Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann
HOFFMANN, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm (1776–1822), German romance writer (for whose name Wilhelm his own substitute, in homage to Mozart, was Amadeus), was born at Königsberg, January 24, 1776. His parents, who lived unhappily together, separating a year or two after his birth, he was brought up in his grandmother’s house, under the care of a bachelor uncle. His relations seem to have been fairly puzzled at the waywardness, cunning, and precocity of the boy, who neglected his school lessons and hated routine, but applied himself with passionate zest to the study of music and painting, extemporized marvellously on the harpsichord, and with his pencil caricatured friend and foe alike with terrible facility. Incited by his friend Hippel, Hoffmann on leaving school turned to the hereditary profession of the law; but, as no immediate post offered itself, he gave lessons in music and painting, and wrote two novels, for which he could not find a publisher. A discreditable love episode with one of his pupils drove him at this time from Königsberg, and he went to act as assistant to another lawyer uncle at Gross-Glogau in Silesia. In 1798 he became referendary in the supreme court at Berlin, and in 1800 passed his final examination and was appointed assessor to the court of Posen. Here he seems to have led a dissipated life, and to have contracted the habit of excessive drinking which marred his whole career. He subsequently made enemies in Posen by sending a series of scandalous caricatures for distribution at a masquerade ball, and his appointment was on this account changed to a councillorship at Plozk, where, having married ere this time, he spent two years in retirement, studying in his leisure hours the theory of music, translating Italian poetry, and sketching plans for future literary work; but in 1804, again in favour at headquarters, he was transferred as councillor to Warsaw. There he found a true friend in Hitzig, his colleague, and made the acquaintance of Werner, at whose request he set music to some parts of the Kreuz an der Ostsee. He soon became the centre of musical society in Warsaw, helped to institute a concert-house or “Ressource,” found leisure not only to paint its saloons but to compose music for its orchestra, and was actually conducting this orchestra before enthusiastic audiences when Warsaw was taken by the French in 1806. For some time he lingered in Warsaw; but in the spring of 1807, having recovered from a fever to find himself almost penniless, he returned to Berlin to seek some means of livelihood. His only child died in Posen while he was in Berlin; and, though he succeeded in obtaining the post of music-director to the Bamberg theatre, the theatre soon after became bankrupt, and Hoffmann was once more destitute. He now found occasional employment as a composer of operatic music, and, as a last resource, attempted authorship. The editor of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung enlisted his services, and in that paper appeared a series, afterwards published, with a preface by Jean Paul Richter, as Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1814; 4th ed., 1864). He composed at this time, among other things, a Miserere by order of the grand-duke of Würzburg, and, for the proprietors of the Bamberg theatre, music to Kotzebue’s opera Das Gespenst; and he also gave lessons in music and drawing, decorated saloons, and painted portraits to order. The misery of his condition was enhanced by his wife’s illness and his own light-hearted recklessness. The money which he inherited at the death of his uncle did not suffice to pay his debts; and he had been reduced to selling his last coat for food when his friends obtained for him the post of music-director to another theatrical company, performing alternately at Dresden and Leipsic. Hoffmann was writing romances in a garret in Dresden, or, bedridden by gout, was drawing caricatures of the “verwünschte Franzosen” while Napoleon and the allied armies were struggling round its walls. In 1814 appeared his Vision auf der Schlachtfelde von Dresden; and in the same year, on the fall of Napoleon, he returned to Berlin, and was reinstated in the legal profession. Two years later he was appointed councillor in the supreme court, and from that time enjoyed a good income, a dignified position, and the society of his best friends. He was already, in virtue of his Fantasiestücke, regarded as one of the most notable romance writers of his day, but most of his works were yet to come. These followed each other in quick succession. Die Elixire des Teufels appeared in 1816; Nachtstücke in 1817; Seltsame Leiden eines Theaterdirektors in 1818; Die Serapionsbrüder, a collection of tales, in 1819–24; Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober, in 1819; Prinzessin Brambilla in 1821; Meister Floh in 1822; and Lebensansichten des Katers Murr in 1821–22. He also composed the opera Undine, the libretto of which was prepared by Fouqué himself. It was performed with success in Berlin; but the music was lost in the subsequent destruction of the opera-house by fire. Hoffmann’s prospects in Berlin were ruined by the old habit of intemperance, which had grown upon him during the years of his poverty. We are told that his legal duties were scrupulously performed, and that the remainder of his day was spent in literary work, but that, when this was over, he avoided refined society, and his nights became a series of wild pothouse revels. His health soon gave way; and, after intense suffering from spinal paralysis, he died at Berlin, July 24, 1822. Der Feind, his last work, remained unfinished.
Versatility is the chief characteristic of Hoffmann’s genius, and it is also its greatest weakness. He is admitted to have been an excellent jurist. His paintings were clever, though fantastic. He was a popular composer and a brilliant romance-writer. But this very versatility prevented his rising to eminence in any one vocation; and, even as a romance-writer, in which capacity he will be longest remembered, he was deficient in some of the highest attributes. His imagination was unbounded, his wit light and acrid, his dialogue stirring. His descriptive passages, in their minute vividness, have been compared to those of Sir Walter Scott, and his romances abound in the superstitious and mythical, that dæmonic element which is so peculiarly German, and which in Hoffmann amounted almost to a frenzy. But, with all this, a perusal of his writings leaves a disagreeable impression on the mind, a feeling of dissatisfaction and unrest. They are the production of a misdeveloped nature, of a man full of feverish impulses, oddities, and weakness, not devoid of tenderness, but whose temper was unforgiving and malicious, whose prevailing mood was the sarcastic, and whose only religious creed was a blind, headlong fatalism. There is also a strong element in his writings which Carlyle in his biography of Hoffmann has called “playerlike,” a glitter which is of tinsel, a something “false, brawling, and tawdry.” His writings, like his character, are a curious mixture of what is really beautiful and rare with much that is petty and sordid. Their cleverness is irresistible; but the dignity of true greatness is not there.
Die Elixire der Teufels, his longest completed work, contains in a narrative form some of his own wildest and most revolting delusions; and the derisive Kater Murr, of which the third volume is wanting, is not less characteristic. Some of his smaller pieces have justly been thought the most pleasing and perfect of his works. Among these are Der goldene Topf, Das Fräulein von Scudery, Doge und Dogaresse, and Meister Martin und seine Gesellen. The delicacy and finish of the last, slight though it is, have stamped it as Hoffmann’s masterpiece.
A life of Hoffmann has been written by Hitzig, his colleague first in Warsaw and afterwards in Berlin, under the title of Hoffmann’s Leben und Nachlass. A selection of his writings was published in Berlin, 1827–28, and five more volumes (including Hitzig’s life) were added by his widow in 1839. A selection of his writings by Kurz appeared in 1870, and an edition of his collected works, in 12 vols., in 1871–73. Most of his romances are to be obtained separately in the Universal-Bibliothek, a cheap edition of standard authors published at Leipsic. Die Elixire des Teufels has been translated into English (Edin., 1824), and Carlyle has given us a biography of Hoffmann, together with a translation of one of the Fantasiestücke, “Der Goldene Topf,” in his German Romance.