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Hoffman’s Tales

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Over here in Washington DC, it is truly feeling like winter! With temperatures well below freezing, it is not hard to picture oneself in a frozen Prussian landscape; which is fitting, since today is the birthday of German writer, music critic, and composer E.T.A. (Ernst Theodor Amadeus) Hoffmann, born in Königsberg, East Prussia (today known as Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1776.

A portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann by an unknown painter, from before 1822. Displayed under Creative Commons License.
A portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann by an unknown painter, from before 1822. Displayed under Creative Commons License. 

Hoffmann’s stories were very well-known in the 19th century, and many of them were the basis for operas, ballets, and other works. His style of writing is steeped in German romanticism, and has elements of fantasy, fairy tales, as well as the macabre. In addition to writing tales that influenced music compositions, Hoffmann was also well known for his music criticism. He was a contemporary of both Beethoven and Schubert, and is best known for his reviews of many of Beethoven’s instrumental works.

Hoffmann is widely cited for elevating instrumental music over vocal music in terms of being “the most romantic of all art” (Sie ist die romantischste aller Künste). Hoffmann died at age 46, after suffering from Syphilis.

Below are some pieces in the NLS Music Collection that are based on the writings of E.T.A. Hoffman.

The Nutcracker

Perhaps the most famous in this list, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is based on Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King), written in 1816. French writer Alexandre Dumas adapted Hoffmann’s tale in 1844, and that is the version that Tchaikovsky used in the setting of his ballet.

Tchaikovsky, Peter Illyich. Chinese Dance: for Piano Duet (BRM04812, piano 1, piano 2). Section by Section

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy: Piano Solo (BRM07118). Bar over bar

Nutcracker Suite: Piano Solo (BRM00517). Bar over Bar

Trepak: for Piano Duet (BRM04815, piano 1, piano 2). Section by Section

Digital Talking Book
Brown, Bill. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (DBM03308). Piano by Ear

Waltz of the Flowers (DBM03539). Piano by Ear

Music About Toys (DBM00259). Discusses Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from Babes in Toyland and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker

The Music of Tchaikovsky (DBM00023). Excerpts from The Nutcracker Suite, Sleeping Beauty, and Symphony no. 4, showing how Tchaikovsky’s music is rooted in Russian folk music.

Nutcracker Ballet (DBM00081). Relates the story of The Nutcracker, as set to music by Tchaikovsky.

Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann

A photo portrait of Jacques Offenbach, taken by Atelier Nadar, 1910. Public Domain.
A photo portrait of Jacques Offenbach, taken by Atelier Nadar, 1910. Public Domain.

Perhaps the second most famous Hoffmann adaptation bears Hoffmann’s own name: Jacques Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann). This opera’s libretto was adapted by Jules Barbier, and weaves three of Hoffmann’s Tales (Der Sandmann [The Sandman], Rath Krespel [Councillor Krespel, also known as “The Cremona Violin”], and Das verlorene Spiegelbild [The Lost Reflection]) into an Opera fantastique with a main character named after Hoffmann. This was Jacques Offenbach’s final work, as he died a year before it premiered in 1881.

Offenbach, Jacques. “Barcarolle” from Tales of Hoffmann (BRM11940). For voice and piano

“Grand potpourri” for piano from the opera, Les contes d’Hoffmann (BRM27466)

“Je me nomme Coppelius” from Tales of Hoffman (BRM26862). For bass/baritone and piano

“Legende de Kleinzach” from Tales of Hoffman (BRM22708). For tenor and piano

Les contes d’Hoffmann: opera in four acts (BRM35160, French libretto, English libretto, French and English libretto [vol. 1, vol. 2]). Libretto in English and French

“Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Tales of Hoffman (BRM26863). For soprano and piano

“Valse” from Tales of Hoffmann (BRM06527). For piano, bar by bar

Digital Talking Book
Barclay, Michael. Michael Barclay Lectures on “Les contes d’Hoffman.” (DBM00859)


Lastly, Schumann’s piano work Kreisleriana is based on a recurring character in Hoffman’s works: Johannes Kreisler. This character is portrayed as a musical genius, although he is often unpredictable and moody. Schumann’s eight-movement work plays on this characterization, as each movement contrasts heavily, in both tempo and mood, with each other as well as within themselves.

We have this work for piano available in a few different braille formats:

Schumann, Franz. Kreisleriana (BRM36061). Bar over bar

Kreisleriana (BRM06413). Bar by bar

Kreisleriana (BRM21349). Section by section

Additionally, you may be interested in some of these other works in the general NLS Talking Book and Braille Collection:

The Golden Pot, and Other Tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann (DB 47927)

Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann (BR 07175 [3 volumes])

To borrow these books, you may access BARD or request a copy on digital cartridge by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].

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