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Tale of Hoffmann

by Philip Booth

It was an age of political and intellectual revolutions, beginning with the American in 1776. It was the Age of Romanticism, and into its turbulent beginnings, on January 24, 1776, in the Baltic seaport of Königsberg, was born one of its most turbulent children, E(rnst) T(heodor) A(madeus) Hoffmann.

Hoffmann by Hoffmann: a self portrait

Prodigiously talented and versatile, Hoffmann lived his short life at a white heat of intensity, but also of deep frustration. His parents separated soon after he was bom, and he was raised by his uncle, a severe disciplinarian whose sole contribution to his upbringing seems to have been the instilling of an indefatigable work-ethic.

Although he had displayed precocious musical ability, he was obliged to follow family tradition and pursue a career in law. Despondently, he enrolled at the University of Königsberg where, somewhat to his surprise, he did exceptionally well, qualifying as a junior magistrate in 1795. But he continued his music studies as well, and also became adept at painting and sketching. Some of the recklessness that characterizes his short stories was already apparent to his friends. One observed his "unusual merriment degenerating almost into buffoonery, and a disturbing delight in lasciviousness."

Following a scandalous affair with the wife of a prominent businessman, in 1802 he married a young Polish woman, Michalina Rohrer. But far from settling him down, marriage seems to have made him more rebellious. He had been promoted to a post in Poznan, but was already acquiring a reputation as a heavy drinker and roisterous tavern-goer (exactly as in the Prologue and Epilogue of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann). During one of those revels, he sketched and distributed some highly unflattering caricatures of local officials and was promptly transferred to the remote village of Plozk. "Some work of art must be born out of this chaos!" he wrote to a friend.

Rescued finally from Plozk through the influence of a faithful friend, Baron Theodor von Hippel, Hoffmann came to Warsaw and immediately plunged into its musical life. He organized his own orchestra, published a number of instrumental pieces, and oversaw the staging of his first opera, The Jolly Minstrels. Impulsively, he refused to give a token oath of allegiance to Napoleon's occupying forces and was summarily banished to Berlin, leaving his wife and infant daughter behind. Near starvation and distraught at learning that the child had died of influenza, he again sought von Hippel's aid and secured a post as music director of the Bamberg Opera in 1808.

The five stormy years in Bamberg mark the emotional climax of Hoffmann's life. Here he found his fictional "voice" at last, and conceived the great passion that was alternately to inspire and torment him for the rest of his life — a hopeless infatuation with his fourteen-year-old singing pupil, Julia Marc. Much as Beatrice did for Dante, Julia became for Hoffmann an ideal of femininity that was forever elusive. In addition to the "sacred" elements of spiritual and artistic adoration, Julia embodied "profane" elements of sensuality and betrayal. Both aspects are vividly illustrated in the characters of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann, especially when sung by one soprano. Julia's parents, increasingly concerned by Hoffmann's attentions, withdrew her from his tutelage in 1812. Hoffmann never saw her again.

His first published fiction appeared in 1809, not in a literary journal but in the distinguished critical review Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, for the short story "Sir Gluck" incorporated critical insights about the operas of Gluck within the context of a mysterious encounter between Hoffmann and the older composer. The eerie part is that Hoffmann swore that the several meetings described actually took place, though at the time in question Gluck had been dead for 20 years! While this sort of imaginative dissociation became more and more pronounced in his work, it seems not to have affected his judicial or managerial duties. It is almost as if Hoffmann the magistrate, Hoffmann the composer, Hoffmann the music critic, and Hoffmann the (increasingly) eccentric storyteller were four completely different people. One biographer has seen fit to designate this "compartmentalized" personality as "The Shattered Self."

