His tales are about singing automata, somnambulistic girls, mysterious snake women, fairies and alchemists, misguided monks, vampires and witches. Everyone knows the stories of “Ghost Hoffmann”, as the poet and one of the most important representatives of German Romanticism, ETA Hoffmann, was called during his lifetime. His supernatural, sinister characters are incredibly apt representatives of the German Dark Romanticism, known as Gothic Literature in England. However, not only the fantastical, the marvellous and the eerie, but also comedy, satire and irony as well as social criticism permeate Hoffmann's entire artistic œuvre, and thus his fantastical tales and grotesque characters are often written with a wink.

ETA Hoffmann
© Public domain

Known today primarily for his literary works, it is often forgotten that ETA Hoffmann, a multi-faceted artist and universal genius, also practised as a lawyer, composer, Kapellmeister, music critic and illustrator. “On weekdays I am a lawyer and at most a bit of a musician, on Sundays, I draw during the day, and in the evenings I am a very funny writer until late at night,” he wrote to a friend.

Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann on 24 January 1776 in the Prussian capital Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), he changed his last middle name to Amadeus as a gesture of admiration for Mozart's music. Hoffmann grew up without a father in a bourgeois household, surrounded by uncles, aunts and grandparents, dreaming of an artist's existence. He wrote novels, which however remain in a drawer, he composed and was plagued by artistic escape fantasies from an early age.

As desired by his family, he pursued a legal career and took up law studies in 1792, passing the second state examination in 1798. After a legal clerkship in Berlin he was transferred to Posen in 1800; from 1804 he was a government councillor in Warsaw, where he worked until the Napoleonic invasion in 1806. The French presented the Prussian officials working in Warsaw with the choice of either taking the oath of allegiance to Napoleon or leaving the city within a week. Hoffmann left and now strove to finally deepen his musical and creative work.

Hoffmann fights against Prussian bureaucracy by ETA Hoffmann
© Public domain

While his compositions met with little approval at first, he was able to secure a position as Kapellmeister in Bamberg in the autumn of 1808. However, in the spring of the same year he was already plagued by financial worries and wrote to his long-time friend Theodor Gottlieb Hippe: “I am working myself tired and weary, I am putting my health at risk and am not earning anything! I do not want to recount my misery to you. For five days I have eaten nothing but bread, it has never been like this. Is it possible for you to help me, [...] otherwise I don't know by God what will become of me!” His tenure in Bamberg, although it could at least ease his financial worries, was marked by defeats. His debut as music director failed due to an inadequate performance by the orchestra and singers at the opera he conducted, and intrigues against him caused Hoffmann to lose his position as Kapellmeister after only two months. His theatre compositions weren't profitable enough either. Instead, Hoffmann received an offer from the publisher of the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung to write music reviews for the paper after his successful publication of his story Ritter Gluck.

With Ritter Gluck, his first printed work was published in 1809 – he was 27 years old at the time. Before then he only pursued his artistic activities as a sideline. It was not until his mid-thirties that his literary and musical works, which had been kept under lock and key, broke out and there seemed to be no stopping him, for within a few weeks the whole of literary Germany was talking about him, about “Ghost Hoffmann”.

The night was his métier and in it the Dark Romanticist brought bizarre fantasies to life, drove his dark doppelgangers, ghostly souls and revenants through the streets and thus elevated himself to the master of his spooky stories, but was also driven by them. He was the first Romanticist to narrate the dark, the “night side” of human existence and to illuminate it with the aid of fantastical, sometimes macabre stylistic devices. His medical and psychological knowledge, which Hoffmann could draw on thanks to his friendships with doctors in Bamberg, but also thanks to his reading of relevant psychiatric literature, was crucial. The founding of numerous secret societies in the 18th century, the most well-known being the Rosicrucians and the Illuminati Order, greatly influenced his literary work. Their mysterious, secretive and clandestine activities were predestined to be reflected in Hoffmann's stories. Hoffmann is believed to have written secret society novels as early as his twenties, but they were never published due to a lack of interest and were later lost. However, he eventually took up the genre again in his story Die Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brethren). Another important model for him were the gothic novels of his English contemporaries. And so Hoffmann's novel The Devil's Elixirs was largely inspired by Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk.

Hoffmann took up numerous subjects in his stories that shape our image of Romanticism today. The diversity of his professional and artistic work, which spanned his life as a bureaucrat and inventor of fantastical stories, equally influenced his works. And so many of his characters certainly reveal autobiographical features: His characters are painters, musicians, Kapellmeister and his love of music is always evident. Thus he repeatedly pays homage to Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven and several other composers in his stories.

Self-portrait of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler by ETA Hoffmann
© E.T.A. Hoffmann Portal, Staatsbibliothek Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

At the age of 27, he asked himself: “Was I born to be a painter or a musician?” Rightly so, for with all his literary successes, his work as a composer often took a back seat. Hoffmann composed vocal and instrumental music and numerous stage works. The best-known work and his greatest compositional success is his opera Undine, which premiered in 1816 at the Königliche Schauspielhaus at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin during the birthday celebrations of Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.

“A true opera seems to me to be only one in which the music springs directly from the poetry as a necessary result of it”. And so Hoffmann searched for material that will serve as a source of inspiration for his composition and meet his idea of Romantic music as the “mysterious language of a distant spirit realm”. Hoffmann was delighted with his collaboration with Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, who wrote the libretto based on his fairy-tale novella of the same name, and attested to an “artistically exalted mood”. Undine is considered one of the first German Romantic operas, owed more to the subject rather than the music, which was still very much influenced by Classical music. Hoffmann had “intimately felt the deep essence of the Romantic characters in that narrative”, which was reflected in the metaphysical character of the opera, but also in the passionate behaviour of the characters. The work was later forgotten, however, as it was superseded by Lortzing's opera of the same name, composed 29 years later, which proved to be more effective on stage.

While he drew inspiration from contemporaries, he and his œuvre also served as a source of inspiration for musical and literary adaptations. Hoffmann's unusual, fantastical stories and macabre, as well as supernatural, art fairytales inspired not least Wagner's Tannhäuser, Hindemith's Cardillac or Léo Delibes' Ballet Coppélia. As the author of numerous novellas he inspired Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, and Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana is also based on Hoffmann's character Johannes Kreisler. Jacques Offenbach's opéra fantastique Les Contes d'Hoffmann immortalised his stories, and Hoffmann himself, albeit heavily fictionalised, appears in the opera as a hero drunk on love and wine who tells his tales to the best of his ability.

Similarly, the influence on his literary successors is considerable; from Russia with Gogol and Dostoevsky, to France with Balzac and Baudelaire, to Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino, his impact is significant.

ETA Hoffmann died on 25th June 1822, aged just 46. “Distinguished in office / as a poet / as a musician / as a painter” is the inscription on his gravestone at the Berlin cemetery of the Jerusalems- und Neue Kirchengemeinde. The universal genius left behind a broad œuvre of stories, novels and various compositions, but also drawings, which prove that his work goes far beyond that of “Ghost Hoffmann”. The 200th anniversary of his death is an excellent opportunity to (re)discover them!

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.