Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

views updated May 29 2018


HOFMANNSTHAL, HUGO VON (1874–1929), Austrian poet, playwright, and essayist.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was one of the great German writers of the twentieth century and a leading figure in Austrian intellectual life from the 1890s until his death at the age of fifty-five. He was important as a lyric poet, a playwright, and an essayist, but also as a librettist and a central figure in the Salzburg Festival during the 1920s. He represents the best of an elite cultural tradition, with concerns that belong to a broadly European modernism from Charles Baudelaire to the English writers and poets of the early twentieth century. But most of his mature work aimed to connect with folk traditions and with popular history and experience, and this was especially evident in his response to World War I. A person of extraordinary grace and sensitivity, Hofmannsthal tried to make creative sense of the crises and catastrophes of the early twentieth century. His heritage was a very Austrian blend of Jewish, Catholic, Italian, bourgeois, and aristocratic. His great-grandfather was a silk manufacturer and an ennobled Jew, whose son married an Italian and converted to Catholicism. Hugo von Hofmannsthal grew up in Vienna, immersed in the high culture his father loved; even as a teenager, he was acknowledged as the epitome of poetic genius by the leading Viennese modernists, most of whom were nearly a generation older. As a young man, his pronounced aestheticism culminated in the crisis of language he described in his fictional "Letter of Lord Chandos" in 1902, after which his work moved strongly in an ethical and social direction.

Hofmannsthal did not produce a particularly massive body of work for a great writer, but he wrote a large number of significant works in a variety of genres over a long period of time. His genius lay in imagination, in giving form, in finding his way into other human experiences and portraying them on stage. For a long time he was regarded simply as an aesthete, or as important mainly for his lyric poetry and verse plays, but his moral and didactic concerns were apparent as early as 1893 in his lyric drama, Der Tor und der Tod (Death and the fool). The idea of the total work of art increasingly appealed to him after the turn of the century, when he began to collaborate with the composer Richard Strauss in writing operas such as Der Rosenkavalier (1910; The cavalier of the rose). In his collaborations and adaptations with Strauss and others, Hofmannsthal was motivated by his skepticism about language and his desire to blend words and music. His concern with moral themes became more pronounced in plays such as Jedermann (1911; Everyman) and Das Salzburger grosse Welttheater (1922; The Salzburg great theater of the world) as he aimed to reach a wider audience. Hofmannsthal's emphasis on restoration and adaptation ran the risk of artificiality and loss of connection with contemporary life, and yet in Der Turm (1927; The tower) he commented perceptively on the political atmosphere of the 1920s in Central Europe, while two of his most popular plays, Der Schwierige (1921; The difficult man) and Der Unbestechliche (1923; The incorruptible), achieved a level of comedy that one is not accustomed to expect from the German stage. Hofmannsthal also produced an important body of prose, including not only essays and aphorisms, but also short narrative pieces, an unfinished novel (Andreas), and a huge published correspondence. Since World War II, scholars and critics have increasingly emphasized the connections among all his works and the continuity of his development as a writer.

Hofmannsthal increasingly identified with and took responsibility for the fate of Austria during World War I, and he came to understand politics as a part of culture, tradition, and morality. His essays from the last fifteen years of his life are remarkable pieces of writing, as well as important and influential arguments that shaped understandings of "the Austrian idea" and "the conservative revolution" in German culture. He clearly belongs in the tradition of German literature and culture, but his intellectual development was shaped in distinctive ways by his Austrian context. Michael Steinberg's account of Hofmannsthal's relationship to the Salzburg Festival in the 1920s emphasizes his cosmopolitan nationalism and his "conservative drive to reconstitute and render coherent a transcendent Austrian cultural identity and tradition" (p. xi). Hofmannsthal's blend of a mystical sensibility and a conservative attitude brings to mind the British political theorist Edmund Burke in some respects, but for Hofmannsthal the rupture of historical continuity was not the French Revolution but World War I.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Fin de Siècle; Modernism; Vienna.


Broch, Hermann. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860–1920. Edited and translated by Michael P. Steinberg. Chicago, 1984.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Selected Works. Vol. 1: Selected Prose. Translated by Mary Hottinger, Tania Stern, and James Stern. Introduction by Hermann Broch. New York, 1952.

——. Selected Works. Vol. 2: Poems and Verse Plays (bilingual edition). Edited by Michael Hamburger. New York, 1961.

——. Selected Works. Vol. 3: Selected Plays and Libretti. Edited by Michael Hamburger. New York, 1963.

Kern, Peter Christoph. Zur Gedankenwelt des späten Hofmannsthals: Die Idee einer schöpferischen Restauration. Heidelberg, Germany, 1969.

Kovach, Thomas A., ed. A Companion to the Works of Hofmannsthal. Rochester, N.Y., 2002.

Steinberg, Michael P. The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival: Austria as Theater and Ideology, 1890–1938. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.

Volke, Werner. Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 1967.

Wunberg, Gotthart. Der frühe Hofmannsthal: Schizophrenie als dichterische Struktur. Stuttgart, Germany, 1965.

David S. Luft

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

views updated May 21 2018

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The Austrian poet, dramatist, and essayist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) is best known for his opera librettos. He is also considered a master of German lyric poetry.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was born in Vienna and spent most of his life there. He charmed the literary world at the age of 17. Hofmannsthal belonged to the circle of Jung-Wien poets, who were little affected by the naturalistic tendencies of their time. He was strongly influenced by the neoromantic movement and European symbolism.

