E. T. A. Hoffman | The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

“There is nothing more marvelous or madder than real life.” E. T. A. Hoffmann

Today I should be writing about James Joyce’s Ulysse as it is the author’s birthday but it is a book I have yet to read, I have it in my library, waiting for me to discover it’s treasures. I told myself I would read it once I finish Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu but I still have 2 books to go until I finish that novel. I have to admit I am a bit struggling to keep on going with Proust. Anyhow, today I will talk about a book I just finished, E.T.A. Hoffman’s The life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. The reason why I read this book is quite simple, it is the inspiration behind Robert Schumann’s piano composition Kreisleriana Op. 16, a musical piece that is related to my next artistic performance called Carnaval, alongside Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9. I am currently painting the canvases for this show and hence doing at the same time some research. Both musical pieces will be interpreted during the performance by my pianist friend and collaborator Tristan Longval-Gagné and both musical pieces will be explained and commented on. But enough about my work, let’s talk about Hoffman’s Tomcat Murr.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr  is a complex satirical novel by Prussian Romantic-era author E. T. A. Hoffmann. It was first published in 1819–1821 in two volumes. A planned third volume was never completed. It was Hoffmann’s final novel and is considered his masterpiece. It reflected his concepts of aesthetics, and predated post-modern literary techniques in its unusual structure. Critic Alex Ross writes of the novel, “If the phantasmagoric ‘Kater Murr’ were published tomorrow as the work of a young Brooklyn hipster, it might be hailed as a tour de force of postmodern fiction.” (Source)

“When the reader first begins to read Hoffmann’s text, (s)he is surprised and somewhat confused by the work’s remarkable structure. According to the fictional editor’s foreword, an astonishingly precocious tomcat named Murr has appropriated a number of manuscript pages from the biography of a musician as padding and blotting paper for his own autobiography.(Source) The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. (Source) Through the editor’s negligence and the printer’s carelessness, the entire mess is printed together, mixing the feline autobiography with the life history of the human artist, Johannes Kreisler.

The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murr’s development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture – at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a cats’ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of ‘Turnvater’ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.(Source) Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled. In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its members’ cultural pretensions. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres très renommé (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schiller’s Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck – not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). (Source)

This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreisler’s failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book. Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmann’s pen; Murr’s directions about ‘how to become a great cat’ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the ‘editor’ notes that ‘that clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death […] after a short but severe illness’ without completing his memoirs: ‘A genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect […] or he does not live to a great age’. (Source)

Fragments of Murr’s story interrupt fragments of Kreisler’s story, intertwining, merging and jumbling the universes and perspectives into a chaotic textual brew; however, as the reader progresses from section to section, it becomes increasingly clear that the feline and the human lives are running initially parallel and then gradually converging: (s)he discovers that Murr’s master and Kreisler’s mentor is Meister Abraham, that the cat is introduced to Kreisler and becomes his pet, and that by the end of the novel the freely borrowing tomcat- author has even sponged the thoughts and, perhaps, plagiarized the words of the human musician. With respect to the material form of the novel, the convergence of thought and identity of the feline and human characters is materially supported and paralleled by the blotting action of the ink from the one manuscript bleeding into the other and vice-versa. Physically the lives of the human and the animal have blended, just as the vehicle conveying each life history, the liquid material medium of writing, has seeped into the other’s environment, the paper manuscript.”(Source)

E. T. A. Hoffman

Who is E. T. A. Hoffman

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (24 January 1776 – 25 June 1822) was a German Romantic author of fantasy and Gothic horror, a jurist, composer, music critic and artist. His stories form the basis of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Hoffmann appears (heavily fictionalized) as the hero. He is also the author of the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker is based. The ballet Coppélia is based on two other stories that Hoffmann wrote, while Schumann’s Kreisleriana is based on Hoffmann’s character Johannes Kreisler.  Richard Wagner drew on stories from Die Serapionsbrüder for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). Hoffmann’s stories highly influenced 19th-century literature, and he is one of the major authors of the Romantic movement, (Source) for his stories in which supernatural and sinister characters move in and out of men’s lives, ironically revealing tragic or grotesque sides of human nature.(Source)

