What are we to make of a writer who says about himself: “I was born to be a musician. That is what I have felt and carried around with me from my earliest youth. Only the genius of music inherent in me can pull me out of my misery.” When E. T. A. Hoffmann confessed this to a friend in 1812, he had already published the story of Ritter Gluck and the first Kreisleriana, which soon established his fame (and his dazzling reputation). Heinrich Heine was later to call Hoffmann’s work a “horrifying cry of anguish in twenty volumes”. Notice, he was referring to his literary work. His musical work was presumably unknown to him – and not just to him.
Born in Königsberg in 1776, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann changed his third first name to Amadeus in admiration of Mozart. As a composer, if not forgotten, he would at best be listed among the more distant contemporaries of Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Louis Spohr. Resourceful music historians could, on the one hand, attribute to him the restoration of church music, as Hoffmann created traditional sacred works in the style of the Italian Renaissance musician Giovanni Palestrina; on the other hand, they could count him among the pioneers of Romantic music drama and see in his opera Undine the leitmotifs, the magic of sound, the open forms of a coming era, a promise of the future.
Undine was premiered in Berlin in 1816 to considerable success with stage designs by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. But when the sets went up in flames in July 1817 during the fire at the old Schauspielhaus at Gendarmenmarkt, Hoffmann’s magic opera also disappeared from the repertoire.
In his everyday life, Hoffmann was a judicial official in the Prussian civil service: his last post was as a councillor of Berlin’s Court of Justice. Intermittently, however, he was engaged by the theatre in Bamberg, where he held various positions ranging from kapellmeister and ballet composer to stage designer and director, before joining a travelling opera company as music director. E. T. A. Hoffmann lived in troubled times. Napoleonic rule in German lands, the battles of allies Prussia and Russia, occupation and liberation, artillery fire and bombardments, “broken people”, “the dull rattle of the throes of death”: he witnessed all the horrors of war – yet he remained an apolitical loner.
He fled into his literary fantasies, into a “distant, unknown spirit realm”, he created his fanciful and bizarre counter-worlds. And music in particular took him “out of the foolish doings and hustle and bustle of everyday life into the temple of Isis, where nature would speak to him in sacred, unheard-of and yet understandable sounds”.
Not as a composer but as a poet, Hoffmann exerted the strongest influence on music history with his writings, novels, fantasy and nocturnal pieces: composers including Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Ferruccio Busoni and Paul Hindemith were spellbound by his ideas and visions. With his literary alter ego, the figure of kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, Hoffmann struck a chord with musicians who could identify with the erratic existence and Romantically heated disposition of his fictional colleague. Robert Schumann composed Kreisleriana, miniature, psychological portraits for piano; and the young Brahms even gave himself the alias name “Johannes Kreisler junior”.
Two hundred years ago, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann died in Berlin on 25 June 1822. A divide ran between music and his misery, cutting through his life and spurring his imagination: the imagination of the poet.