Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (January 24, 1776 – June 25, 1822), better known by his pen name E.T.A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann), was a German Romantic author of fantasy and horror, a jurist, composer, music critic, draftsman and caricaturist. He is the subject and hero of Jacques Offenbach's famous but fictional opera The Tales of Hoffmann.
Hoffmann's stories were tremendously influential in the 19th century, and he is one of the key authors of the Romantic movement.
His parents separated in 1778, the father going to Insterburg (now Chernyakhovsk) with his elder son, Johann Ludwig Hoffmann (1768–after 1822), while Ernst's mother stayed in Königsberg with her relatives: two aunts, Johanna Sophie Doerffer (1745-1803) and Charlotte Wilhelmine Doerffer (c. 1754-79) and their brother, Otto Wilhelm Doerffer (1741–1811), who were all unmarried. This trio took it upon themselves to educate the youngster.
The household, dominated by the uncle (whom Ernst nicknamed O Weh or "Oh dear" in a play on his initials), was pietistic and uncongenial. Hoffmann was to regret his estrangement from his father. Nevertheless, he remembered his aunts with great affection, especially the younger, Charlotte, whom he nicknamed Tante Füßchen ("Aunt Littlefeet"). Although she died when he was only three years old, he treasured her memory (e.g. see Kater Murr) and embroidered stories about her to such an extent that later biographers sometimes assumed her to be imaginary, until proofs of her existence were found after World War II.
Between 1781 and 1792 he attended the Lutheran school or Burgschule, where he made good progress in classics. He was taught drawing by one Saemann, and counterpoint by a Polish organist named Podbileski, who was to be the prototype of Abraham Liscot in Kater Murr. Ernst showed great talent for piano-playing, and busied himself with writing and drawing. The provincial setting was not, however, conducive to technical progress, and despite his many-sided talents he remained relatively ignorant, both of classical forms and of the new artistic ideas that were then developing in Germany. He had however read Schiller, Goethe, Swift, Sterne, Rousseau, and Jean Paul, and wrote part of a novel called Der Geheimnisvolle.
Around 1787 he became friends with Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1775-1843), the son of a pastor and nephew of Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, the well-known writer friend of Immanuel Kant. In 1792, both attended some of Kant's lectures at the University of Königsberg. Their friendship, although often tested by a widening social gulf, was to be life-long.
In 1794, Hoffmann fell in love with Dora Hatt, a married woman to whom he had given music lessons. She was ten years older, and in 1795 gave birth to her sixth child. In February 1796, her family protested against his attentions, and, with his faltering consent, they asked another of his uncles to arrange employment for him in Glogau (Głogów), Prussian Silesia.
From June 1800 to 1803 he worked in Prussian provinces in the area of Greater Poland and Masovia. This was the first time he had lived without supervision by members of his family, and he started to become "what school principals, parsons, uncles, and aunts call dissolute." His first job, at Posen, was put in jeopardy after Carnival on Shrove Tuesday 1802, when caricatures of military officers were distributed at a ball. It was immediately deduced who had drawn them, and complaints were made to authorities in Berlin, who were reluctant to punish the promising young official. The problem was solved by "promoting" Hoffmann to Płock in New East Prussia, the former capital of Poland (1079-1138)where administrative offices were moved from Thorn (Toruń). He visited the place to arrange lodging, before returning to Posen where he married "Mischa" (Maria, or Marianna Tekla Michalina Rorer, whose Polish surname was Trzcińska). They moved to Płock in August 1802.
Hoffmann despaired over his exile, and drew caricatures of himself drowning in mud alongside ragged villagers. One of his tasks was to devise surnames for Jews. He found some poetic ones like Goldbaum and Apfelbaum. He did make use, however, of his isolation, by writing and composing. He started a diary on 1 October 1803. An essay on the theatre was published in Kotzebue's periodical, Die Freimüthige, and he entered a competition in the same magazine to write a play. Hoffmann's was called Der Preis ("The Prize"), and was itself about a competition to write a play. There were fourteen entries, but none was judged worthy of the award: 100 Friedrichs d'or. Nevertheless, his entry was singled out for praise. This was one of the few high points in a sad period in his life, which saw the deaths of his uncle J. L. Hoffmann in Berlin, his Aunt Sophie, and Dora Hatt in Königsberg.
