E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics

By Kramer, Elizabeth | Notes, June 2007 | Go to article overview

E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics


Kramer, Elizabeth, Notes


NINETEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics. By Abigail Chantler. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. [xii, 202 p. ISBN 0-754-60706-2. $89.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Given the fact that E. T. A. Hoffmann's writings have proved pivotal to discussions of music-musical listening, the idea of absolute music, the reception of church music, and above all, the music of Beethoven -readers may be surprised to learn that English-language music scholarship has lacked a book-length study of the musical thought of Hoffmann. Abigail Chantler's new account, E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics, puts forth a vision of Hoffmann's far-reaching significance that considers his writings and musical compositions and that is informed by over a century of previous scholarship on Hoffmann. Readers of German will recognize the influence of contributions by individuals such as Georg Ellinger (E. T. A. Hoffmann: sein Leben und seine Werke [Hamburg: L. Voss, 1894]), Peter Schnaus (E. T. A. Hoffmann als Beethoven-Rezensent der Allgemeine Musikalischen Zeitung [Munich: Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, 1977]), and Gerhard Kaiser (E. T. A. Hoffmann [Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1988]). Others will note the shadow of David Charlton and Martyn Clarke's invaluable annotated translations (E. T. A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, ed. David Charlton, trans. Martyn Clarke [New York: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

Early Romanticism-a movement of ambiguity and ever-widening circles of thought-pervades every aspect of Chantler's account of Hoffmann's aesthetics. Introducing Hoffmann as a "polymath with eclectic interests" (p. vii), Chantler emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of her endeavor and draws on perspectives from the disciplines of religious studies, literature, music, and German history. The result is a fluid interchange of Hoffmann's ideas and those of his time, presented through a large selection of primary and secondary sources.

Chantler's first chapter, "Art Religion," acknowledges the wide-reaching nature of spiritual imagery in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century aesthetics. The permeation of ideas such as "spirituality," "divinity," and "religion" in literature of the time has been tied to contemporaneous phenomena of platonic idealism (by Mark Evan Bonds and John Neubauer) and romantic expressivism (by M. H. Abrams and Charles Taylor). For her exposition of spirituality in writings of the early nineteenth century, Chantler chooses the formulation of Carl Dahlhaus (Die Idee der absoluten Musik [Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1978]), who in his account of absolute music draws attention to a Kunstreligion or "art religion" that he cursorily traces as emerging from the writings of Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schleiermacher, G. W. F. Hegel, and Hoffmann. Chantler's general survey-perfectly appropriate given her purposes-of spiritual ideas at the time does not address the larger conceptual issues circling around the idea of an "art religion," but it does introduce the reader to Schleiermacher's aesthetics and a diverse body of writings about genius. In particular, she draws the reader's attention to descriptions of genius as both active and passive in the writings of Wackenroder, C. F. Michaelis, and Hoffmann, an often neglected paradox that returns in her later arguments about Hoffmann's poetic language and hermeneutics.

Chapter 2, "Hoffmann's Romantic Poetry," highlights elements of early romantic thought in Hoffmann's fiction. The exploration of literary techniques such as the arabesque, authorial ambiguity, the fragment, and irony guides her consideration of Hoffmann's Kreisleriana and The Golden Pot, especially as they reflect the "self-detachment" of the author "facilitating the self-cultivation of the reader" (p. 45). Specific consideration of the musical subject matter of Kreisleriana in light of romantic literary techniques is conspicuously absent, and in this respect, Chantler's account differs markedly from Daniel Chua's reading of romantic instrumental music as portrayed as "absolute fragment" (Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 177) in Hoffmann's writings.

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