singing. In the epilogue Stella, whom he loves, finds him dead drunk, and tosses a flower toward him and leaves. Among the musical highlight's of the opera is The Mechanical Doll's Song 'Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille'.

Hoffmann, and German Romanticism in general, influenced deeply Russian theater. Adaptations from his tales were put on the stage by almost every leading Russian director and they are alluded to in Mayakovsky's The Backbone Flute. Delibes's ballet Coppélia and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker are based on Hoffmann's works. The original tale for Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker and The Mouse King' was from 1816; it was not so much a story for children as about children and mystical events during the Christmas. A contemporary review stated that the text was hardly a fairy tale but made fun of decent people.Tchaikovsky read the story during a journey through Italy in 1882 in French adaptation, which Alexandre Dumas had published in 1844. He was not satisfied with his own composition. The French choreographer Marius Petipa, attached to the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, had made a highly detailed plan for him to follow; Tchaikovsky felt it limited his artistic freedom. The première took place in St. Petersburg on 18 December, 1892, without a great success.

Paul Hindemith's opera Cardillac (1926) drew from Hoffmann's 'Das Fräulein von Scuderi.' The libretto was written by Ferdinand Lion. In the story a town is plagued by a series of murders. The prime suspect is Cardillac, a goldsmith and artist of unsurpassed skill. Each of the victims is known to have bought an example of his work. A gold merchant suspects that the great artist's creations must be thought of as causes of the crimes. Cardillac states firmly that 'Was ich erschuf, is mein' (What I create is mine).

As described by his friends, Hoffmann was  short of stature, he spoke quickly, in short sentences, and he gestured wildly when he was carried away by his enthusiasm. During the last years of his life, when he had lost some of his front teeth, he was difficult to understand. Possibly he was an alcoholic; he drank daily though his alcohol consumption varied. His favorite drink was rum, but he also consumed wine, punch, and champagne. Once he was involved in a brawl with Julia Marc's fiancé, Johann Gerhard Graepel, whom he portrayed later in 'Nachricht von den neuesten Schicksalen des Hundes Berganza'  (1814) as a desperate drunkard.

Among Hoffmann's longer works is Die Elixire des Teufels, which studied the theme of doppelgänger. The novel was influenced by Matthew Gregory Lewis's Gothic romance The Monk (1796), which he had read in German translation. (Noteworthy, Lewis's novel also had an impact on Heinrich von Kleist, but in general it failed to attract German readers. The monk of the title is Ambrosio, who is seduced by a young woman, Matilda. Following his downfall, Ambrosio makes a pact with the Devil; Matilda is revealed to be a demon in disguise.) Alternate personalities or their shallow equivalents can be found in 'Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht' (1815), where a man meets both the shadowless Peter Schlemiel and Erasmus Spikher, who has lost his reflection. Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr), a fictional autobiography of a cat and a direct parody of Goethe's The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, was published in two volumes in 1820-21. As a model, Hoffmann had his own tomcat,  named Murr too. Goethe himself thought that Hoffmann's work was "sick" – he spoke of "die krankhaften Werke des leidenden Mannes". Murr died on November 30, 1821, after a short illness. On the day after his death, Hoffman sent out obituaries to his friends: "Those who knew the deceased youth, who saw him tread the path of virtua and justice, will judge of my pain and honour it by silence." ('Recovering and Reconstructing Animal Selves in Literary Autozoographies' by Frederike Middelhoff, in Animal Biography: Re-framing Animal Lives, edited by André Krebber, Mieke Roscher, 2018, p. 70). Hoffmann  never wrote the projected third volume.

Hoffmann wrote the first part of Die Elixire des Teufels in 1814. It deals with the adventures of Brother Medardus, an eighteenth-century Capuchin monk. The second is from 1815 and gives more light to Medardus's extraordinary experiences. The novel takes the form of a collection of manuscripts which the editor has found. Brother Medardus is chosen to take a message to Rome and he leaves the monastery with a bottle of Syracusan wine, said to have been wrested from the devil by St Anthony. On his journey he goes through delirious experiences – he is involved in a game of double impersonation, attempts to rape a woman, Aurelia, and kills his brother, meets in prison a mysterious double of himself, escapes the murderous intrigues at the court of Pope, and eventually returns to his monastery. In his possession is a manuscript of The Old Painter, who occasionally appeared during his adventures, and who was bewitched by the very Syracusan in the beginning of the tale. Medardus and Aurelia are the last of the Old Painter's line. Aurelia appears at the monastery but is killed by Count Victor, and a year later Medardus dies.

