Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the treatment of music, musicians and musicianship by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822)

If one begins with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous assertion in his 1813 piece Beethovens Instrumentalmusik that ‘[Musik] ist die romantischste aller Künste, beinahe möchte man sagen, allein echt romantisch, denn nur das Unendliche ist ihr Vorwurf’, one could be forgiven for assuming that this represented as straightforward a vision of Romantic music as could be found – as purity of self-expression, uncluttered by the religion, politics or propaganda that mars all other types of art, completely autonomous from other concerns. If Hoffmann’s only surviving work on music were that single essay, we might perhaps have a very different conception of his understanding of Romanticism; but as it stands, he was actively engaged with music throughout his writing career, both as a participant and a commentator, and his work elsewhere considerably muddies the waters of this straightforward identification of the ‘romantischste aller Künste’. One of the best definitions of this unresolved tension comes from Arthur Ware Locke, who writes that Hoffmann (and his alter ego Kreisler) was ‘a struggling musician at odds with the world, ranting against the philistinism of musical society and rhapsodizing about his art’ – yet it is precisely that area of least overlap, that is to say where the discrepancy between the two aspects seems broadest, which is worth examining if we are to understand Hoffmann’s complex views on music, its essence and its creators.
In John Louis Miller’s words, ‘music and literature were intermingled as perhaps never before or since’ in the years 1800-1820, roughly speaking the last two decades of Hoffmann’s life and the period in which he produced the majority of his fiction. In the latter half of the preceding century, musicians had found a new passion for fairy-tale and romantic fantasy as a new means of self-expression (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte being the most obvious synthesis of Romantic fairy-tale and performance music). In return, Romanticism, with its earthly yearning for divine transcendence, was understandably drawn to music as an art form which offered the chance to experience a higher plane, to reach ‘das Ideal’. Since music at this point could never have a truly external form as does a book or a painting – at best, it could have an encoded representation in the form of sheet music, but without performers’ participation that is nothing – it possessed a more transitory unearthliness than other art forms. It is thus clear why music should be for Romantics ‘eine Sprache der Gefühle, wenn auch der gereinigten, die sich bis zu göttlichen Sphären erheben und in die Nähe zur Religion treten kann’ – because an essential Romantic goal was to perfect representations of ‘das Ideal’ so as to bring any participant individual more nearly into the orbit of the Absolute. These terms are distinguished by Hegel in his Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (1835) thus: the Ideal is the sensory representation of the Absolute, granting those who experience the former a kind of temporary access to the divinity of the latter.
Hoffmann’s writing does reinforce this after a fashion. In the aforementioned Beethovens Instrumentalmusik, he writes, ‘die Musik schließt dem Menschen ein unbekanntes Reich auf, eine Welt, die nichts gemein hat mit der äußern Sinnenwelt, die ihn umgibt und in der er alle bestimmten Gefühle zurückläßt, um sich einer unaussprechlichen Sehnsucht hinzugeben... selbst das im Leben Empfundene führt uns hinaus aus dem Leben in das Reich des Unendlichen’. His conception of music here – most notably in a passage in which he delivers verdicts on three of the most popular composers of the last thirty years – is astonishingly detailed and vivid; clearly, Hoffmann’s experience of music is extremely visual, one might almost say synesthetic: he likens listening to Haydn as seeing ‘unabsehbare grüne Haine’, on Mozart he declares ‘die Nacht geht auf in hellem Purpurschimmer’, and Beethoven he associates with ‘glühende Strahlen’ and ‘Riesenschatten’. We also see it relatively clearly in Hoffmann’s Ritter Gluck (1809), in which a mysterious composer gives a private performance of the opera Armide shortly after returning himself from the Orient, the ‘Reich der Träume’; the performance dazzles the narrator, blending visual and aural experience together (‘da fuhren Lichtstrahlen durch die Nacht, und die Lichtstrahlen waren Töne, welche mich unfingen mit lieblicher Klarheit’). These evocative fairy-tale images place Hoffmann in the tradition of seeing music as a doorway into Faerie, as escape into the realm of the imagination, as a means of ‘falling out of the world’ into eccentric, wondrous spaces. This is not necessarily all that remarkable a position.
