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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

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Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (HAWF-mahn) assumed his pen name, E. T. A. Hoffmann, in which the A stands for Amadeus, out of admiration for the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Hoffmann was at one time probably the most influential German author both in his own country and elsewhere; Heinrich Heine, Gottfried Keller, Theodor Storm, Théophile Gautier, Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, and Edgar Allan Poe were all indebted to him, and Jacques Offenbach wrote an opera based on his tales. An instigator of the Romantic movement, Hoffmann led the way toward an incorporation of fantasy as an ingredient of everyday life, by introducing not only supernatural events but also abnormal states of mind into otherwise realistic depictions.

Hoffmann, a diligent government official in the Prussian judiciary for most of his life, turned his artistic attention first to becoming a theater director and composer; the opera Undine survives as his most important musical work. Also a successful illustrator and caricaturist, he did not fully embark on a literary career until after the appearance in 1814 of the first tales that would make up Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, when he was already thirty-eight years old. These stories were followed by a story of temptation and sin, The Devil’s Elixirs, in 1815-1816. In The Serapion Brethren, he collected previously published tales and framed them with commentary by members of a literary club such as the one he had formed in Berlin. The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr was a veiled self-depiction cast in the form of a double novel about a romantic composer and a literary tomcat. In his most effective stories Hoffmann wrote of the region between fact and belief, using ghosts, clairvoyants, hypnotism, and psychological abnormality to turn the plot. He continues to be regarded as a foremost master of the fantastic tale.


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Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s parents, of Polish-Hungarian background, were divorced when he was only two. As a child he received private tutoring in painting and piano. He studied law at the University of Königsberg and passed a government examination in 1795, but he gave private music lessons until his second exam in 1798, when he was assigned to courts in Berlin, then in Posen. In 1802, he was given a punitive transfer to a small town, Plock, for having drawn caricatures of Prussian officers, and there he married a Polish girl, Michelina Rohrer-Trzcinka, who remained his wife to the end. In 1806, Napoleon’s army occupied Warsaw, and Hoffmann, like other Prussian officials who refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the French, lost his position and returned to Berlin, where he endured a year of hunger and hardship. From 1808 to 1812, Hoffmann worked with the Bamberg Theatre, first as orchestra-director, then as composer, stage-designer, and general assistant, during which time he had a serious platonic love affair with his teenage music student Julia Marc, who appears frequently in his fiction. In 1813, Hoffmann worked for the theater in Dresden and witnessed the siege of the city by the French forces. Reemployed by the Prussian bureaucracy from 1815 until his death, Hoffmann displayed great civil courage in opposing the “persecutions of demagogues,” notably “Father” Jahn, a pioneer in athletics. For satirical passages against the chief prosecutor in his work Master Flea, Hoffmann was subjected to an investigation which lasted until his death from a paralytic disease on June 25, 1822. Contrary to the traditional image of him as a shiftless alcoholic, Hoffmann was a highly capable, conscientious, and just court official.


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Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann—who in later life replaced his third baptismal name with Amadeus, in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—was born in Königsberg, then the capital of East Prussia, now a Russian city known as Kaliningrad. The disastrous marriage between his father, an alcoholic lawyer, and his mother, a mentally unstable recluse, was dissolved when Hoffmann was only three years old. He subsequently grew up under the pedantic tutelage of a bachelor uncle. The precocious boy spent a loveless and lonely childhood from which only his instructions in music and painting provided some much-needed relief.

At the age of sixteen, Hoffmann enrolled as a student of law at the University of Königsberg. Three years later, he passed his examinations with great distinction. He then joined the legal branch of Prussia’s civil service and was employed in various capacities in Glogau (1796-1798), Berlin (1798-1800), Posen (1800-1802), Plock (1802-1804), and Warsaw (1804-1806). All through these years, Hoffmann combined a punctilious execution of his official duties with an increasing interest in music as well as a wild bachelor existence in which the consumption of alcohol played an increasingly significant part. Hoffmann’s marriage in 1802 to Michalina Rohrer, the daughter of a minor Polish civil servant, was entered into almost casually and seems to have been of little consequence to Hoffmann for the rest of his life.

It was in Warsaw that Hoffmann seriously started to cultivate a second career as composer and conductor. When, in 1806, the collapse of Prussia’s Polish empire under the Napoleonic onslaught deprived him of his position and livelihood in Warsaw, he decided to embark on a musical career. For more than a year, he tried to establish himself in Berlin—an impossible task, as it turned out, in the defeated and impoverished capital of Prussia. He finally accepted a position as music director at the theater and opera house of Bamberg, a small town in northeastern Bavaria.

Hoffmann began his career in music with great expectations and, in spite of an almost immediate disenchantment with the new occupation, remained in Bamberg for four and a half years, supplementing his frequently uncertain income by giving music lessons to members of patrician families in town. His hopeless passion for the gifted vocal student Julia Marc was to become the most embittering experience of his stay. In 1813, Hoffmann joined an opera company that traveled between Leipzig and Dresden, yet this change only caused his professional frustrations to reach new heights. When an influential friend, Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, managed to have him reinstated in Prussia’s legal service in 1814, Hoffmann eagerly jumped at the chance. He returned to his beloved Berlin, where he was to reside until his death in 1822.

In 1814, Hoffmann was thirty-eight years old. Until that time, little in his life suggested that during the eight years left to him he was to become one of the most prominent writers of his age. In the preceding ten years, he had made a concerted effort to establish himself as a composer. By 1814, the list of his compositions included several operas, two masses, and one symphony as well as a considerable quantity of vocal and instrumental music, yet it was only with the publication of his first collection of tales, during the same year, that Hoffmann finally gained the recognition that had eluded him in all of his musical productivity. Obviously exhilarated by the experience of success, Hoffmann set out to write with single-minded fervor. Publishers sought him out, and so did the literary salons of Berlin. The publishers Hoffmann tried to satisfy; the literary salons, however, he more and more regularly exchanged for the wine cellar of Lutter and Wegener, where he and his alter ego, the famous actor Ludwig Devrient, drank themselves into states of fantastic exaltation.

In spite of his private excesses, Hoffmann’s professional career—he was to become vice president of the Supreme Court of PrussiA&Mdash;and literary career proceeded with unimpeded speed until his body gave way under the triple strain. In 1821, Hoffmann began to suffer from a rapidly advancing paralysis, perhaps the result of a syphilitic infection. Writing—finally dictating—at a feverish pace, Hoffmann died several months later, at the age of forty-six.