The fantastical strangeness of The Tales of Hoffmann

This summer we are running a series of articles on philosophy in music and how philosophers relate to music. This fourth article in the series is on The Tales of Hoffmann, the last opera written by Jacques Offenbach.

The fantastical strangeness of The Tales of Hoffmann
Les Contes d'Hoffmann

_"As soon as you hear his name, you have to close two fingers of your right hand to protect yourself from the evil eye."_This is what Flaubert wrote in his Dictionary of Received Ideas about the jettatore Jacques Offenbach. But did Offenbach really cast spells? Of course not: this misconception was based solely on the composer's penchant for the particular brand of operatta he invented. This brilliant German-born French opera composer left an impressive body of works behind him, including La fille du tambour-major (The Drum-Major's Daughter), La belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen), La vie parisienne (Parisian Life) and his best-known, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). It took Offenbach over 20 years to write this masterpiece, which is undoubtedly the most accomplished of his repertoire.

This opéra fantastique was premiered at the Opéra Comique in February 1881, five months after the death of the composer, who had tried, in vain, to resist long enough to see his work on stage. The Tales are, in many respects, an abrupt departure from Offenbach's earlier compositions. Especially in Antonia's act, they demonstrate a dramatic force that nothing else in his repertoire can match. This is largely due to the libretto. Jules Barbier and Michel Carré borrowed extensively from the tales written by the German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann. Offenbach was already familiar with Hoffmann's work, which had inspired his opéra bouffe Le Roi Carotte (set to a libretto by Victorien Sardou and first performed in 1872).

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Ernst Theodore Amadeus Hoffmann was an early-nineteenth-century Romantic writer. In his tales and novels, he introduced what Freud would later analyse in a 1919 article as the concept of "disturbing strangeness". This concept is present in the material used to write the libretto for The Tales of Hoffmann, where it can be seen in the eruption of strange, fantastical events in everyday life.

In his famous article, Freud talks about the tale called The Sandman, published in 1817, and more specifically the character of a mechanical doll called Olympia (who is the "daughter" of the physics professor Spalanzani), to clarify the concept of disturbing strangeness. Nathanaël, a young student of the professor and who is already engaged, by chance sees his neighbour's perfect face through a window. One evening, he is approached by a mysterious peddlar who sells him a lorgnette. He glimpses the young girl through the lorgnette, is spellbound by the beauty of her eyes and burns with desire for her. His friends, who are aware that something is not as it seems with Olympia, try in vain to warn Nathanaël. At the coming-out ball Spalanzani organises for his daughter, the young student tells her he loves her, but does not obtain any real response. Her body is also cold and apparently lifeless, but even that fails to alert the student. One day, Nathanaël finds Spalanzani and Coppola fighting over Olympia and tearing her lifeless body apart.

How is this concept expressed, in practical terms, in the various acts of Offenbach's opera? Firstly, in the distribution of the roles. Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta were to be played by one and the same singer: all four roles had the same face, the result of the poet's torments. Similarly for the characters of Lindorf, Daperttuto, Miracle and Coppélius - diabolical figures who unrelentingly tormented the German poet. Musically speaking, Offenbach managed to render the "strangeness" or devilish character of the fourfold Lindorf character into music, using a dotted crotchet/quaver leitmotif on the bassoons and trills. The theme is dark and faltering, quickening suddenly to fill the audience with terror and constantly remind listeners of the lurking darkness.

Offenbach's opéra fantastique uses other tales in addition to The Sandman: Don Juan (which helps to establish the setting of the story told by Jules Barbier), Little Zaches, Surnamed Zinnober, The Cremona Violin and The Adventures of New Year's Eve.

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All of these stories are presented by Hoffmann himself as tales of disappointed love. The fantastic element is present at each "stage" of the poet's love life: the mechanical doll he mistakes for a real woman, hypnosis and hearing the voice of Antonia's dead mother, and Giulietta's theft of Hoffmann's reflection. The intrusion of the fantastic tends to confuse audiences and make them doubt the "reality" of the facts presented to them. The permeability of the boundary between science and magic actively contributes to the famous feeling of "disturbing strangeness".

The authors of the Tales do not present ordinary love stories: the poet is gradually led to his ruin and forgets his art. This is a ruse on the part of Barbier and Offenbach: the story effectively heightens the feeling of disturbing strangeness and we are never quite sure what role Hoffmann plays in this series of misadventures. He is simultaneously the author of the tales, the narrator _("_My mistress? not one mistress, my friends —  there were three that enthralled me: each one of them was an enchantress —  Would you like me to tell you a mad lover's tale?”) and the main actor. We are never quite sure whether the inebriated Hoffman is simply dreaming of these women or whether, in a paranoiac delirium initiated by Stella or Lindorf, the poet is using it as a pretext for playing the victim and abandoning any artistic creation.

And yet this creative (or should we say destructive) inertia justifies the intervention of the Muse: Hoffman no longer writes and no longer creates because he is obsessed by the women of his life. The Muse/Nicklausse accordingly sets out on a mission: "I'd know how to break his chain - I swear, yes, I swear - Whether I'm a Muse or a Fairy - I will save his heart from this mocking demon - Who laughs at his pain and makes him mad". Nicklausse is at once Hoffmann's "servant" (in reference to Mozart, the young student hums Leporello's aria from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni: "Notte e giorno faticar" – "Night and day I slave away") and a guide in his adventures.

Throughout the opera, our hero strays from the path, led on by the pleasures of the flesh, even though, in the end, his salvation lies in his devotion to Art, regardless of the price to be paid. The end of The Tales of Hoffmann establishes the primacy of Art and the Spirit over worldly pleasures, in a final gesture of defiance to Offenbach's critics, who, throughout his life, criticised him for celebrating the pleasures of life and serving the public only light-hearted entertainment.