But as Miller notes, ‘if Hoffmann knew the ecstatic escape route into another world through music, he also knew the hours of drudgery required to walk that road’. Hoffmann was both a musician and a writer, but his third profession, the keen-eyed, well-practised lawyer, is more easily forgotten. It is this steady gaze which permits Hoffmann a new angle on the ‘romantischste aller Künste’, an angle which is remarkably self-reflexive, permitting his fiction to be aware of itself as ‘artistic endeavour’ even as it comments on the process of creating the same. Hoffmann ingests fully the zealous and enthusiasm terminology of the Romantic movement, but utilises it with a satirical bent, undermining it, questioning it, often having it be championed by ‘unstable or extravagant characters’ to the extent that it is treated with a kind of dubious remove. The effect this has is to treat Romanticism’s experience of music, refreshingly, as a particular example of a Weltanschauung held by his fictional musicians and emphatically not as the ‘glimpse of ultimate reality’ which its supporters proclaim.
In Hoffmann’s short work Das Sanctus (1817), the tale of Zulema in 15th century Spain is relayed to us within a more modern framing narrative upon which Bettina is eavesdropping – thus the medieval era confronts modernity, the one in which art is explicitly a mouthpiece for religion, the other in which it is an autonomous aesthetic within a much more secularised society. In the story, Bettina’s father states ‘denn singt Bettina nicht mehr, so darf sie auch nicht mehr leben, denn sie lebt nur, wenn sie singt – sie existiert nur im Gesange’. For him, the singer can only function with her voice and with her song. Without voice, any hope of reaching ‘das Ideal’ is gone – Bettina compares it to trying in vain to fly. This works well within a story about the contrast between medieval and modern functions of art; in the latter, it is the voice which is crucial, the voice which articulates and indeed creates the Ideal. If the singer who is now voiceless cannot express the Romantic realm of song, we have a discrepancy – a Mißverhältnis – between ‘the finite and the infinite, machine and spirit’. Her father the conductor recognises this only as a bourgeois tragedy (that is to say, the monetary value of his daughter’s music has decreased): though he is engaged with the story of Zulema, hinting at potential for imagination, he is not open to the Absolute, but has ‘lost any sense of [his] inner spirit and [has] reconciled [himself] to the mechanical world outside’. He thus joins a long line of talented musical figures, almost always brilliant at what they do, whom Hoffmann lampoons as being mundane or of dubious worth.
This is what is meant by saying that his work is essentially self-parodic in the vein of Menippean satire, much like Cervantes or Voltaire. It is a parodic take on Romanticism’s Absolute which recognises both the limitations of musicians, so often mad, elusive, unstable or pompous figures, and yet still reinforces the enigmatic worth of the craft they profess. As Miller puts it, ‘Hoffmann has in common with Kafka and the French absurdists that he looks unblinkingly at the illusion and records it as meticulously as a legal brief. He sees the unreality of the “real”, and the reality in the fantasy’. The tension between these two points is what makes Hoffmann’s writings on music so intriguing; it is as though Hoffmann wishes to cut away all the extraneousness of musicianship, even the extraneousness of describing our responses to music, to get to the experience itself, which, as we recall, cannot have an earthly form. This has its roots both in the medieval tradition present in Das Sanctus – putting aside earthly things for the sake of the spiritual – yet also chimes strongly with the Romanticism of the time; but what is truly distinctive is that Hoffmann manages to convey it in stories awash with self-awareness, little precursors of modernity with their framing devices, digressions, and narrative interventions.


Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and his World, tr. Helene Iswolsky, the MIT Press, 1968.
Miller, John Louis, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Music: A Background, retrieved online, 2001.
Neilly, Joanna, ‘Alla Turca versus the Romantic East: E.T.A. Hoffmann and Oriental-Style Music’, German Life and Letters 67:2, 2014.
Riley, Matthew, ‘E. T. A. Hoffmann beyond the ‘Paradigm Shift’: Music & Irony in the Novellas 1815-1819’, in Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Weliver & Ellis, Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2013.
Schönherr, Ulrich, ‘Social Differentiation and Romantic Art: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sanctus and the Problem of Aesthetic Positioning in Modernity’, New German Critique 66, 1995.
Ware Locke, Arthur, ‘Beethoven’s Instrumental Music: Translated from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Kreisleriana” with an Introductory Note’, The Musical Quarterly 3:1, 1917.

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