History of Literature

Hugo von Hofmannsthal



Hugo von Hofmannsthal



Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Austrian author

born Feb. 1, 1874, Vienna
died July 15, 1929, Rodaun, a suburb of Vienna

Austrian poet, dramatist, and essayist. He made his reputation with his lyrical poems and plays and became internationally famous for his collaboration with the German operatic composer Richard Strauss.

The only child of a bank director, Hofmannsthal studied law at Vienna. At 16 he published his first poems, under the pseudonym Loris. They created a stir in Vienna and in Germany with their lyrical beauty, magic evocativeness of language, and dreamlike quality. Their anticipation of mature experience and formal virtuosity seem incredible in one so young. After his year of compulsory military service, he studied Romance philology with a view to an academic career but in 1901 married and became a free-lance writer.

Between 1891 and 1899 Hofmannsthal wrote a number of short verse plays, influenced by the static dramas of the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, the dramatic monologues of the English Romantic poet Robert Browning, and the proverbes dramatiques of the French poet Alfred de Musset. These plays include Gestern (1891; “Yesterday”), Der Tod des Tizian (1892; The Death of Titian, 1913), Der Tor und der Tod (1893; Death and the Fool, 1913), Das kleine Welttheater (1897; “The Little Theatre of the World”), Der Weisse Fächer (1898; partially translated as The White Fan, 1909), Die Frau im Fenster (1898; Madonna Dianora, 1916), Der Abenteurer und die Sängerin (1899; The Adventurer and the Singer, 1917–18), and Die Hochzeit der Sobeide (1899; The Marriage of Sobeide, 1961). Of the same exquisite beauty as the poems, these playlets are lyric reflections on appearance and reality, transience and timelessness, and continuity and change within the human personality—themes constantly recurring in his later works. After the turn of the century, however, Hofmannsthal renounced purely lyrical forms in his essay “Ein Brief” (also called “Chandos Brief,” 1902). This essay was more than the revelation of a personal predicament; it has come to be recognized as symptomatic of the crisis that undermined the esthetic Symbolist movement of the end of the century.

During a period of reorientation and transition Hofmannsthal experimented with Elizabethan and classical tragic forms, adapting Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682) as Das gerettete Venedig (1904) and writing Elektra (1903), later set to music by Strauss. At the same time he began his novel, Andreas (1932; The United, 1936), which he never completed. The theatre increasingly became his medium. To the end of his life he collaborated with Strauss, writing the librettos for the operas Der Rosenkavalier (performed 1911; “The Cavalier of the Rose”), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919; “The Woman Without a Shadow”), Die ägyptische Helena (1928; Helen in Egypt, 1963), and Arabella (performed 1933).

After World War I, with the theatrical producer and designer Max Reinhardt, he founded the Salzburg Festival, at which performances have regularly been given of his Jedermann (1911; “Everyman”) and Das Salzburger grosse Welttheater (1922; The Great Salzburg Theatre of the World, 1963). His comedies, Cristinas Heimreise (1910; Christina’s Journey Home, 1916), Der Schwierige (1921; The Difficult Man, 1963), and Der Unbestechliche (performed 1923, published 1956; “The Incorruptible”), are written in Viennese dialect and set in contemporary Austrian society; concerned with moral issues, they blend realism with concealed symbolism.

Hofmannsthal’s reflections on the crisis and disintegration of European civilization after World War I found expression in his political drama Der Turm (1925; The Tower, 1963) and in several essays that were prophetic of the future of Western culture. He responded to the collapse of the Habsburg empire by an increased awareness of his Austrian heritage, at the same time committing himself to the European tradition. His art continued to develop, and he always maintained the delicate grace and sense of transcendent beauty typical of his earliest works, but he was unable to accommodate himself to the 20th century.



