E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), who in homage to Mozart changed his third name to that of Amadeus, was a writer, music critic, painter, graphic artist and lawyer—a man of many talents who lacked the most important gift of all: how to find happiness.
When Hoffmann was two years old, his father abandoned his mother, who returned to live with her parents. He was surrounded by a depressed mother who was always sick, an unmarried aunt and a retired uncle—this was hardly an ideal environment for a happy childhood. A restless boy, he grew up rebellious and nonconformist. To escape this oppressive reality, Hoffmann developed an enormous fantasy life, from which he fashioned his own surreal world. He became an extraordinary exponent of supernatural, bizarre and almost diabolical tales.
Though very successful as a writer, he never overcame the frustration of not being the musician he had dreamed of becoming. Nor was he ever successful in finding the stability he searched so much for in his private life. A very unstable man, he always fell in love with the wrong woman at the wrong time, knocking on the forbidden doors of madness, alcohol or artificial paradises.
In the beginning, he was very much unappreciated and misunderstood as a writer, due primarily to the complexity of his subject matter. He certainly was not helped by the criticism of someone as influential as Goethe, who proclaimed that he felt sick after reading one of Hoffmann’s stories. There was also the very public rejection by another respected figure, Walter Scott, who recommended that the ranting of a sick mind, which found its inspiration in alcohol and opium, should be ignored. Richard Wagner was an avid reader and great admirer of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but he admitted at the same time that his stories gave him nightmares. Nonetheless, he was among the great musicians inspired by him, as seen in works such as Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The fantastical world Hoffmann created was so appealing that, thanks to him, we have such masterpieces as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Léo Delibes’ Coppélia, Hindemith’s Cardillac and, last but not least, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, as well as countless others. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novels The Golden Flowerpot and The Devil’s Elixir remain among the greatest works ever written in the surrealistic style.
Beyond his writing, Hoffmann functioned in other disciplines of the arts. He was a composer and it is interesting to note that his third opera, Undine, was not only a great audience success in Berlin in 1816, but that none other than Carl Maria von Weber, the acclaimed German composer, wrote a most favorable review of it. As a music critic, Hoffmann left enlightening essays on Gluck, Mozart and Beethoven. As a painter, he was asked to design and redecorate in 1806 the Mniszech Palace in Warsaw.
A precursor of surrealism, his influence is definitely felt in the works of writers such as Balzac, Baudelaire, Sand, Byron, Dickens, Anderson, Kafka, Rilke, Mann, Poe and many others. Hoffmann died on June 25, 1822, primarily because of the excesses which ravaged his health. These included locomotor ataxia, a degenerative condition caused by syphilis that brought him to the point where he was unable to control his limbs, making him look like some of the grotesque characters of his own imagination. The “Hoffmann-esque” fantasy had no limits—in the end, he himself remains the greatest of them all.
Marta Domingo is the director our upcoming production of The Tales of Hoffmann.
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