Ritter Gluck – Translated by Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight (From Selected Writings of E T A Hoffmann University of Chicago Press 1969)

Hoffmann was a gifted musician. Not in the same league as his idol Mozart, whose name he adopted changing his intials from E T W(ilhelm) to E T A(madeus), but then not many have ever been. By the time he made his literary debut in 1809, he had composed several sonatas, a mass and a couple of operas. He was the orchestral director in Bamberg. He considered music the highest art. No wonder then that Hoffmann named his first short story after another musical hero, Christoph Willbald Ritter von Gluck.

It can be argued that Ritter Gluck is really a musical essay in disguise. Hoffmann, by then also a successful music critic, was unhappy with the way Gluck’s works were being performed in Berlin, and the story contains some (not so) lightly camoflagued critique.

Of Berlin musicians and composers:

They carp and niggle – refine everything to the smallest measure; rake through everything just to find one wretched thought. From chattering so much about art and artistic sensitivity and what have you – they never get round to creating …

I shall leave that to the musicians to debate, and concentrate instead on the literary fantasy.

The premise is this. The unnamed narrator is sitting in a street cafe, when he makes a strange new acquaintance. This person, who also remains unidentified until the final sentence, has a lot to say about music in general and the performance of Gluck’s works in particular. He only deigns to speak to the narrator because he is not a Berliner! The narrator is fascinated by him, and would like to meet again, but no arrangements are made. A second chance meeting occurs a few months later, and the two go to the stranger’s lodgings. He owns a beautifully bound complete works of Gluck, full of pages without a note written on them! Yet he plays from memory, including a variation of Armida, that deviated noticeably from the true original; but the transformed music was the Gluck scene in a higher power.

Who are you? cries the narrator. I am Ritter Gluck, says the musician, and with that the story both ends and becomes truly enigmatic. For the real Gluck had been dead for 22 years at this point!

Are we to believe this more talented musician is the original Gluck reincarnated? He does keep mentioning that he has been staying in the kingdom of dreams …

Or, is it as some commentators say that the narrator and Gluck are the same person? In which case there’s an awful lot of talking to oneself with a potential breach of the border of insanity.

Or has the narrator (who I believed to be Hoffmann) simply met an eccentric genius?

It’s quite the conundrum for a literary debut just 10 pages long. And musicality was to remain a theme throughout Hoffmann’s literary output; one of his most famous inventions being the mad(?) orchestral director Johannes Kreisler, the subject of the Kreisleriana story cycle. These, in turn, inspired Robert Schumann to compose his Opus 16.

I’ve yet to meet Johannes Kreisler. That’s a pleasure to come later this month when I read The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. I’m hoping it will shed some light on how to interpret Ritter Gluck!

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