Hugo von Hofmannsthal

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hofmannsthal was born in Vienna, the son of an upper-class Austrian mother and an Austrian-Italian bank manager. His great-grandfather, Isaak Löw Hofmann, Edler von Hofmannsthal, from whom his family inherited the noble title "Edler von Hofmannsthal," was a Jewish merchant ennobled by the Austrian emperor. He began to write poems and plays from an early age. He met the German poet Stefan George at the age of seventeen and had several poems published in George's journal, Blätter für die Kunst. He studied law and later philology in Vienna but decided to devote himself to writing upon graduating in 1901. Along with Peter Altenberg and Arthur Schnitzler, he was a member of the avant garde group Young Vienna (Junges Wien). In 1900, Hofmannsthal met the composer Richard Strauss for the first time. He later wrote libretti for several of his operas, including Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, rev. 1916), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1927), and Arabella (1933). In 1901, he married Gertrud (Gerty) Schlesinger, the daughter of a Viennese banker. Gerty, who was Jewish, converted to Christianity before their marriage. They settled in Rodaun, not far from Vienna, and had three children. In 1912 he adapted the 15th century English morality play Everyman as Jedermann, and Jean Sibelius (amongst others) wrote incidental music for it. The play later became a staple at the Salzburg Festival. During the First World War Hofmannsthal held a government post. He wrote speeches and articles supporting the war effort, and emphasizing the cultural tradition of Austria-Hungary. The end of the war spelled the end of the old monarchy in Austria; this was a blow from which the patriotic and conservative-minded Hofmannsthal never fully recovered. Nevertheless the years after the war were very productive ones for Hofmannsthal; he continued with his earlier literary projects, almost without a break. In 1920, Hofmannsthal, along with Max Reinhardt, founded the Salzburg Festival. His later plays revealed a growing interest in religious, particularly Roman Catholic, themes. Among his writings was a screenplay for a film version of Der Rosenkavalier (1925) directed by Robert Wiene.

On July 13, 1929 his son Franz committed suicide. Two days later, Hofmannsthal himself died of a stroke at Rodaun.

On October 18, 1902, Hoffmannsthal published a fictive letter in the Berlin Daily, Der Tag (The Day) titled simply "Ein Brief" ("A Letter"). It was purportedly written in 1603 by Philip, Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon. In this letter Chandos says that he has stopped writing because he has "lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently"; he has given up on the possibility of language to describe the world. This letter reflects the growing distrust of and dissatisfaction with language that so characterizes the Modern era, and Chandos's dissolving personality is not only individual but societal. Growing up the son of a wealthy merchant who was well connected with the major artists of the time, Hofmannsthal was raised in what Carl Schorske refers to as "the temple of art". This perfect setting for aesthetic isolation allowed Hofmannsthal the unique perspective of the privileged artist, but also allowed him to see that art had become a flattened documenting of humanity, which took our instincts and desires and framed them for viewing without acquiring any of the living, passionate elements. Because of this realization, Hofmannsthal’s idea of the role of the artist began to take shape as someone who created works that would inspire or inflame the instinct, rather than merely preserving it in a creative form. He also began to think that the artist should not be someone isolated and left to his art, but rather a man of the world, immersed in both politics and art. Hofmannsthal saw in English culture the ideal setting for the artist. This was because the English simultaneously admired Admiral Nelson and John Milton, both war heroes and poets, while still maintaining a solid national identity. "In [Hofmannsthal’s] view, the division between artist (writer) and man of action (politician, explorer, soldier) does not exist in England. Britain provides her subjects with a common base of energy which functions as equilibrium, a force lacking in fragmented Germany". (Weiss) This singular and yet pragmatic identity must have appealed to Hofmannsthal to a certain degree due to the large scale fragmentation of Austria at the time, which was in the throes of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism, a nation in which the progressive artist and the progressive politician were growing more different and hostile to each other by the day.










Mit silbergrauem Dufte war das Tal

Der Dämmerung erfüllt, wie wenn der Mond

Durch Wolken sickert. Doch es war nicht Nacht.

Mit silbergrauem Duft des dunklen Tales

Verschwammen meine dämmernden Gedanken,

Und still versank ich in dem webenden,

Durchsichtgen Meere und verließ das Leben.

Wie wunderbare Blumen waren da

Mit Kelchen dunkelglühend! Pflanzendickicht,

Durch das ein gelbrot Licht wie von Topasen

In warmen Strömen drang und glomm. Das Ganze

War angefüllt mit einem tiefen Schwellen

Schwermütiger Musik. Und dieses wußt ich,

Obgleich ichs nicht begreife, doch ich wußt es:

Das ist der Tod. Der ist Musik geworden,

Gewaltig sehnend, süß und dunkelglühend,

Verwandt der tiefsten Schwermut.

Aber seltsam!

