E.T.A. Hoffmann – a famous neighbour

By Dietmar Hiller June 22, 2022


Since 1998, somewhat hidden under plants, a bronze figure by Berlin artist Carin Kreuzberg has stood close to the Konzerthaus. It depicts the famous poet Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, whose gaze is directed towards the building at the corner of Charlottenstraße and Taubenstraße. He lived on the second floor of Taubenstraße 31 from 1815 until his death in 1822. The following recounts his life.

Different stations before Berlin

Born in Königsberg in 1776, Hoffmann studied law in his hometown and was first transferred to Glogau. After passing his second law examination in 1798, he continued his career as a civil servant in Berlin, where he passed his third law examination in 1800 and was then sent to the Posen High Court as an assessor.

However, Hoffmann, who was artistically gifted in many ways, only used his civil service to earn a living. He felt as though he had a higher calling for music, poetry and drawing.

His deft hand, however, put the brakes on his legal career. After being exposed as the biting caricaturist of well-known personalities in Posen’s high society, he was transferred to the small town of Plotzk on the Vistula River in 1802. In 1804 Hoffmann moved to Warsaw as a senior civil servant, where, in addition to his legal work, he was involved in the local musical life as a bandmaster and composer.

Napoleon’s victory over Prussia and the invasion of the French troops brought an abrupt end to this episode of orderly activity for Hoffmann. Because he refused to swear loyalty to Napoleon, he was dismissed from the civil service and then tried to establish himself as a musician in Berlin – in vain. Months of severe hunger followed, which were firmly etched in his memory.

Making a job out of a hobby

Finally, Hoffmann succeeded in turning his “hobby” into a profession when he got a job as a music director at a theatre in the Upper Franconian town of Bamberg. This was followed by one blow after another: nasty intrigues within the ensemble sidelined him, the theatre even went bankrupt for a short time, Hoffmann fell in love with a piano student and, after her hastily arranged marriage to another man, he sought solace in alcohol.

In the years that followed, Hoffmann struggled as a composer and music teacher. Nor was his work as bandmaster at a theatre company in Leipzig and Dresden in 1813/14 crowned with success. In the end, Hoffmann was lucky enough to be able to return to the Prussian civil service, where he was offered a position at the Court of Appeal in Berlin.

After a probationary period without pay, he was promoted to counsellor, and the salary that came with the position finally gave him the opportunity to rent a suitable flat for himself and his wife Mischa on Gendarmenmarkt – just behind the National Theatre.

Directly behind the National Theatre

Hoffmann would now finally have to come to grips with the conflict between his day job and his artistic inclinations. The fees he could demand and received for his part-time work as a successful author were quite respectable. As a counsellor in the Court of Appeal and member of the commission for the investigation of highly treasonable offences, his incorruptible sense of justice before the law brought him into conflict with the authorities on more than one occasion. His drinking excesses in the wine bar “Lutter & Wegner” – which he often frequented with his drinking buddy, actor Ludwig Devrient – were known throughout the neighbourhood. Hoffmann was in debt to the pub owner, who didn’t let anyone know, because he made his business from the numerous guests who only came to catch a glimpse of the famous poet...

For the last seven years of his life, from July 1815 until his death, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann lived on Gendarmenmarkt in the immediate vicinity of the Schauspielhaus – today, the directorate building of the Konzerthaus stands on this site. The now respected lawyer and successful poet moved in and out of the National Theatre, but also the new Schauspielhaus, which was built in just three years after a catastrophic fire levelled the previous structure in 1817.

Fulfilling a dream

And it was here, on 3 August 1816, that one of the poet’s most heartfelt wishes came true. His opera “Undine” was premiered! At last, one step closer to the dream he formulated in a letter:

“My name should only become famous in the world through a successful musical composition.”

With his magical opera, Hoffmann delivered the archetype of the Romantic performance and thus the precursor to Carl Maria von Weber’s incomparably more famous “Freischütz”, which would celebrate its premiere at the same venue just a few years later.

Incidentally, the stage design for Undine was painted by none other than Karl Friedrich Schinkel – unfortunately, the devastating fire destroyed it completely after only 14 performances. And who rebuilt the theatre at Gendarmenmarkt in the end? Well, of course, Karl Friedrich Schinkel!

The poet’s last dwelling achieved literary fame above all through the story “The Cousin’s Corner Window”, in which the terminally ill poet put down on paper, and also drew, his observations of life and urban doings on the square with a clear eye and cool hand:

His death on 25 June 1822 saved the paralysed poet not only from infirmity and a long sickbed, but also from the consequences of disciplinary proceedings for an indiscreet literary portrait of his supervisor in the famous fairy tale “Master Flea”.

Hoffmann’s grave in Cemetery No. III of the congregations of Jerusalem Church and New Church in Berlin is marked by a tombstone with the following inscription:

E. T. W.* Hoffmann
born in Königsberg, Prussia, 24 January 1776
died in Berlin, 25 June 1822.
Court of Appeal counsellor
in office
as a poet
as a musician
as a painter
Dedicated by his friends.

*Hoffmann himself chose the A in his name in memory of Mozart’s middle name. His baptismal name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann.


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