E.T.A. Hoffman

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. 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. His work influnenced among others Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

-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.” 
(from The Devil’s Elixirs, 1963, trans. by Robert Taylor)

Ernest Theodor Amadeus (originally Wilhelm) Hoffmann was born in Köningsberg. In his youth he studied both 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): 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. He recognized that he would never be a great composer, so 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 musician, Johannes Kreisler. His 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 Hoffmann 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 the story ‘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. Hoffmann’s shorter tales were mostly published in the collections PHANTASIESTÜCKE (1914) and NACHTSTÜCKE (1817), 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’.

Delibes’s ballet Coppélia and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker are also based on Hoffmann’s tales. The original tale for Tchaikovsky’s ballet, ‘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. Paul Hindemith’s opera Cardillac (1926) was inspired by Hoffmann’s story ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi.’ Its 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). Hoffmann, and German Romanticism in general, influenced deeply Russian theater. Adaptations from his tales were put in the theater by almost every leading Russian director and they are alluded to in Mayakovsky’s The Backbone Flute.

Among Hoffmann’s longer works are DIE ELIXIERE DES TEUFELS (1816), which studied the theme of doppelgänger. 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 (…), a fictional autobiography of a cat and a direct parody of Goete’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, was published in two volumes in 1820-21.

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.” (from The Devil’s Elixirs)

Hoffmann died in Berlin from progressive paralysis on June 25, 1822. His tales, which weave the fantastic closely into real world, had enormous influence particularly in the United States, and affected the writings of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Hoffmann’s opera The Water Sprite is still occasionally performed. – 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 novel. (Jung in Contexts, ed. by Paul Bishop, 1999) Sigmund Freud referred to the novel in his study ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), but he had written already in 1885 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”.

For further readingE.T.A. Hoffmann zur Einfürung by Detlef Kremer (1998); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by 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) – Suom.: Suomeksi Hoffmannilta on lisäksi suomeksi julkaistu Outo intohimo. Hoffmannin tarinoihin pohjautuvat mm. Delibesin baletti Coppélia ja Tsaikovskin baletti Pähkinänsärkijä. – See also: Little Blue Light

Selected bibliography:

  • UNDINE, 1812-14
  • PHANTASIESTÜCKE IN CALLOTS MANIER, 4 vol.,1814-15 – Fantasy Pieces in the Syle of Callot
  • DER GOLDNE TOPF: EIN MÄRCHEN AUS DER NEUEN ZEIT, 1814 – The Golden Pot (transl. by Thomas Carlyle in German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors, 1827)
  • DIE ELIXIERE DES TEUFELS, 2 vol., 1815-16 – The Devil’s Elixir
  • NACHSTÜCKE, 2 vol., 1817 – Hoffmann’s Strange Stories
  • DIE SERAPIONS-BRÜDER, 4 vol., 1819-21 – The Serapion Brethren
  • MEISTER FLOH, 1822
  • DIE MASKE, 1823
  • BRIEFE, 1912
  • SÄMTLICHE WERKE, 1922 (14 vols.)
  • SÄMTLICHE WERKE, 1908-1928
  • The Tales of Hoffmann, 1943
  • POETISCHE WERKE, 1957-62 (12 vols.)
  • The Devil’s Elixirs, 1963 (trans. by R. Taylor)
  • The Best Tales of Hoffmann, 1967
  • Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1969 (2 vols.)
  • Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1972 (edited and translated by Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight)
  • The Golden Pot and Other Tales, 1992