Happy Birthday, E. T. A. Hoffmann!

E.T.A. Hoffmann, Symphony & Overtures recording by Kölner Akademie

E. T. A. Hoffmann – wasn’t that a writer? That is probably the question that comes to the mind of quite a few people when the name is mentioned, and they are quite right to do so. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, born in Königsberg on January 24, 1776, is known to most today as one of the most important storytellers of the Romantic period, who not infrequently teaches his readership to be creeped out. “The Sandman” as part of the collection of “Night Plays”, “The Fraulein of Scuderi” or even “Nutcracker and Mouse King” are just a few of the stories for which he is still known today. What is unknown or forgotten is the important role he played in the musical life of his time.

Hoffmann was born as the youngest son of the court advocate Christoph Ludwig Hoffmann and his cousin. Just two years after his birth, Hoffmann’s parents separated and while his older brother moved away with his father, Hoffmann lived from then on with his mother in the house of her parents. Thus, he was mainly influenced by his rather dominant grandmother, but also by his aunt Johanna Sophia, who took great care of him, since his mother was mentally unstable and there was no close bond with her. After his time at the castle school in Königsberg, where he also met his friend Theodor Gottlieb Hippen, he initially studied law out of a family tradition. In addition to his legal studies, Hoffmann always devoted himself to writing, making music and drawing. During his legal clerkship in Königsberg, he received training from the Bach admirer and organist Christian Podbielski and also gave music lessons himself.

After his second state examination, he moved to Berlin, where, in addition to his work at the Kammergericht, he took lessons with Johann Friedrich Reinhardt and tried his hand at composing various Singspiele. His literary work was strongly influenced by the Sturm und Drang movement, but also by close friendships with physicians: no one else before Hofmann described the night side of human existence as precisely and radically as he did. The secret societies that increasingly formed in the 18th century also found their way into his literary works. In these, they are primarily evil forces, under whose spell the innocent protagonist falls. After his third state examination, Hoffmann was transferred to Posen, which at that time belonged to Prussia. It was here that the first public performances of his musical works took place, beginning in 1800. This continued after his transfer to Warsaw. When the French entered Warsaw in 1806, they issued an ultimatum to the Prussian officials working there: either swear an oath to Napoleon or leave the city within a week. Hoffmann moved back to Berlin without his family, determined to leave the legal service and devote himself fully to his artistic career.

Hoffmann in Bamberg

This did not succeed at first: his compositions were ignored, and by the time he was promised a position as Kapellmeister in Bamberg in 1808, there was no more money. And even when he was finally able to take up this position, he was dismissed again after only two months. He was not able to earn any money with his compositions, but instead he was offered to work as a music critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. After his activity as music director of the opera company of Joseph Seconda also went to pieces within a very short time, he returned to the civil service. Although his artistic work was only a sideline from a financial point of view, Hoffmann finally received more recognition here: his “Fantasiestücke,” especially “Der goldne Topf,” were popular, although he could not quite match his earlier fame with his novel “Die Elixiere des Teufels. Musically, he celebrated a success in 1816 with the performance of his opera “Undine,” which made him proud. With his “Meister Floh,” in which he parodied the Ministerial Director of the Ministry of Police Karl Albert von Kamptz and made public internal details from court records, he broke his neck professionally as a civil servant. His health also declined: in 1822 he fell ill with progressive paralysis with clear mental faculties. He had to dictate his last literary works before he died of respiratory paralysis on June 25, 1822.

In addition to numerous stage works, Hoffmann’s musical oeuvre also includes piano and chamber music, vocal music and instrumental works. Although only parts of these are still known today, as a music critic he had a decisive influence on the musical aesthetics of his time and was a trend-setter for many composers of the time.

Kölner Akademie recorded E.T.A. Hoffmann’s only symphony together with works of Friedrich Witt. You can find it here.