E.T.A. Hoffmann was a poet, composer, legal scholar, critic – and passionate Berliner. Dramatic advisor Katharina Duda accompanies him on an imaginary walk in the city.
“Late autumn in Berlin is usually good for a few days of nice weather,” says the lean gentleman. “How right you are, sir. Fancy a stroll?” I reply, inviting my dream companion on a promenade through Berlin, on a tour of his era, his life, his recollections. Our walk begins outside the Deutsche Oper and my companion is Kammergerichtsrat Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, born in 1776 in Königsberg, Eastern Prussia. Not being fond of the “Wilhelm”, he swapped it for “Amadeus” - as had Mozart, whom he admired – thus becoming E.T.A. Hoffmann. We are familiar with the qualified lawyer as an author of nocturnes and chilling plays, as music critic, as caricaturist… “and as a composer, don’t forget!” – “Of course I wouldn’t forget!” Hoffmann’s opera UNDINE had its world premiere in 1816 in Berlin’s Schauspielhaus and he wrote a number of other works. But it was his lot to earn his living from other activities. As a Prussian civil servant at the Court of Justice.
We take a breather on a bench. “I bumped into Ritter Gluck here once!” my companion recollected, referring to the composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. In one of his tales, penned in 1808, the narrator engaged with him once again in Berlin. Gluck was already dead at the time, but no matter! Hoffmann is often to be found exploring composers, singers or the power of music. Hardly surprising that musicians love him!
In Jacques Offenbach’s opera LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN (Engl.: THE TALES OF HOFFMANN), the Berlin poet wrestles with issues of love, alcohol and ghosts, with himself as the hero of his own stories. On the banks of the canal people trot by in their keep-fit gear. “Joggers,“ I explain. He is tickled at the spectacle: “Mr Gymnastics Jahn would love that!” Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a contemporary of Hoffmann, was given a jail term for seditious remarks. In the wake of the German campaign against Napoleon the Prussian state presses ahead with the restoration of the monarchy. As a member of the “Immediatkommission for the investigation of treasonable deeds and other acts of endangerment” Hoffmann should have been involved in the commission’s operations, but instead he instigates an investigation of the police chief, lampooning him in his tale entitled “Master Flea”. That is the last straw and Hoffmann faces occupational banishment. “Come on!” barks the poet with a shudder. “Evening is drawing in.” From the Brandenburg Gate we hurry down Französische Straße to the Gendarmenmarkt. “Reminds me of Schlemihl’s seven-league boots!” exclaims the poet, pausing to catch his breath. Adelbert von Chamisso’s literary hero, Peter Schlemihl, is a recurring character in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories. We meet him propping up the bar in “Adventures on New Year’s Eve!”, another pastime beloved of my poetic friend – preferably in Lutter & Wegner on the corner, next door to the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music.
He lived close by, with a view over the Gendarmenmarkt, until his death. When fire raged through the Schauspielhaus in 1817 – “and the stage sets for my UNDINE!” – the poet watched the catastrophe from his window. “Seldom a boring moment on our Gendarmenmarkt,” he remarks today, smiling and ordering another beer. “What can you do? Life is short!” And his was shorter than most. From January 1822 onwards the 46-year-old was confined to his house by paralysis of the spinal cord, a condition that finally killed him. Almost to his dying day he was dictating: stories, observations and always scenes depicting his beloved Prussian capital. Much of this old Berlin has vanished in nigh on two centuries. What has remained of it? From a window of the Hanns Eisler a burst of music escapes, a snatch of Mozart. Or Offenbach. Maybe Hoffmann. The product of a fiery imagination, of that we can be sure.