Hofmannsthal's first period (1890-1899) began when the sensitive youth mingled with artists and men of letters in Vienna's famous Café Griensteidl. His first poems, critical essays, and lyrical playlets (two of which were professionally performed on the Berlin stage) appeared under the pseudonym Loris Melikow. The first of a dozen verse plays written in this period, Gestern (1891; Yesterday), shows him still a beginner, but with Der Tod des Tizian (1892; Death of Titian) and especially Der Tor und der Tod (1893; Death and the Fool), he reaches maturity as a master of German verse.

Hofmannsthal's middle phase (1900-1918) saw his greatest public success. In 1902, convinced that words had no meaning and that communication was impossible, he manifested this obsession in his famous literary credo Brief des Lord Chandos. His lyrical production ceased abruptly, and he turned instead to writing plays, opera, and even ballet. His most famous work from this period is Jedermann(1911; Everyman), based on a 15th-century English morality play and now produced every year at the Salzburg Festival. Other works from this phase are Elektra (1903), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), which were set to music by Richard Strauss. Thus began the close cooperation between Hofmannsthal and Strauss which was to last for 2 decades.

Hofmannsthal's last period (1919-1929) includes the delightful comedy Der Schwierige (1921; The Difficult Gentleman). But the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire in 1918 was for him a personal tragedy from which he never fully recovered. In a series of essays he spoke as an ardent interpreter and advocate of Austria and its cultural heritage.

To the Salzburg Festivals, which he confounded with Max Reinhardt, he dedicated Das Salzburger Grosse Welttheater (1922). Other works of this period are Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919; The Woman without a Shadow), which Strauss set to music, and, his last and most ambitious work, the tragedy Der Turm (1923; The Tower).

Hugo von Hofmannsthal lived with his wife and children in Rodaun, outside Vienna. He died there on July 15, 1929.

Further Reading

Austrian novelist Herman Broch wrote the best introduction to the work of Hofmannsthal available in English translation in Hofmannsthal's Selected Prose (1952). The Institute of Germanic Languages of the University of London, which had arranged a Hofmannsthal exhibition, published a collection of essays as volume 5 of its series, Frederick Norman, ed., Hofmannsthal: Studies in Commemoration (1963), which contains a useful bibliography on Hofmannsthal. Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature, 1871-1945 (1965), has a section on Hofmannsthal. □

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

views updated May 14 2018


HOFMANNSTHAL, HUGO VON (1874–1929), Austrian poet and playwright; one of the outstanding exponents of Viennese impressionism and symbolism. He was a great-grandson of Isaac Loew *Hofmann but his grandfather and father both converted to Roman Catholicism. While the poet never denied his Jewish ancestry and in his early years even reflected on the meaning of being "Jewish" – as unpublished documents prove – the preoccupation with Judaism hardly entered his oeuvre. Hence there are only a few vague hints of it in his verse, such as the lines: "I cannot rid my eyelids of the weariness of forgotten races" ("Ganz vergessener Voelker Muedigkeit kann ich nicht abtun von meinen Lidern"). Hofmannsthal matured early and was still a schoolboy when he became the protégé of Arthur *Schnitzler, who introduced him to Theodor *Herzl as a promising writer for the newspaper Neue Freie Presse. Melancholy and solitary by nature, and revolted by the decadence of Viennese society, Hofmannsthal turned for solace to the great writers of the past, and many of his most important works are adaptations of Greek, English, and Spanish dramas. One of the most successful was Jedermann (1911), a modern version of the medieval English mystery play Everyman, commissioned by Max Reinhardt for the Salzburg Festival. Several of his plays were turned into operas by Richard Strauss, notably Elektra (1909) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911). Der Turm (1925–7), a tragedy inspired by one of Grillparzer's plays, introduces a Jewish character, Simon, who speaks in a typical Yiddish dialect.

add. bibliography:

H.A. Koch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (2004); T.A. Kovach, A Companion to the Works of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (2002); M. Kane, "From Ghetto to Nation. Hofmannsthal's Poetic of Assimilation," in: Fuchs and Krobb (ed.), Ghetto Writing (1999), 140–55; A.E. Gillman, "Hofmannsthal's Jewish Pantomime," in: dvjs, 71 (1997), 437–60; J. Rieckmann, "Zwischen Bewusstsein und Verdrängung: Hofmannsthals juedisches Erbe," in: dvjs, 67 (1993), 466–83.

[Sol Liptzin /

Philipp Theisohn (2nd ed.)]

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

views updated May 18 2018

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von (b Vienna, 1874; d Rodaun, nr. Vienna, 1929). Austrian author, poet, and playwright. With Max Reinhardt and others, founded Salzburg Fest. in 1920. Librettist for several works of Richard Strauss: the operas Elektra (1906–8), Der Rosenkavalier (1909–10), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, 2nd version 1916), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1914–18), Die ägyptische Helena (1924–7), and Arabella (1928–32), the ballet Josephslegende (1913–14); Der Burger als Edelmann (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) (1912 and 1917); ed. with Strauss of Beethoven's ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus; cantata Tüchtigen stellt das schnelle Glück (1914). Also librettist for Wellesz's Alkestis (1922–3). Plays incl. Alkestis (1893), Elektra (1903), and Jedermann (1912).