Ein namenloses Heimweh weinte lautlos

In meiner Seele nach dem Leben, weinte,

Wie einer weint, wenn er auf großem Seeschiff

Mit gelben Riesensegeln gegen Abend

Auf dunkelblauem Wasser an der Stadt,

Der Vaterstadt, vorüberfährt. Da sieht er

Die Gassen, hört die Brunnen rauschen, riecht

Den Duft der Fliederbüsche, sieht sich selber,

Ein Kind, am Ufer stehn, mit Kindesaugen,

Die ängstlich sind und weinen wollen, sieht

Durchs offne Fenster Licht in seinem Zimmer -

Das große Seeschiff aber trägt ihn weiter

Auf dunkelblauem Wasser lautlos gleitend

Mit gelben fremdgeformten Riesensegeln.


The valley of dusk was filled

With a silver-grey fragrance, like the moon

Seeping through clouds. But it wasn't night.

The silver-grey fragrance of the dark valley

Caused my sleepy thoughts to blur,

And silently I sank into the weaving,

Transparent sea and left my life.

What wonderful flowers there were,

With dark chalices glowing! A maze of plants

Through which a yellow-red light,

as if from topazes, glowed in warm streams. All

Was filled with a deep swelling

Of melancholy music. And this I knew,

Even though I could not fathom it, but I knew:

This was death. Death turned music,

With an immense longing, sweet and glowing darkly,

Brother to deepest melancholy.

And yet:

A nameless homesickness for life kept crying

Mutely in my soul, crying as someone

On board a big ocean vessel would cry, a ship, driven

By gigantic yellow sails, passing by the city,

His city, at night in dark-blue water. There he sees

The lanes, hears the rushing of the fountains, smells

The scent of the lilac bushes, sees himself,

A child, standing on the shore, with a child's eyes,

Fearful, with tears welling up, sees

Through the open window the light in his room

But the big ship carries him along,

Gliding away on dark-blue water soundlessly,

Driven by gigantic yellow sails of strange shape.


The Gardener's Daughters

One fills the large Delft jugs,

Painted with blue dragons and birds,

With a loose sheaf of bright flowers:

Among them jasmine, ripe roses unfolding,

Dahlias, carnations and narcissus...


Tall daisies, lilac umbels and snowball

Dance above them, and

Stalks, silvery down and panicles sway...

A fragrant bacchanal...

The other with pale thin fingers picks

Long-stemmed rigid orchids,

Two or three for a narrow vase...

Rising up with fading colors,

With long styles, strange and winding,

With purple threads and garish dots,

With violet brown panther spots

And lurking, seductive chalices

Wanting to kill...


»Works« are Dead Rock

»Works« are dead rock, sprung from resounding chisel,

When the master is at work, chipping away at his living self.

»Works« announce the mind as pupas announce the butterfly:

»Look, it left me behind – lifeless – and fluttered away.«

»Works« are like reeds, Midas' whispering reeds,

Spreading secrets long after having ceased to be true.

Written in a Copy of 'Yesterday'
Thoughts are apples on the tree,
Not meant for anyone in particular,
But they end up belonging
To the one who takes them.


Canticum Canticorum IV, 12-16
You are the garden locked,
Your childlike hands are waiting,
Your lips are without violence.
You are the fountain sealed,
Life's frozen threshold,
Tart and cold in ignorance.

Take wings, north wind,
Come, south wind, across the hills,
And blow through this grove!
Let all fragrances come awake,
Let life free itself


Deine kleine Schwester

Hat ihre offenen Haare

Wie einen lebendigen Schleier,

Wie eine duftende Hecke

Vornüberfallen lassen

Und schaut, mit solchen Augen!

Durch einen duftenden Schleier,

Durch eine dunkle Hecke...

Wie süß ists, nur zu denken

An diese kleinen Dinge.

An allen sehnsüchtigen Zweigen

In deinem nächtigen Garten

Sind Früchte aufgegangen,

Lampions wie rote Früchte,

Und wiegen sich und leuchten

An den sehnsüchtigen Zweigen,

Darin der Nachtwind raschelt,

In deinem kleinen Garten...

Wie süß ists, nur zu denken

An diese kleinen Dinge...



Your little sister

Has tossed her

Untied hair forward

Like a living veil,

Like a fragrant hedge,

And peers, with such eyes!

Through a fragrant veil,

Through a dark hedge ...

How sweet it is to only

Think of such little things.

Fruits have ripened

On all the longing branches

In your nightly garden,

Chinese lanterns like red fruits

Sway and illuminate

The longing branches

Rustled by the night wind

In your little garden ...

How sweet it is to only

Think of such little things.


Translated by Johannes Beilharz




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