"The age is moving irrevocable forwards, and the situation of our noble classes is rapidly deteriorating. This may well explain their tactless behaviour towards highly cultures commoners; a mixture of appreciative respect and intolerable condescension, the product of a deep despair that the triviality of their past glory will be exposed to the knowing gaze of the wise, and their insufficiencies held up to ridicule." (in The Devil's Elixirs)

During the latter part of his life, Hoffmann suffered from atrophy of the liver that caused a slow paralysis of his body, beginning from his legs. On his deathbed,  he dictated the last portions of Meister Floh (Master Flea), a satirical novel, and the short story Des Vetters Eckfenster (My Cousin's Corner Window),  published posthumously. Hoffmann died in Berlin from progressive paralysis on June 25, 1822. My Cousin's Corner Window was about a paralyzed spectator observing a crowded Berlin market-place through a  window. He is visited by his older cousin, Hoffman himself; the window looks out from the author's second-floor apartment on Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt.

In England Hoffmann's "black Romanticism" was scorned by Sir Walter Scott. He placed Hoffmann among those fantasy writers who have "no further object than to surprise the public by the wonder itself." In the provocative article 'On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition' (1827), Scott argued: "In fact, the inspirations of Hoffmann so often resemble the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium, that we cannot help considering his case as one requiring the assistance of medicine rather than of criticism."

While preparing  the essay, Scott had read Hoffmann's Nachtsücke, in which one of the characters opposes the the idea of art as mimesis, saying that "history furnishes ample proof of this, and that is for this reason that the so-called historical novels, in which the idle and feebly flickering brain of the author hatches childish conceits by means of which he pretends to approach the eternal power governing the university, are so tasteless and disgusting."  ('Scott, Hoffmann, and the  Persistence of the Gothic' by Victor Sage, in Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000, edited by Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane, 2012, pp. 76-79) Most likely, Scott took the comment personally. As a Romantic thinker, Hoffmann believed that the purpose of art is "To see Nature in her profoundest significance, the higher purpose which inspires all creatures to yearn for the higher life. . . ." (E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana; The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, edited by David Charlton, 1989, p. 325). In his essay on 'Beethoven's Instrumental Music' (1815) he said of music: "It is the most romantic of all the arts – one might almost say, the only genuinely romantic art – for its own sole subject is the infinite." 

Hoffmann was well acquainted with the work of Anton Mesmer, who explored the concept of the unconscious and played a key role in the history of psychoanalysis.  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung read the The Devil's Elixirs in 1909. He found its problems "palpably real" and it also influenced his theory of the archetypes. John Kerr has later pointed out that all the major archetypes discovered by Jung in his self-analysis appear in Hoffmann's book. (Jung in Contexts, ed.  Paul Bishop, 1999) Sigmund Freud referred to 'The Sandman' in his study 'The Uncanny' (1919). Already in 1885 he had written in a letter to Martha Bernays: "I have been reading off and on a few things by the 'mad' Hoffmann, mad, fantastic stuff, here and there a brilliant thought".

Particularly in the United States, Hoffmann's tales were received with enthusiasm. He affected the writings of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, who on the other hand never mentions the German's author name directly, but says: "I am led to think that it is the prevalence of the Arabesque in my serious tales which has induced one or two of my critics to tax me, in all friendliness, with what they have been pleased to call Germanism and gloom." (The Influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann on the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe by Palmer Cobb, 1908, p. 4) However, both shared an interest in mesmerism ("animal magnetism"); Poe even praised Chauncy Hare Townshend's Facts on Mesmerism (1840). Palmer Cobb has argued that Poe drew from Hoffmann in his own pieces dealing with the same subject. (ibid, p. 104) These works include 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains' (1844),  'Mesmeric Revelation' (1844), and 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' (1845). 

