E.T.A. Hoffmann, writer, composer, draughtsman and lawyer

Startscreen E.T.A. Hoffmann portal, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

The huge influence of German science and culture on the development of history as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century is something taken for granted. The image of a German professor lost in abstract thought in a country yearning for its romantic past is almost a caricature. However, not only professors walked through German university towns. In this post I will look at a well-known German writer who was also an active lawyer, serving as a judge. In December 2016 the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz launched the beta version of the E.T.A. Hoffmann portal. On December 12, 2017 its final version was revealed. Not only in Berlin events are currently organized around Hoffmann. Let’s look what will fit into one post!

A man of many talents

At the portal you will find the following quote by Hoffmann: “Die Wochentage bin ich Jurist und höchstens etwas Musiker, sonntags, am Tage wird gezeichnet, und abends bin ich ein sehr witziger Autor bis in die späte Nacht”, on weekdays I am a lawyer and at the best a tiny bit musician, on Sundays I am drawing, and in the evening I am a very funny author until late night. I fear any attempt at a short biography of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) will inevitably be much longer than this one revealing description. Hoffman was born in Köningsberg (now Kaliningrad). In 1792 he started studying law, but soon he used also his musical talents as a teacher. His study went well, bringing him already early on to Berlin, but he worked also in Poznan, Plock and Warsaw, in that period part of Prussia. A rather successful period in Poznan, where some of his compositions were received well, ended with an affair around anonymous caricatures behind which one suspected rightly Hoffmann

The arrival of the French to Warsaw in 1806 brought a temporary end to his career as a Prussian servant. Eventually he settled in Bamberg as a conductor, and later he worked in the city theater. Despite his return to law, in 1816 he became a Kammergerichtsrat, but he unsuccessfully tried to get work as a conductor, too. Meanwhile Hoffmann had started writing literary works. Under the restoration regime after the Napoleonic period he had in Berlin from 1919 onwards rather surprisingly the task to investigate people suspected of subversive plans, Hoffman used his knowledge of a particular case in his story Meister Floh, but he was charged with unlawful behaviour because he had allegedly publicized matters he was not allowed to divulge as a state official. Just before his case went on trial Hoffmann died after a prolonged illness.

If anything this brief overview shows in a nutshell many aspects of life and culture in Germany from around 1790 to around 1820. It is characteristic of Hoffmann to be aware of the many sides of his short life. Hoffmann’s sketch from 1815 of the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, the Kunz’scher Riss, is presented at the portal as an interactive map bringing you to a life with many facets. Hoffmann lived nearby this central square in Berlin with the Nationaltheater. In the following paragraphs I will look only at some sections of the Hoffmann portal, but in fact you can find interesting matters in every corner.

Earning his bread with law

During his short life Hoffmann earned most of his bread as a lawyer. The portal has a large section E.T.A. Hoffmann als Jurist by Hartmut Mangold. Hoffmann studied law only in Königsberg, and for just three years. We are used to German students visiting several universities during their student years, sometimes to hear the lectures of a particular professor, sometimes for other qualities of a city. Hoffmann made such rapid progress that he could start very quickly with the practical part of his legal education, first in 1795 as an Auskultator (hearer) at Glogau, and from 1798 onwards as a Referendar in Berlin. He earned enough praise to follow his career in 1800 as an assessor (judge) at the Obergericht of Poznan (Posen). However, within a month he had to move to the small town Plock because of the affair with the caricatures. The two years at Plock were unhappy, but his efforts were recognized by his superiors who sent him in 1804 as a Regierungsrat to Warschau. The French occupation of Warsaw in 1806 ended a lucky period of hard work as a judge combined with eager cultural activities.

In 1814 Theodor von Hippel, a former friend from Kónigsberg, helped him to work again as a judge, first at a kind of minimum wage as a voluntary at the Berlin Kammergericht. Only after two years he got the full normal salary. His hard work brought him in 1819 a call to become a member of the special investigation committee, and in 1821 he moved to a rank at the coveted appeal court, the Oberappelationssenat. Mangold looks at Hoffmann’s views of the Schmolling case to assess his views as a judge in criminal cases. Hoffmann carefully analyzed a medical consultation which deemed Schmolling was not liable for his actions. In a following section you will see Hoffmann as a very conscientious member of the special committee which stood as one man against political influence and overruling by higher authorities. The committee had the task of a public attorney to bring supposed offenders of the restrictions on political freedom. The committee saw in almost every case no criminal offense which could led to further persecution. He had to deal for example with Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the man behind the popularity of gymnastics in Germany, often nicknamed Turnvater Jahn, who brough a case for defamation against Albert von Kamptz, a high Prussian official, who had slandered his name anonymously in two newspapers.