At the beginning of 1804 he obtained a post at Warsaw. On his way there, he passed through his hometown and met one of Dora Hatt's daughters. He was never to return to Königsberg.
Unfortunately, his fortunate position was not to last: on 28 November 1806 during the War of the Fourth Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte's troops liberated Warsaw, and the Prussian bureaucrats lost their positions at a stroke. They divided the contents of the treasury between them and fled. In January 1807 his wife and two-year-old daughter Cäcilia returned to Posen, while he pondered whether to move to Vienna or go back to Berlin. A delay of six months was caused by severe illness. Eventually the French authorities demanded that all former officials swear allegiance or leave the country. As they refused to grant him a passport to Vienna, he was forced to return to Berlin. He visited his family in Posen before arriving in Berlin on 18 June 1807, hoping to further his career there as an artist and writer.
On 1 September 1808 he arrived with his wife in Bamberg, where he took up a position as theatre manager. The director, Count Soden, left almost immediately for Würzburg, leaving a man named Heinrich Cuno in charge. Hoffmann was unable to improve standards of performance, and his efforts led to intrigues against him which resulted in him losing his job to Cuno. He began work as music critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a newspaper in Leipzig. It was in its pages that the "Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler" character made his first appearance.
Hoffmann's breakthrough came in 1809, with the publication of Ritter Gluck, a story about a man who meets, or believes he has met, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87) more than twenty years after the latter's death. He began to use the pen name E. T. A. Hoffmann, telling people that the "A" stood for Amadeus, in homage to the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91). However, he continued to use Wilhelm in official documents throughout his life, and the initials E. T. W. also appear on his gravestone.
The next year, he was employed at the Bamberg Theatre as stagehand, decorator, and playwright, while also giving private music lessons. He fell so deeply in love with a young singing student, Julia Marc, that his feelings were obvious whenever they were together, and Julia's mother quickly found her a more suitable match. When Joseph Seconda offered Hoffmann a position as musical director for his opera company (then performing in Dresden), he accepted, leaving on 21 April 1813.
The situation deteriorated, and in early May Hoffmann tried in vain to find transport to Leipzig. On 8 May, the bridges were destroyed, and his family were marooned in the city. During the day, Hoffmann would roam, watching the fighting with curiosity. Finally, on 20 May, they left for Leipzig, only to be involved in an accident which killed one of the passengers in their coach and injured his wife.
They arrived on 23 May, and Hoffmann started work with Seconda's orchestra, which he found to be of the highest quality. On 4 June an armistice began, which allowed the company to return to Dresden. But on 22 August, after the end of the armistice, the family was forced to move from their pleasant house in the suburbs into the town, and over the next few days the Battle of Dresden raged. The city was bombarded; many people were killed by bombs directly in front of him. After the main battle was over, he visited the gory battlefield. His account can be found in Vision auf dem Schlachtfeld bei Dresden. After a long period of continued disturbance the town surrendered on 11 November, and on 9 December the company travelled to Leipzig.
On 25 February Hoffmann quarrelled with Seconda, and the next day he was given notice of twelve weeks. When asked to accompany them on their trip to Dresden in April, he refused, and they left without him. But in July his friend Hippel visited, and soon he found himself being guided back into his old career as a jurist.
At the end of September 1814, in the wake of Napoleon's defeat, Hoffmann returned to Berlin and succeeded in regaining a position at the Kammergericht, the chamber court. His opera Undine was performed by the Berlin Theatre. Its successful run came to an end only after a fire on the night of the 25th performance. Magazines clamoured for his contributions, and after a while his standards started to decline. Nevertheless, many masterpieces date from this time.
The period from 1819 saw Hoffmann embroiled in legal disputes, while battling ill health. Alcohol abuse and syphilis led eventually to weakening of the limbs in 1821, and paralysis from the beginning of 1822. His last works were dictated to his wife or to a secretary.
Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich's anti-liberal crusades began to put Hoffmann in situations that tested his conscience. Thousands of people were accused of treason for having certain political opinions, and university professors were monitored during their lectures.
King Frederick William III of Prussia appointed an Immediate Commission for the investigation of political dissidence; when he found its observance of the rule of law too frustrating, he established a Ministerial Commission to interfere with its processes. The latter was greatly influenced by Commissioner Kamptz. During the trial of Father Jahn, the leader of the Turmverein, Hoffmann found himself crossing the will of Kamptz, and became a political target. When Hoffmann caricatured Kamptz in a story (Meister Floh), Kamptz began legal proceedings. These petered out when Hoffmann's illness was seen to be life-threatening. The King asked for a reprimand only, but no action was ever taken. Eventually Meister Floh was published with the offending passages removed.
The Nutcracker story is full of charming mimed phantasies with Marie (Clara in the ballet), Fritz and Pate Drosselmayr, the mean Mouse King and the popular Nutcracker. Many versions of the story have been published as children's books. Nutcracker performances have become a yearly feature in many cities around Christmas. Yet these stories, as with the majority of his literary work, point beyond themselves in philosophical terms; Hoffmann invariably moves into territory where an exploration of the nature of Selfhood, Art and value-judgements are required in order for the reader to enjoy Hoffmann's writings more fully. Stories are, in their various media, the ultimate form of self-definition and world-interpretation; it is through stories that Hoffmann expresses his aesthetic, ethical and political concerns. Moreover, the original Hoffmann stories (including the Nutcracker) often have dark themes.
Hoffmann's work illuminates the darker side of the human spirit found behind the hypocritical harmony of bourgeois life, yet his wide-ranging influence upon and creative significance within the later German romantic period is frequently underestimated. The twentieth-century Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin characterised Hoffmann's works as Menippea, essentially satirical and self-parodying in form, thus placing him in a tradition that includes Cervantes, Diderot and Voltaire.
Robert Schumann's piano suite Kreisleriana (1838) takes its title from one of Hoffmann's books (and according to Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation, is possibly also inspired by "The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr", in which Kreisler appears). Jacques Offenbach's masterwork, the opera Les contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffmann", 1881), is based on the stories Der Sandmann ("The Sandman", 1816), Rat Krespel ("Councillor Krespel", 1818), and Das verlorene Spiegelbild ("The Lost Reflection") from Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht ("The Adventures of New Year's Eve", 1814). Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker (1892) is based on "Nutcracker and Mouse King".
Hoffmann also influenced 19th century musical taste directly through his music criticism. His reviews of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808) and other important works set new literary standards for writing about music, and encouraged later writers to see music as "the most Romantic of all the arts." Hoffmann's reviews were first collected for modern readers by Friedrich Schnapp, ed., in E.T.A. Hoffmann: Schriften zur Musik; Nachlese (1963) and have been made available in an English translation in E.T.A. Hoffmann's Writings on Music, Collected in a Single Volume (2004).
Hoffmann strove for artistic polymathy. He created far more in his works than mere political commentary achieved through satire. His masterpiece (it is generally agreed) is Lebensansichten des Katers Murr ("The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr", 1819–1821). This novel deals with such issues as the aesthetic status of 'true' artistry, and the modes of self-transcendence that accompany any genuine endeavour to create. Hoffmann's portrayal of the character Kreisler (a genius musician) is wittily counterpointed with the character of the tomcat Murr — a virtuoso illustration of artistic pretentiousness that many of Hoffmann's contemporaries found offensive and subversive of Romantic ideals.
Hoffmann's literature points to the failings of many so-called artists to differentiate between the superficial and the authentic aspects of such Romantic ideals. The self-conscious effort to impress must, according to Hoffmann, be divorced from the self-aware effort to create. This essential duality in Kater Murr is structurally conveyed through a discursive 'splicing together' of two biographical narratives. Such a framework warrants an extensive exploration of its philosophical implications.