Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann: Artist, Composer, Writer

A creator of the Nutcracker. An adult fairy tale’s author.

The development of the Romanticism in Russian literature (1800-1820) is inextricably linked with the disenchantment in rational basis of the Enlightenment and the search for idealism, to make the world a better place, which is reflected in the works of two European authors: Walter Scott and Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann. 

The premise of Romanticism, namely, the historical genre, penetrated in Russian literature through the reflection of the Walter Scott works. The heroes of Romanticism yearn for their ideals. The interest in the historical and folk themes, love of the motherland, nature, ballads run like a golden thread through the works of the foremost Russian poets and writers like Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexander Pushkin and Michael Lermontov. The late period of Romanticism in Western Europe, in its turn, was full of pessimism and tragedy. It was called – “the malady of the age”. The heroes of the novels were wrapped up in despair. The idealism was lost forever in favor of evil. The writers searched for the answers in art. The theme of “horrible mystery world” was especially reflected in the works of the German writer, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman, who became an antagonist of evil and mediocrity. 

Hoffmann-Artist

Hoffman was born in Königsberg ( Kaliningrad) in 1776, where he had been living his early life for 20 years. Hoffman’s father was an attorney and wanted his son to follow his trade. The atmosphere at home, where his father having drunk to excess and his mother having had a meltdown, influenced the character formation of sensible Hoffmann. 

Feeling the atmosphere of the house so leaden, young Hoffmann tried to escape from that world, filled with scandal, reproaches and falseness. Having created a protected zone for his imagination, Hoffmann secluded himself from the reality through his heroes. Even after having finished university on father’s orders, he didn’t lose interest in art, music and literature.

Working as a court reporter, Hoffmann was writing letters and drafting sketches to his paintings during the Court sessions. Often, instead of signing to letters, he drafted his portrait.  Most of his drawings were caricatures of town folks people, where Hoffmann tried to chastise them. One time, he presented through water-color drawing the egoism and sated with pleasure the official Stephen von Stengel. Another time, the subject of his ironical scrutiny became the owner of a huge antique collection and a monastery canonic Georg Ster. Once during the dancing party, he decided to spread the caricatures to put a satirical spin on society. The cartoon style of sketching created many enemies around Hoffmann.  Along with that, Hoffmann painted serious portraits. The portrait of a doctor from Bamberg, made by gouache painting; the portrait of the family Kunz; the portraits of actors and also some drawings to his literary works. 

Hoffmann- composer

Almost everyone who likes ballet or has ever been in The Royal Ballet, heard about the ballet “The Nutcracker” by Peter Tchaikovsky. Perhaps, one knows that the ballet was loosely based on the story, written by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann. 

Besides the Nutcracker, the vivid image of the literary characters came to fruition in  the libretto or mis-en-scène  to “The Kreislerian” by R.Schumann,  “The Flying Dutchman” by R. Wagner, “Giselle” by A. Adam, “Cadillac” by P.Hindemith, “Coppelia/ The Girl With The Enamel Eyes” by L.Delibes.

Hoffmann himself liked music more than anything in his life, and dreamed of dedicating his life to music. He even took his name after Amadeus Mozart and since 1805 (as he was 29 years old) had been called Ernst Amadeus Wilhelm Hoffman.

Hoffmann perfectly played the piano, pipe organ and violin. Had a nice voice and was an orchestral conductor. Composed sonata and church music.

His first steps as a composer, he made in 1799 (23 years old) and wrote a three act Singspiel “Die Maske” (Mask). Later in 1804 he firstly signed his sheet music “Die lustigen Musikanten” ( Merry musicians) Amadeus Hoffmann.  In 1804 he moved to the homeward of Frederic Chopin, Warsaw, Poland and devoted himself utterly to music. He wrote several operas and songs. The most famous of his operas “Undine” he finished in 1815. Waltz, sonatas, operas, symphonies, overture, rondo, church music- Hoffmann wrote a lot, but music didn’t put food on the table. And he had to earn money in any manner whatsoever. 

Hoffmann-writer

The first novel Hoffmann wrote to earn his keep. He lost the job in the Court and couldn’t continue as a composer. He was 33 years old.  It was published in the General Music Newspaper. All written stories and novels of Hoffmann can be called “after dark”. Even if the plot contains a daily atmosphere, penetrated with a sunny spirit of Italy. Hoffmann is a writer of a darkness mind, deep shadows and mysticism. Hoffmann was an idealist and through the heroes of his books tried to restore people from drawbacks and sins. He struggled against narrow -mindedness and tried to awaken a child through his adult fairy tales with an aim to lift the veil on idealism. 

The stories of Hoffmann are full of satire and allegory with a double plot- real and fantastic.

In the Little Zaches/ Great Zinnober, for example, E.T.A. Hoffman satirized philistinism. He took Mickey out of a petty bourgeoisie where every ugly man, having money, was seen as someone particular, handsome and talented. In such a way, Hoffman shows his disgust to the society, holding in reverence everyone with a title and money.

The allegorical example of Hoffman’s novel can be seen in the Life and Opinion of Tomcat Murr. In that novel Hoffmann’s tomcat was taken as the protoplast.  By means of the allegory, he described the voluptuousness and vanity of the society.

Sarcastic and satirical Hoffmann was a favorite writer of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoyevsky, who was an old hand at describing human nature and sins, read all novels of Hoffmann several times in the translation and the original.  Under his inspiration, Dostoevsky wrote his famous short novel “The Double”. Hoffmann had also a great impact on the works of Edgard Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He was very beloved by Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Pushkin.

Nowadays, Hoffmann is still very cherished in Russia. His works continue influencing a lot of the contemporary authors and artists. In 2019 he issued a book “The Russian circle of Hoffmann”. This book is being crosscut with Hoffmann’s heroes, works or even his own personality. Since 2016 there has been a literary competition “Russian Hoffmann”, where every author and poet may participate. In 2022 is going to be a big celebration in Russia and especially in Kaliningrad, a native city of Hoffmann, to mark a 200-year Anniversary year of the writer, composer and artist’s death. 

It is a pity that for all its talk about the museum of Hoffmann, there is the only one in Russia. And it is not even a museum in the sense that it does not have its own building. This kind of exhibition, which can be visited or seen in Kaliningrad is mostly about Hoffmann and his heroes, where the admired artists present their works. There is nothing left in Russia after Hoffmann, except the stone, identifying the French street 25, where Hoffmann used to live before.

The Hoffmann’s exhibition contractor and the arts curator of the Historical Museum in Kaliningrad, Pokladova Valentina, says that in 2021 is planned to issue a new catalogue about Hoffmann. The works of Hoffmann are so beloved, that his heroes continue to live. The Russian theatre director from Sankt Petersburg Robert Sturua stages performances in different Russian cities, based upon the books by Hoffmann. Valentina Pokladova emphasizes that the exhibition, dedicated to Hoffmann, has been organized for the first time in 2006 and contains various paintings, made by artists from Russia, Germany, USA, Lithuania and Belarus. She says that it is planned to realize one more project and erect a monument of Hoffmann near the historical museum. Who knows, maybe after the 200-year Anniversary year of the Hoffmann’s death, he will have finally decided to build a museum, dedicated to his legacy.

WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM text by Tatiana Smorodina