E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music by R. Murray Schafer
University of Toronto Press
Just in time for the bicentenary, which should swell the sales of Hoffmann. But let the buyer beware; the title is far from self-explanatory. The real subject, announced in the introduction, is “the artistic and social climate surrounding the birth of romantic music”. The topic of actual works composed or inspired by Hoffmann is relegated to two rather off-colour appendices (the removal of which would at least have cut out some of the grumbling heard below). The main contents are nine translated pieces, arbitrarily selected from Hoffmann’s voluminous writings on music, prefaced by some biographical data and intercalated with a discursive commentary. This plan appeals to its author as “the only logical format” though it is not exactly logical, or a format. Such euphoric imprecision epitomizes the book’s central weakness as a scholarly or didactic work. Neither its content nor its form is taut enough to instruct. Even a casual perusal discloses dubious or mistaken translations in the text and useless repetitions in the commentary, including groundless assumptions asserted as facts.
Thus we are told (twice: pp. 6, 184) that Schumann’s insanity was caused by clefts and cleavages in his own mind; whereas all the evidence points in a very different direction. Schumann is rightly cited (again, twice) as an especially significant case of Hoffmannism; so we are doubly disappointed by his few casual lines of offhand treatment. This has some bizarre flies in its ointment. For example the character “Johann Ludwig Böthmer” is surely even more fictional than intended. He seems to me to owe his existence to a typist’s error, carelessly reproduced from a mistaken footnote in Hewett-Thayer’s biography of Hoffmann (1948, p. 371) – one of the sadder sequelae of consorting with secondary sources. Similarly symptomatic are the “shrivelled arms” of poor old Ritter Gluck: recte “folded arms” (mit verkrämpften Armen).
However, such divagations are perhaps just pardonable in a pioneer; and there is much timely virtue in this expedition to seek out Hoffmann the writer on music and bring him home to English-speaking readers. Professor Schafer is surely salutary in lamenting our loss of touch with the Romantic era; in suggesting that contact can best be restored by a serious study of the language and ideas of the early 19th century; and in esemplifying and discussing at least some aspects of Hoffmann’s range and resource (notably such concepts as exaltation, transcendence and synaesthesia).
Indeed, it might not be unfair to say that Schafer on Hoffmann resembles Hoffmann on music; erratic, but perceptive, and hence – read with indulgence – rewarding. But this book would surely have been much more rewarding if the indulgence had been left entirely to the reader.
The Musical Times, Jan. 1976 (p.37) © the estate of eric sams