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Who is E. T. A. Hoffmann?

Russian Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky's 1892 ballet “The Nutcracker” was based on a Hoffman story.
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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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E.T.A. Hoffmann was a 19th century German author known for his bizarre, fantastical works. He was one of the major figures of German Romanticism, and his work inspired such later genres as Surrealism, Fantasy, and Magical Realism. E.T.A. Hoffmann was also a music critic, composer, painter, jurist, and caricaturist.

Hoffmann was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann on 24 January 1776 in Köningsberg, Prussia, the youngest of three children. His parents separated in 1778, and Wilhelm spent his childhood in his grandmother's home with his mother and her three unmarried siblings. Hoffmann showed interest and talent in the arts as a child, when he began painting and drawing, composing music, and reading avidly. At the age of 16, he began studying law at Königsberg University, carrying on the tradition of both sides of his family.

Hoffmann balanced his judiciary career with his artistic one beginning in his school days, when he supported himself with piano lessons. He passed his first law exam in 1795 and began working as a legal clerk and writing his first literary works. Hoffmann lived with his uncle in Glogau for a few years before passing his second law exam and moving to Berlin in 1798. There, he was exposed to a richer literary and artistic culture than he had previously experienced, and he immersed himself in the life of the city.

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Hoffmann took up a government post in Posen in modern-day Poland after passing his final law exam in 1800. He found the small town unbearably boring, but married Michaelina, a local woman, in 1802. Hoffmann's first published works date from around this time. In 1804, he and his wife moved to Warsaw, where Hoffmann found the atmosphere much more engaging and began to see more success as a writer. He changed his third given name to Amadeus the same year, as a tribute to Mozart.

Hoffmann had a child in 1806, but soon after came on hard times when Napoleon's army invaded Warsaw. He lost his post and was unable to find any kind of stable work for a few years. He moved to Bamberg in 1808, where he supported himself with music lessons and composed a number of musical and literary works. Luckily, this period of desperation allowed him to develop his skills as a writer, and his works became immensely popular.

Hoffmann returned to Berlin in 1815 and remained there for the rest of his life, becoming a respected judge and the most popular author in the city. When he died on 25 June 1822, he left a legacy of strange but compelling stories that would have a lasting influence in many areas of Western culture. Psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were inspired by his work, as were many writers of the Romantic period and later eras. Some of Hoffmann's stories became the basis for Jacques Offenbach's 1881 opera Les contes d'Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky's 1892 ballet The Nutcracker.

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