Hoffman dealt in a humourous way with Albert von Kamptz in his story Meister Floh [Master Flea]. The story ended with the dismissal of the mischievous official who had created a case out of a few words. However, Von Kamptz recognized himself quickly in Hoffmann’s publication, and started a disciplinary action against him with the argument that Hoffmann had broken his duty to reveal nothing from official procedures. Hoffmann defended himself by pleading for poetic freedom. He died before a trial against him could start. Mangold rightly stresses the way in which Hoffmann conformed to the ethos of Prussian law and lawyers.

Drawing instedd of si a signature

A self-portrait drawing by Hoffmann instead of just signing a letter – collection E.T.A. Hofmann-Archiv, SBPK, Berlin

Writing about Hoffmann I noticed how my enthusiasm to know more about him and about his work as a Prussian lawyer steadily grew. You had better look yourself! A major part of the portal is a digital library for many of his works and papers. You will find letters, editions of his work, portraits, manuscripts, music scores, drawings and ex libris. In the corner Kurioses you will all kind of matters, from a massive wine bill by a Berlin firm to some funny drawings. Hoffman twice kept a diary, during 1803 and 1804 at Plock, and in the years spent between 1809 and 1815 in Bamberg, Dresden and other towns in Saxony.

It is great to find on this portal chapters accompanying the sections of the digital library. Thus you are enabled to look both at for example Hoffmann’s views on music as a discerning critic, gaining even approval from Beethoven, and at his compositions. His most successful opera Undine had a successful premiere in 1816 and gained high praise from Carl Maria von Weber, but unfortunately the Schauspielhaus burned down after the fourteenth performance. It marked the end of his career as a composer. Earlier on Hoffmann had changed his third name to Amadeus, a fair measure of the importance of music for him.

Logo Kalliope-Verbund

Large sections of the portal are devoted to research on Hoffmann. You can for example look at an attempt to reconstruct his personal library. His juridical books were restricted to almost exclusively works on contemporary Prussian law. I assume he used in Berlin other books from the library of the Kammergericht. I had expected to find legal materials also in the digital library of the Hoffmann portal, but these are simply absent, nor in printed form or in manuscript. Among all the qualities of the portal I missed references to the services of the Kalliope-Verbund, housed at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, the great database with a German and English interface for searching personal papers and manuscripts of famous persons in the German-speaking world held by archives, libraries and museums. The Kalliope database rightfully alerts you to materials concerning Hoffmann in a substantial number of collections, with of course the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz at the first place.

Hoffmann in Berlin, Bamberg and Düsseldorf

The Staatsbibliothek in Berlin is the home of the E.T.A. Hoffmann archive. The Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, too, has holdings concerning Hoffmann. At the website of this library is a selection of drawings, early editions and letters. A look at the German Wikipedia page for Hoffmann brings me to a link for more works by Hoffman digitized at Bamberg. The page on Hoffmann as a lawyer leads only to the edition of his juridical works by Friedrich Schnapp [Juristische Arbeiten (Munich 1973)] and one article by Stefan Weichbrodt, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776 bis 1822)’. Juristische Schulung 2008/1, 7-13 . Luckily Mangold gives us more at the Berlin portal. The E.T.A. Hoffmann Gesellschaft has made Hoffmann’s house in Bamberg into a museum. You can see six virtual exhibitions at their website, including one about the story of Meister Floh and its impact. With interfaces in seven languages you are bound to read something on the website of the Hoffmann Society which you can understand sufficiently.

In the last section I will turn to another story by Hoffmann which is now the heart of an exhibition at the Heinrich-Heine-Institut in Düsseldorf, Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker and Mouse King), with much attention for the modern drawings for this story by Sabine Friedrichson. Hoffmann was and is famous for his certianly for Germany pioneering grisly tales. Combined with elements from other stories by Hoffmann a script was created for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, surely one of the most enduring and beloved ballet scores. Les contes de Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach is an opera in which at least two stories by Hoffmann have been used to create its libretto.

Some contemporaries concluded Hoffman was a bewildering figure, not to be taken seriously, but Hoffmann gained also admiration for his stories and music. Contemporary lawyers took him most seriously. If you look for some moments at Hoffmann’s life in a country suffering from the Napoleonic wars and its conservative aftermath you will recognize how sharp he saw the very different elements of life, war and society, In a romantic era his figure might at first seem romantic. but there is good reason to agree with Rüdiger Safranski in his masterful study Romantik. Eine deutsche Affäre [Romanticism. A German affair] (Munich 2007) that Hoffmann was a sceptic phantasy writer (“ein skeptischer Phantast”). In 1984 Safranski published a biography of Hoffmann with the same subtitle.

In this post with in the last paragraph a reference to a ballet which nowadays belongs to a particular period of the year, I bring you indeed to the end of this year. When you are weary of legal history, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or reading some of Hoffmann’s tales will hopefully bring you some moments of delight and wonder.

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