»Intermediality« - and Scholarly Accuracy

  • Ricarda Schmidt: Wenn mehrere Künste im Spiel sind. Intermedialität bei E.T.A. Hoffmann. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2006. 256 S. Gebunden. EUR (D) 39,90.
    ISBN: 978-3-525-20848-9.



This study impresses for its wide-ranging scholarship and its carefully drawn conclusions. The rigorous approach enables the author to deliver a bold and credible challenge to many current fashionable theories, and demonstrate, by the clarity and precision of her formulations, that there are alternatives to jargon in present-day scholarship. Time and time again in the course of her study Ricarda Schmidt exposes the shortcomings of many readings of Hoffmann which seem less concerned with scholarly accuracy and more with generalized theorizing, an approach which, as she demonstrates, fails to do justice to the works of this most individual and genial of authors.


However, it would be mistaken to view the author’s approach as primarily polemical. Ricarda Schmidt’s exposé of so much misreading of Romantic works is presented alongside her own alternative readings of six major Hoffmann texts, readings which are challenging and often original. She explains that the key term of her title, ›Intermedialität‹, is not employed to shed light on the relationship between the different genres, nor to investigate the means by which they may be brought together or fused (p. 13). Instead she focuses on the effects which a ›non-dominant‹ medium (here music or the visual arts) may have on the ›dominant‹ one (here the literary text). Each of the chosen narrative texts is examined in relation to semiotic material drawn from the other art forms to demonstrate how, when transferred from the one sphere to the other, such material complements or reinforces the narratorial strategies which characterize the original literary text. In this process historical and cultural contextualization become of paramount importance.


Although all five chapters contain arresting insights, Schmidt’s method seems to me to work best in the first two chapters – Ritter Gluck and Don Juan (involving music) – and the final chapter on Prinzessin Brambilla (involving the visual arts).


Ritter Gluck


The first chapter deals with a seemingly ambiguous figure, a musician of unknown identity, dressed in the clothes of the previous century, who, in the final line of the tale, declares himself to be the long dead composer, »Ritter Gluck«. In her reading Schmidt focuses on the expressiveness, intensity, sublimity and even the transcendent meaning which constitute the Ich-narrator’s reception of the ›pretender‹’s rendition (part vocal, part gestural, part pianistic) of selections from Gluck’s operas Iphigenie in Tauris, Iphigenie in Aulis and Armida. Schmidt pulls the rug from under the feet of a host of commentators whose aim is to deconstruct any notion that the tale concerns the complexities and mysteries of both the creative and the reception process in great art. She shows a confident handling of the contextual background to relevant musicological issues of the 18th and early 19th centuries (e.g. the rules of harmony and the circumstances in which they may be broken by composers of genius such as Gluck). This, combined with her own careful reading of Ritter Gluck as a narratorially complex text, enables her to expose various a-historical theories which have been spun on little or no firm evidence, for example, the view that Hoffmann, either through the unreliability of his narrator and/or the dubious identity of his unknown interpreter, the revenant »Ritter Gluck«, is presenting his reader with a critique of Gluck’s status as a composer rather than a celebration of his genius. As she puts it: »Hoffmanns Narrativik liegt nicht außerhalb einer Romantik, die in ihr kritisch entlarvt würde« (p. 46).


In her reading Schmidt suggests that Hoffmann deliberately creates ambiguity around the identity of the ›Unbekannter‹ whose ›life‹ spans the period between the historical Gluck’s musical career, when his operas were not successful, and the concrete present in Berlin in the first decade of the 19th century, when they are being regularly performed, albeit, according to the ›Unbekannter‹, not always perfectly. The posthumous perspective on the composer’s work created by the joint forces of the ›Unbekannter‹ and the narrator uncovers an interesting aspect of the reception process: the latter-day appreciation of true genius. In this tale works of a Classical composer whose far-reaching reforms of the opera could only be perceived and realized by a later generation are revealed in full-blooded glory through what is, essentially, a Romantic reception of the ›Unbekannter‹’s performance.


Don Juan


The strength of the chapter on Don Juan derives essentially from Schmidt’s penetrating analysis of primary sources which opens up new aspects of the relationship between the libretto and the musical score. Once more the question of the ›unreliability‹ of the narrator figure is raised (and by reference to virtually the same forces of opposition).


In this tale the narrator is identified by Hoffmann as a ›travelling enthusiast‹ who responds to a highly charged and very unusual performance of Mozart’s opera in a state of emotional exaltation such as would be appropriate to the enactment of a tragic and sublime masterwork. However, many commentators prefer to interpret these extreme reactions as a deliberate subversion on Hoffmann’s part of any such Romantic excesses. Apropos this, Schmidt sagely observes (p. 58): what would be the point of Hoffmann’s presenting via the ›travelling enthusiast‹ so gross a misreading of his favourite opera and moreover having it published in a serious music journal?


