*Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Hugo von Hofmannsthal



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Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

Austrian, 1874–1929
Although Hugo von Hofmannsthal showed a distinct preference for particular genres during various parts of his career, his commitment to the essay began early in his life and lasted until his death. His earliest essays, published in 1891 when he was just 17, appeared in periodicals under the pen name “Loris,” the title chosen for the first publication in book form of his early essays. When he died in July 1929, he had not only already published several essays that year but was also considering plans for a collection of his late essays, which, however, never came to fruition. These nearly 40 years witnessed considerable change, growth, and development as well as an extremely varied and flexible use of the genre.
His earliest essays emerged from the tradition of cultural journalism that flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries throughout Europe. Hofmannsthal certainly never thought of himself as a journalist in a narrow sense of the word, and went to great lengths to distinguish himself from those who practiced that profession. He argued that a certain vulgarity had been introduced into German journalism by Heinrich Heine and subsequent authors who had fallen under his influence. Although Hofmannsthal’s essays on literature, theater, music, art, travel, and general cultural developments were published for the most part in Viennese periodicals, he saw them as having an enduring quality that derived from his ability to use a contemporary cultural event as a point of departure for formulating a general principle or gaining a universal insight. If his essays are to be associated with journalism in any way, Hofmannsthal would certainly have argued that they were the basis for a new journalistic style rising above the abysmal level then current. Among the contemporaries discussed are D’Annunzio, Ibsen, Swinburne, and Pater. He also records his impressions during a tour through the south of France and comments frequently on contemporary painting. The style of these essays is relatively informal and has something of a conversational tone. They are never chatty or casual but seem addressed to a congenial conversation partner who is widely read and has a cultivated sensitivity to aesthetic nuance.
The mode in which Hofmannsthal’s essays address their audience is extremely varied.
While most are straightforward discursive presentations, others, following a long tradition extending back to Plato, speak out of imaginary situations such as conversations or letters. Perhaps the most important conversation is “Gespräch zu Gedichten” (1903; “Conversation on Poetry”), which discusses several poems by Stefan George, a contemporary poet with whom Hofmannsthal had a highly ambiguous relationship.
Through the comments the two characters make about the poems, Hofmannsthal reveals his concept of the nature and challenge of poetry. Even more important than the conversations, however, are the imaginary letters; in fact the essay simply entitled “Ein Brief” (1902.; “A Letter”) is one of Hofmannsthal’s most widely discussed and broadly influential works. It claims to be a letter written by the young Philipp Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon. In the most general of terms, the letter deals with the nature of language and of symbolic representation. Many have seen this letter as an expression of Hofmannsthal’s deeply skeptical attitude toward the expressive power of language and his response to the uniquely Viennese crisis of confidence in language as seen particularly in the works of his contemporaries Fritz Mauthner and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Most informed recent criticism, however, has not been so willing to read the essay in such narrowly biographical terms but stresses rather its fictionality. Editors of Hofmannsthal’s works have been far from consistent in their generic understanding of these conversations and letters: some have been published along with more conventional examples of the essay, while others have been classified as a genre in their own right, though collected in the same volume as indisputably fictional narratives.
World War I had a profound effect on Hofmannsthal’s essays. During and immediately following the war, he often turned to broadly patriotic themes and strove to differentiate what was distinctly Austrian from what was German or, more precisely, Prussian. He wrote eloquently and with a deep sense of personal conviction on themes taken from Austrian history and on Austria’s literary and cultural heritage. These essays—“Die Bejahung Österreichs” (1914; The affirmation of Austria), “Grillparzers politisches Vermächtnis” (1915; Grillparzer’s political legacy), “Österreich im Spiegel seiner Dichtung” (1916; Austria in the mirror of her literature), and “Die Öster-reichische Idee” (1917; The Austrian idea), for example—are neither shrill nor aggressively polemical but rather nostalgic and, perhaps, somewhat conservative.
Just as Hofmannsthal saw his collaboration with the composer Richard Strauss and the director Max Reinhardt as the fusion of drama, theater, and music, he saw Austria as the place where the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic worlds met and experienced, if not a fusion, at least a richly productive interpenetration. During the last decade of his life, the idea of an inclusive Europe that extends across political as well as temporal boundaries became a motif of much of his thinking and manifested itself in his essays in a variety of ways. Some deal specifically with a common European spiritual and intellectual heritage:
“Blick auf den geistigen Zustand Europas” (1922; A look at the intellectual condition of Europe), for example; others, when addressing specific figures, events, or ideas, draw on them in terms of their most broadly encompassing significance and their value for Western culture generally.
Hofmannsthal’s influence on the essay as a genre is not to be found so much by seeking subsequent writers who drew on his example but rather in his extremely supple and pliant use of the genre. Situating it at the juncture of cultural reportage, fictional narration, visionary meditation, cultural critique, synthesizing analysis, congenial conversation, and edifying homily, he extended the horizon of the genre within the specific context of German literary history in ways that invite exploration.