Unfortunately, that suggests complete dysfunction, and this is manifestly not the case. What is extraordinary is the degree to which Hoffmann's "self' seems to have been "split" without being "shattered"! He was a prolific composer of operas and choral music, in addition to symphonic, chamber, and incidental pieces. He was indisputably the leading critic of his day — among the first to recognize the genius of J.S. Bach, and an enthusiastic champion of Beethoven. And of his civic duties one editor wrote: "[He] was a first-rate administrator and judge, well versed in the law, very conscientious and just." No "shattered" self could have accomplished these things.

It is important to remember that the idea of "The Divided Self' was a basic tenet of Romanticism, and helps explain its fascination with such behavioral extremes as the capacity of the human psyche for evil, terror, and madness. If Edgar Allan Poe is America's prime example of this somewhat lurid aspect of Romanticism, then E.T.A. Hoffmann is Germany's. (Ironically, both men were distinguished critics, both were alcoholics, and both had disastrous personal lives.)

From this background we can begin to see how Hoffmann's imagination might lead him to create a gallery of fantastically eccentric characters who represent extensions and embellishments of himself — a self more comfortable in a fantasy world than the real one. The most remarkable of these doppelgängers, Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, first appeared in 1811. "This creature," critic Ronald Taylor writes, "half genius, half crank, who was to portray the hope and despair, the successes and humiliations, the brief joys and frequent disillusionments of his masters, is as faithful and complete an author's self-portrait as literature has to offer." Robert Schumann was so fascinated by him that he entitled the eight "Fantasies" of his Opus 16 (1836) the Kreisleriana. Kreisler appeared in numerous stories and articles, and in the long, convoluted novel, Tomcat Murr's Opinions on Life, which Hoffmann left unfinished at his death. A famous sketch of him (by Hoffmann, of course) shows him outlandishly dressed, smiling fiendishly, and cavorting with a bubble pipe — completely mad.

The decision by the librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré to make Hoffmann himself the hero of Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann is both a clever unifying device and a reminder of just how closely he is identified with his creations. Act I is based on "The Sandman" (which also inspired Delibes' ballet Coppélia), with Hoffmann replacing the doomed Nathanael, who is tricked into believing that a mechanical doll is a real woman and falls hopelessly in love, only to see the creature demolished and his gullibility mocked. (In the original story Nathanael goes insane and commits suicide.) "Councillor Krespel" is the basis for Act II, and again Hoffmann is both the first person, narrator and the "Young Composer," infatuated equally with Antonia's beauty and her singing. Here, perhaps more dramatically than anywhere else in the tales, the ideals of human love and artistic fulfillment are identified with music and music-making. Antonia embodies both, and her longing to realize them fully with Hoffmann brings about her death and the shattering of that dream. Choose one or the other, artistic fulfillment or love, Hoffmann seems to be saying; you cannot have both. And he himself, it is clear, believed he had found neither. Act III is taken from "A New Year's Eve Adventure," in which Hoffmann is identified with both the lovesick Erasmus Spikher and the Traveling Enthusiast from whose "journal" the story is supposedly taken. In this tale his beloved figures by name, metamorphosing from the innocent "Julia" to the heartless courtesan "Giulietta." (The operatic version misses much of the tale's subtlety and menace. Readers interested in exploring the challenging complexity of the originals are referred to The Best Tales of Hoffmann, edited by E.F. Bleiler and published by Dover Publications, 1967.)

Hoffmann lived only a few years longer. In 1816, he was appointed senior magistrate of the Kammergericht, or Supreme Court, in Berlin. Articles, music, and stories continued to pour forth, though by 1820 the effects of his alcoholism were increasingly apparent. He managed, with only an official reprimand, to survive yet another run-in with the bureaucrats he so despised, but could not reverse the physical damage he had inflicted on himself. Completely paralyzed in 1822, he had just finished dictating, on June 25, a tale entitled "Die Genesung" ("Recovery") when he slipped, peacefully, out of a world he was fond of calling "an eternal, inexplicable misunderstanding."

Philip Booth is a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as an actor who has appeared in musical theatre and on One Life to Live. This article originally appeared in Stagebill, and we are grateful to both author and publisher for their gracious permission for this reprint.

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