In her own reading Schmidt demonstrates that Hoffmann has gone to great pains in Don Juan to reinforce the daemonic, supernatural (i.e. Romantic) aspects of the opera – and that he is in fact rehabilitating the opera to the full power and glory of its original Italian version (i.e. with the assistance of da Ponte’s libretto) for the benefit of his German readership. For when attending performances in German-speaking lands opera goers had for long, as Schmidt shows, been dependent on a rogue translation of the libretto by Rochlitz, the editor of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. This translation, or ›Umarbeitung‹, as Schmidt demonstrates (p. 82), was virtually a travesty of da Ponte’s skilful, open-ended libretto, a point which even Hoffmann himself had noted in a review (pp. 79 f.). In this, the standard German version of Don Giovanni, recitative was replaced by spoken monologues, most of which introduced pedantic moralizing, while even the arias were not exempt from such distortions. All this is a far cry indeed from the otherworldly effect created by the ideally matched Italian version and Mozart’s musical score, the one that is central to the reception process described in Hoffmann’s tale.


Schmidt’s final verdict is both bold and original: she reads Hoffmann’s Don Juan as a palimpsest. It is Hoffmann’s covert overwriting of Rochlitz’s highly discrepant interpretation with one which seeks to do justice to the sublime depths and ambiguities of Mozart’s opera.


Three tales


The following two chapters deal with the question of pictorial and narrative intermediality, firstly in Die Abenteuer der Sylvester-Nacht, then in two tales, Die Jesuiterkirche in G. and Signor Formica. Thematically, they introduce another important aspect of artistic creativity: the janus-headed Muse figure, now saint now siren/femme fatale, who evokes both ideal and erotic love, and confusion and conflict in the mind of the beholding artist figure (himself janus-headed).


To highlight the problematic nature status of art and the erotic sources of creativity presented in these tales Schmidt is able to draw on a wide range of examples from Rembrandt’s Saskia through to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (an iconic work for the Romantics), Callot’s Seven Deadly Sins and thence to the religious paintings of the Nazarenes from his own day. As she herself points out, however (p. 92), given the widespread availability in the early 19th century of reproductions (prints), it is impossible to determine precisely the particular artworks which Hoffmann might have had in mind for these tales. Thus, despite the impressive scholarly ›reconstruction‹ of likely intertextual sources and many persuasive readings which chart the artists‹ struggles to achieve sublimation or transcendence, the speculative and, at times, more diffuse nature of the material makes these chapters necessarily slightly less forceful in their impact than the earlier ones.


Prinzessin Brambilla


The final chapter on Prinzessin Brambilla and the ›commedia dell’arte‹ in Callots Balli di Sfessania is something of a tour de force. One of the greatest surprises for the reader is to find that, despite the generally assumed prime importance of the Callot etchings, which Hoffmann received as a gift and a selection of which he included in the first edition of the text (these are generously reproduced in the appendix to this book), these prints were not the sole source of his inspiration.


Schmidt’s meticulous research into the history of the commedia form reveals a complex relationship between Hoffmann and this pictorial intertext. For while serving as a jumping off point and providing vivid and dynamic images of the commedia figures to feed and inspire Hoffmann’s imagination, the Callot images are fleshed out and become overlaid by other interpretations of the figures in the commedia, none of these themselves pictorial in origin. Of major importance here is inspiration derived from Hoffmann’s much admired near-contemporary, Carlo Gozzi, an influential force in European Romanticism, who in the 18th century reinterpreted the commedia in his Märchenkomödien. It is clear that from this source Hoffmann was able to inject a coherent, purposeful plot line into his tale, in which the various commedia figures can be linked up and can develop; also to clothe the stereotypical forms of the commedia in psychologically plausible characterization, even to the point where they undergo modern-style identity crises. The all-important role of the masterful Celionati can be traced to Gozzi as well, but Hoffmann’s process of creative transformation does not stop there. For his voracious and wide-ranging reading extends also to his German Romantic contemporaries such as Tieck and Brentano, who were familiar with Gozzi and the commedia tradition and shared his interest in the theme of identity and self-knowledge.


Drawing on these rich seams, Schmidt demonstrates how Hoffmann is able in Prinzessin Brambilla to present both a satirical view on literary and theatrical conventions of his own day and also, by means of the fantastical elements which are built into his intertext, to explore in depth the psychological aspect of the identity problem.




This highly nuanced reading of a notoriously complex work, together with Schmidt’s masterly investigation of the contextual and historical background material, her comprehensive engagement with the secondary literature and the clarity and succinctness with which she presents the often complex material, forms a suitable climax to a study of Hoffmann which demands and repays the closest attention. Its judiciously drawn conclusions about the precise nature of Hoffmann’s position within the Romantic movement will prove hard to refute.