For further reading: The Real Tales of Hoffmann: Origin, History, and Restoration of an Operatic Masterpiece by Vincent Giroud and Michael Kaye (2017); Schumann's Music and E. T. A. Hoffmann's Fiction by John MacAuslan (2016); E.T.A. Hoffmann's Orient: Romantic Aesthetics and the German Imagination by Joanna Neilly (2016); E.T.A. Hoffmann Handbuch: Leben, Werk, Wirkung, edited by Christine Lubkol and Harald Neumeyer (2015); 'Scott, Hoffmann, and the  Persistence of the Gothic' by Victor Sage, in Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000, edited by Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane (2012); E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol: Biography, Reception and Art  by Victoria Dutchman-Smith (2010), E.T.A. Hoffmann. Das Leben eines skeptischen Phantasten by Rüdiger Safranski (2001); E.T.A. Hoffmann zur Einfürung by Detlef Kremer (1998); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed.  David Pringle (1998); Spätromatiker: Eichendorff und E.T.A. Hoffmann by Wolfgang Nehring (1997); E.T.A. Hoffmann, ed. by F. Schnapp (1974); Die Augen des Automaten by P.v. Matt (1971); Vieldeutige Welt by L. Köhn (1966); E.T.A. Hoffmann als bildender Künstler by T. Piana (1954); Hoffmann le fantastique by J. Mistler (1951); E.T.A. Hoffmann als Musiker by P. Greeff (1948); Hoffmann als Dichter des Unbewussten (1936); Hoffmann als Maler by C.G. v. Maassen (1926) 

Selected bibliography:

