Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

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“Ritter Gluck” was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s first tale and marked his emergence as one of German Romanticism’s most important and influential writers. For many years Hoffmann thought his true calling to be that of a composer or conductor. In 1809, when “Ritter Gluck” was published, he served as orchestral director in the small southern town of Bamberg, and it must have seemed only natural to him to submit his short tale to Germany’s leading musical journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Hoffmann’s preoccupation with music is still quite obvious in the story, and literary critics have occasionally tried to dismiss it for that reason as little more than a barely disguised essay in musical criticism. However, in spite of several musical references that the uninitiated reader today will find difficult to understand or appreciate, “Ritter Gluck” is now widely recognized as one of the finest examples of Hoffmann’s literary genius, an amazingly concise prefiguration of several of his most obsessive themes.

The outward, historical circumstances of the modest plot are taken from Hoffmann’s stay in Berlin between 1807 and 1808 and, more specifically, center on a performance of Gluck’s opera Armida that Hoffmann attended and whose staging convinced him of the abominable tastes of Berlin’s musical circles. On this experience, Hoffmann built a story that proclaims the fundamental incompatibility between artistic creativity and bourgeois receptivity. This insurmountable conflict between an artist and his audience is heightened by the fact that it merely reflects on a social level an even deeper conflict within the artistic process itself. The true tragedy of the artist must arise out of the recognition that what he or she perceives in moments of creative vision belongs to the realm of the inexpressible—no artistic realization can fully recapture such an experience in its original beauty and intensity.

The mysterious stranger of “Ritter Gluck” escapes his insensitive social environment through ever more self-absorbing flights of the imagination until in a moment of untrammeled exaltation he enters a world of harmony in which the division between nature and art has been overcome. The frustration inherent in such mystical immediacy is that its very essence forbids adequate artistic formulation. Despair thus becomes the inevitable result of any experience of the ultimate. The gifted composer of Hoffmann’s tale tries to compensate for his own inability to give voice to the ecstatic harmonies of his mind by employing and improving on the work of another artist, by assuming the identity of the successful composer Christoph Gluck.

The paradox of Hoffmann’s position seems to be that precisely those artists who experience most deeply will, of necessity, be driven into artistic impotence that, in turn, must lead to madness and self-destruction. Hoffmann explored these frightful consequences in much greater detail in such characters as the painters Traugott, Berklinger, and Berthold in “The Artus Exchange” and “The Jesuit Church in G.” as well as in the fate of the musician Kreisler, the hero of his last novel Lebensansichten des Katers Murr, nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufalligen Makulaturblattern (1820-1822; The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with the Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Scrap Paper, 1907).