The product of a broken home, Hoffmann was reared by an uncle. He was educated in law and became a Prussian law officer in the Polish provinces in 1800, serving until the bureaucracy was dissolved following the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806. Hoffmann then turned to his chief interest, music, and held several positions as conductor, critic, and theatrical musical director in Bamberg and Dresden until 1814. About 1813 he changed his third baptismal name, Wilhelm, to Amadeus in homage to the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He composed the ballet Arlequin (1811) and the opera Undine (performed in 1816) and wrote the stories in Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 4 vol. (1814–15; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner), that established his reputation as a writer. He was appointed in 1814 to the court of appeal in Berlin, becoming councillor in 1816.(Source)

Although Hoffmann wrote two novels, Die Elixiere des Teufels, 2 vol. (1815–16; The Devil’s Elixir -a very good book that I read some many years ago-), and Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler, 2 vol. (1820–22; “The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, with a Fragmentary Biography of Conductor Johannes Kreisler”), and more than 50 short stories before his death from progressive paralysis, he continued to support himself as a legal official in Berlin. His later story collections, Nachtstücke, 2 parts (1817; Hoffmann’s Strange Stories), and Die Serapionsbrüder, 4 vol. (1819–21; The Serapion Brethren), were popular in England, the United States, and France. Continued publication of the stories into the second half of the 20th century attested to their popularity.(Source)

In his stories Hoffmann skillfully combined wild flights of imagination with vivid and convincing examinations of human character and psychology. The weird and mysterious atmosphere of his maniacs, spectres, and automata thus intermingles with an exact and realistic narrative style. The struggle within Hoffmann between the ideal world of his art and his daily life as a bureaucrat is evident in many of his stories, in which characters are possessed by their art. His use of fantasy, ranging from fanciful fairy tales to highly suggestive stories of the macabre and supernatural, served as inspiration to several operatic composers.(Source)


How did Hoffman influence Schumann’s Kreisleriana?

A very -very- small overview

(Source of the cited text below)

“With author Jean Paul, E.T.A. Hoffmann deeply influenced and shaped Schumann’s music style, especially through the fictional character Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. Schumann read Hoffmann in his youth, but his works gradually regained Schumann’s interest in the 1830s, around the time he composed his piano cycles. The character Kreisler, upon whom Schumann’s Kreisleriana, op. 16 was based, appeared in many of Hoffmann’s extent works, including: The Kreisleriana Essay (1814-15) and The Life and Opinion of The Tomcat Murr. Similar to Jean Paul’s concept of dualism (that majorly inspired Schumann), the character Kreisler and Tomcat Murr stand on the opposite sides of the spectrum. According to pianist and scholar Lora Deahl :

Murr, the egotistical philistine with disreputably bourgeois tastes, the blatant plagiarist and charlatan extraordinaire, is a bizarre caricature of the sensitive Kreisler, whose untampered idealism renders him unfit for existence in the empirical world. And yet, on a deeper level, common themes weave threads of continuity between the narrative strands, for the literate pseudo philosopher cat is certainly as much of an outcast in cat society as Kreisler is in the world of men. Disappointed romances, brutal duels, epiphanic revelations, and discarded dreams haunt both the poet-artist Kreisler and his ironic double, Murr.

(…) The idea of duality also appeared in “Johannes Kreisler’s Certificate of Apprenticeship,” an epistolary short story consisting of a letter that Kreisler wrote to himself. “And so I, like you, sign myself, Johannes Kreisler,” shows the split personalities within Kreisler himself. Dualism in Schumann’s Kreisleriana was not only presented in the character change between movements, but also influenced the key relationships. Scholars believe there are two primary keys areas related to the dualistic characters and show the literary parallel in Schumann’s music.

The body of the work, like the novel, consists of alternations between two kinds of music which are as different from each other as Schumann could write—one cast in B♭-major and the other in the relative key of G minor. What unfolds is analogous in structure to Hoffmann’s book, that is, a double cycle.

Lora Deahl, “Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana,”

(…) Even though there is no indication of the dualistic characters marked on the score, Schumann’s Kreisleriana resembles the characters of Hoffman’s Kreisler, by juxtaposition of two keys—B flat major and G minor with contrasting tempo markings—to evoke the Doppelgänger within one being. The dual personality also depicted Schumann’s digression fromone character to another character. In addition, Schumann also used the dotted rhythm to depict the eccentric personalities of Kreisler in multiple movements. If Hoffmann gives Kreisler a life, then Schumann vividly mirrors him from his work and himself.”

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