Born 1 February 1874 in Vienna. Studied at Akademisches Gymnasium, Vienna, 1884– 92; studied law, 1892–94, and Romantic philology, 1895–97, University of Vienna.
Served with the 6th Dragoon Regiment in Göding, 1894–95. Married Gertrud Schlesinger, 1901: one daughter and two sons. Collaborated with Richard Strauss on operas, from 1909; editor, Österreichische Bibliothek, 1915–17; cofounder, with Max Reinhardt, Salzburg Festival, 1919. Died (of a stroke) in Rodaun, Austria, 15 July 1929.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Studie über die Entwicklung des Dichters Victor Hugo (dissertation), 1901; as Victor Hugo, 1904; as Versuch über Victor Hugo, 1925
Unterhaltungen über literarische Gegenstände, 1904
Die prosaischen Schriften gesammelt, 5 vols., 1907; revised edition, 3 vols., 1917
Reden und Aufsätze, 1921
Buch der Freunde (aphorisms), 2 vols., 1922–29; part translated in Selected Prose, 1952
Früheste Prosastücke, 1926
Loris: Die Prosa des jungen Hofmannsthals, 1931
Die Berührung der Sphären, 1931
Festspiele in Salzburg, 1938
Selected Writings, vol. 1: Selected Prose (includes fiction), translated by Mary Hottinger and Tania and James Stern, 1952
Reitergeschichte: Erzählungen und Aufsätze, 1953
Selected Essays (in German), edited by Mary E.Gilbert, 1955
Österreichische Aufsätze und Reden, edited by Ludwig F.Jedlicka, 1956
Natur und Erkenntnis, 1957

Other writings: many plays (including Der Schwierige [The Difftcult Man], 1921; Der Turm [The Tower], 1925), libretti (including Der Rosenkavalier, 1911), poetry, fiction, and many volumes of correspondence.
Collected works editions: Sämtliche Werke, edited by Heinz Otto Burger, Rudolf Hirsch, and others, 31 vols., 1975–94 (in progress); Gesammelte Werke, edited by Bernd Schoeller, 10 vols., 1979–80.

Koch, Hans-Albrecht, and Uta Koch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal Bibliographie, 1964– 1976, Freiburg: Hugo von HofmannsthalGesellschaft, 1976
Köttelwesch, Clemens, “Hofmannsthal Bibliographie,” Hofmannsthal Blätter 23–24 (1980), and 39 (1989)
Weber, Horst, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Bibliographie des Schrifttums, 1892–1963, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966
Weber, Horst, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Bibliographie: Werke, Briefe, Gespräche, Übersetzungen, Vertonungen, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1972

Further Reading
Exner, Richard, “Probleme der Methodik und der Komposition in den Essays von Thomas Mann und Hugo von Hofmannsthal,” German Quarterly (1957):145–57
Exner, Richard, “Zur Essayistik Hugo von Hofmannsthals,” Schweizer Monatshefte 42, no. 2 (1962):239–313
Gerke, Ernst-Otto, Der Essay als Kunstform bei Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Lübeck: Matthiesen, 1970
Gilbert, Mary E., “Hofmannsthal’s Essays 1900–1908: A Poet in Transition,” in Hofmannsthal: Studies in Commemoration, edited by F.Norman, London: University
of London Institute of Germanic Studies, 1963:29–52
Kähler, Hermann, Von Hofmannsthal bis Benjamin: Ein Streifzug durch die Essayistik der zwanziger Jahre, Berlin: Aufbau, 1982
Lengauer, Hubert, “Hofmannsthals journalistische Anfänge und das Feuilleton des späten 19. Jahrhundert,” in Hofmannsthal und das Theater: Die Vorträge des Hofmannsthal
Symposium Wien 1979, edited by Wolfram Mauser, Vienna: Halosar, 1981:125–40

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