The Musikinstrumenten-Museum shows the extent to which E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose ambivalent attitude toward technology predated our own, is truly our contemporary
Imagine a great wooden box with a small keyboard producing melodies without anyone touching its keys. Even today, if you were to see this at a pub or at home in your living room, the light of the candles flickering because of the drafty windows, it would still be quite an uncanny spectacle. Perhaps even uncannily beautiful. Devices like this actually did exist in the late 19th century. They were known as orchestrelles, but they were not the first such music machines to be made. Inventions of this kind were in vogue at the time, and people projected visions of the future onto them that were sometimes idyllic and sometimes nightmarish. You can read about them in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who trained as a jurist and worked in the Prussian civil service, but was above all a talented and multifaceted artist who achieved success as a writer, graphic artist, conductor, musicographer and composer.
It would not be going too far to say that music was his greatest love. “If it were up to me,” he wrote to a school friend in 1795, “I would be a composer.” And again, in a letter from 1813, he wrote, “I do not want to give my name, since that should only be known to the world by a successful musical composition.”
Hoffmann was born in Königsberg on January 24, 1776, and died in Berlin on June 25, 1822. The Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Museum of Musical Instruments) is honoring the bicentenary of his death this year with an exhibition titled “Contemporary Hoffmann? E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Music.” The topic of human-made versus machine-made music that Hoffmann addressed in his writing is one that still occupies us today, in the 21st century. Just think of the Swedish pop band Abba, who were represented on stage by avatars in London in 2022. Or the theremin, an instrument invented in 1920. The theremin produces sound when the performer's hands are moved between two high-frequency transmitters, so it is played without being physically touched. Another example is the AI-assisted completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony, based on musical sketches that the composer left behind and using specially developed algorithms (the premiere performance took place on October 9, 2021, with Dirk Kaftan directing the Beethoven Orchester Bonn). Hoffmann would no doubt have enjoyed it, and he surely would have been curious about the possibilities presented by this kind of technology.
According to Benedikt Brilmayer, who is organizing the interdepartmental exhibition together with Simone Hohmaier, a researcher in the Department of Music Theory and Music History, there are probably just as many electronic instruments sold these days as conventional acoustic ones. Clearly, there is an enduring fascination with automata and music machines. How can we categorize what is produced by the latter: is it art or mechanics, intentional or random? “This issue is a key motif in Hoffmann’s work,” says Brilmayer: “He was deeply interested in the question of whether music machines were merely a kind of technical amusement or whether they were capable of creating new artistic content.”
Protagonists in his novels and stories can often be found discussing the issue and taking different sides on it. One character in “The Automata,” originally published in German in 1814, takes a negative view: “To set to work to make music by means of valves, springs, levers, cylinders, or whatever other apparatus you choose to employ, is a senseless attempt to make the means to an end accomplish what can result only when those means are animated and, in their minutest movements, controlled by the mind, the soul, and the heart. . . . Yet the coldest and most unfeeling executant will always be far in advance of the most perfect machines.” In “The Sandman” (1816), on the other hand, the author argues the advantages of (female) automata: “...but then he had never had such an exemplary listener. She neither embroidered, nor knitted; she did not look out of the window, or feed a bird, or play with a little pet dog or a favorite cat, neither did she twist a piece of paper or anything of that kind round her finger; she did not forcibly convert a yawn into a low affected cough – in short, she sat hour after hour with her eyes bent unchangeably upon her lover's face, without moving or altering her position, and her gaze grew more ardent and more ardent still. And it was only when at last Nathanael rose and kissed her lips or her hand that she said, ‘Ach! Ach!’ and then ‘Good-night, dear.’ Arrived in his own room, Nathanael would break out with, ‘Oh! what a brilliant – what a profound mind! Only you – you alone understand me .’”
The passion that we still have today for new technological inventions goes back to the late 18th century, explains Hohmaier.
People then were fascinated by automata, such as the two music boxes that are on display here, and by theories like magnetism and mesmerism that were gaining popularity at the time. Think of Mozart’s opera, ‘Così fan tutte,’ for example – magnetism is used there, if only ironically.”
Visitors to the exhibition will enjoy learning about these developments and their practical manifestations, and about the artistic and technological roots of the sorts of devices we use today. Of course, there are also older instruments on display that provide a gateway into Hoffmann’s musical world. These date from his era and come largely from Berlin, so he may have seen or handled them himself. The symbolic heart of the exhibition is Hoffmann’s well-known Harp Quintet in C Minor (1807). Examples can be seen of the instruments that the piece was written for: two violins, a viola and a violoncello to start with, made during the mid-to-late 18th century in the workshop of Anton Bachmann, an early, innovative and not inexpensive instrument maker from Berlin. In his “Musical almanac” of 1782, Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote the following about Bachmann: “Not only does he produce very good new violins, ... he is also very successful at repairing old instruments.”
Next to these four instruments is a richly decorated single-action pedal harp (these preceded the double-action pedal harps commonly used today) made by Pierre Krupp of Paris. Brilmayer points out the golden chinoiserie on the neck of the harp, and the floral carvings on its head and capital. This ornamentation effectively hides the instrument’s complicated mechanics, which combine with wood and strings, air and bravura, to invisibly generate its delicate tones. “Hoffmann played the piano, violin and harp. As a violinist, he would occasionally even perform with the opera orchestra in Bamberg, where he lived from 1808 to 1813. When it came to the harp, however, he referred to himself as an aficionado, not a professional, and he used it for spontaneous and associative playing, free to follow his fancy.”
The exhibition offers an interactive map of Berlin that takes visitors on a historical tour of landmarks in Hoffmann’s life and career. On August 17, a second Hoffmann exhibition will open in the Unter den Linden branch of the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library).
This one, titled “Incredibly Fantastic – E.T.A. Hoffmann 2022,” will examine other areas of his life and work. Benjamin Schlodder, curator of the Staatsbibliothek’s E. T. A. Hoffmann website, explains that original files from Hoffmann’s legal career will be on display, including some dealing with the arrest, in 1819, of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, later known as the ‘father of gymnastics,’ and his prosecution during the repression that followed the anti-liberal, anti-nationalist Carlsbad Decrees of 1819. “Hoffmann regarded him [Jahn] as a fantasist, but did not consider his actions to be punishable by law. He was not able to convince the court, however, and Jahn was kept in prison until 1825.”
For now, however, we can join E. T. A. Hoffmann at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum and get a sense of what inspired the artistic activities of this multitalented man – and of how exciting it sounded!