  • Undine, 1812-14
  • Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 1814-15 (4 vols., rev. ed. 1819) [Fantasy Pieces in the Style of Callot]
  • Die Vision auf dem Schlachtfelde bei Dresden, 1814
  • Der goldne Topf: Ein Märchen aus der neuen Zeit, 1814 - The Golden Pot (tr. Thomas Carlyle, in German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors, 1827; Ritchie Robertson, in The Golden Pot, and Other Tales, 1992) - Kultainen malja: satu uudelta ajalta (suom. Sanna Isto-Rodenkirchen, 2001)
  • Die Elixiere des Teufels, 1815-16 (2 vols.) - The Devil's Elixir (tr. R.P. Gillies, 1824) / The Devil's Elixirs (tr.  R. Taylor, 1963) - Paholaisen eliksirit (suom. Arnold Laurell, 1930)
  • Nachtstücke, 1816-1817 (2 vols., includes Der Sandmann, Das Majorrat, Das Gelübde, and other short stories) - Sandman (in Tales From the German, ed. John Oxenford, 1844) / Hoffmann's Strange Stories (tr. 1855) / The Sandman (tr. Ritchie Robertson, in The Golden Pot and Other Tales, 1992) - Hunnutettu nainen (suom. Werner Anttila, 1919) / Yökappaleita (suom. Markku Manninen, 2011; sisältää tarinat Nukuttaja, Ignaz Denner, Jesuiittakirkko, Sanctus, Autio talo, Majoraatti, Pyhä lupaus, Kivinen sydän)
  • Seltsame Leiden eines Theater-Direktors, 1819
  • Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober, 1819 - The King's Bride (tr. 1959) - Kiusanhenki (suom. Aino Tuomikoski, 1918)
  • Die Serapions-brüder: Gesammelte Erzählungen und Märchen, 1819-21 (4 vols., includes Nussknacker und Mauseköning, Die Bergwerke zu Falun, Das Fräulein von Scudéri, Die Brautwahl, and other stories) - The Serapion Brethren (tr. Alexander Ewing, 2 vols, 1886-92) / Nutcracker and Mouse King, and The Educated Cat (tr. Ascott R. Hope, 1892) / Mademoiselle de Scudery (in Tales of Hoffmann, ed.  R.J. Hollingdale, 1982) / Nutcracker (tr. 1985) / The Nutcracker; and, The Strange Child (translated from the German by Anthea Bell, 2010) - Outo intohimo: kertomus Ludvig XIV:n ajalta (suomentanut J. E. Eteläpää, 1914) / Pähkinänrusentaja ja hiirikuningas (suom. Salme Setälä, 1918) / Pähkinänsärkijä (suom. Salme Setälä; suomennoksen tark. Hanno Vammelvuo, 1982)
  • Lebensansichten Des Katers Murr Nebst Fragmentarischer Biographie Des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in Zufälligen Makulaturblättern, 1820-21 (2 vols.) - The Life and Opinions of Kate Murr (tr. Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight, in Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, vol. 2., 1969) / The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: Together with a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (translated and annotated by Anthea Bell; with an introduction by Jeremy Adler, 1999) - Kissa Murr ja hänen elämänviisautensa sekä satunnaisia makulatuurikatkelmia kapellimestari Kreislerin elämäkerrasta (suom. Teijo Havu, 1946)
  • Prinzessin Brambilla, 1821 - Princess Brambilla (tr. Ritchie Robertson, in The Golden Pot and Other Tales, 1992) - Prinsessa Brambilla: kuunnelma (suom. Erkki O. Aura, 1984)
  • Die marquise de la Pivardiere, 1821 - Markiisittaren rikos (suom. Bertta Sulonen, 1921)
  • Meister Floh, 1822 - Master Flea (tr. G. Sloane, 1826)
  • Des Vetters Eckfenster, 1822 - My Cousin's Corner Window (tr. Ritchie Robertson, in The Golden Pot and Other Tales, 1992) - Serkkuni kulmaikkuna (suom. Jukka Sarjala, 2014)
  • Die Maske, 1823
  • Die Letzten Erzählungen, 1825 (2 vols.)
  • Hoffmann's Fairy Tales, 1857 (tr. L. Burnham)
  • Weird Tales, 1885 (tr. T.J. Bealy)
  • Stories, 1908 (edited by Arthur Ransome)
  • E.T.A. Hoffmann im persönlichen und brieflichen Verkehr: sein Briefwechsel und die Erinnerungen seiner Bekannten, 1912 (with Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel and Hans von Müller)
  • Werke, 1912 (15 vols., edited by Georg Ellinger)
  • Tales of Hoffmann: Retold from Offenbach's Opera, 1913 (tr. Cyril Falls)
  • Die Zeichnungen, 1921 (ed. Leopold Hirschberg)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1922 (14 vols.)
  • Die Maske, 1923 (edited by  Friedrich Schnapp)
  • Dichtungen und Schriften sowie Briefe und Tagebücher, 1924 (15 vols., edited by  Klaus Kanzog)
  • The Tales of Hoffmann, 1943
  • Poetische Werke, 1958 (6 vols., edited by   Gerhard Seidel)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1960-65 (5 vols., edited by  Walter Müller-Seidel and others)
  • The Devil's Elixirs, 1963 (tr.  R. Taylor)
  • The Best Tales of Hoffmann, 1967 (edited by E.F. Bleiler)
  • Briefwechsel, 1967-69 (3 vols., edited by  Hans von Müller and Friedrich Schnapp)
  • Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1969 (2 vols., edited by  Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight)
  • Tagebücher, 1971 (edited by Friedrich Schnapp)
  • Three Märchen, 1971
  • Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1972 (edited and translated by Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight)
  • Juristische Arbeiten, 1973 (edited by Friedrich Schnapp)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1976-88 (edited by Rudolf Mingau and Hans-Joachim Kruse) 
  • Tales, 1982 (edited by R.J. Hollingdale)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1985-2004 (6 vols., edited by Wulf Segebrecht, Hartmut Steinecke, et al.)
  • The Golden Pot, and Other Tales, 1992 (tr. Ritchie Robertson)
  • E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, 2003 (edited, annotated, and introduced by David Charlton; translated by Martyn Clarke)
  • Four Stories = Vier Erzählungen, 2003 (edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum)
  • E.T.A. Hoffmann: Romane und Erzählungen, 2004 (edited by Günter Sasse)
  • The Nutcracker; and, The Strange Child, 2010 (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)

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