Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann
Miserere in B-flat Minor, AV 42 (1809)
(b. Königsberg, 24 January 1776 – d. Berlin, 25 June 1822)
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, E. T. A. Hoffmann—among other romantic thinkers—helped circumscribe the essence of German music romanticism, an amalgam of music, literature, poetry, and philosophical thought. In spite of a career in bureaucratic positions, Hoffmann became an eloquent champion of the early romantic move- ment through his own compositions, short stories and musical writings. His novellas and short stories explored the world of the fantastic and the uncanny, and served as inspiration for generations of artists. Schumann’s Kreisleriana paid homage to Hoffmann’s alter ego, the fictional Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler; Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann is based on several of his short tales; Delibes’s Coppélia and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballets owe their inspiration to some of his most imaginative stories, as does Hindemith’s opera Cardillac (1926).
Hoffmann pioneered a type of music criticism that bordered on literature. Among his influential writings for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, the essay on Beethoven’s instrumental music (based on his famous 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony) takes center stage. In it we find the codification of music’s superiority among other arts: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only genuinely romantic one—for its sole subject is the infinite.” It is no coincidence, then, that music occupied a central place in his life. Although Hoff- mann’s oeuvre remains largely neglected, he was a quite prolific composer of vocal and instrumental music. He is primarily known for his opera Undine (1816) and several works of chamber music.
Of his sacred compositions only three have survived: a Mass in D minor for chorus and orchestra (1803-05), 6 Canzoni for a cappella chorus (1808), and the Miserere in B-flat minor for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1809). Most importantly, however, Hoffmann’s contributions to sacred music lie in his aesthetics of sacred music, as articulated in his influential article “Old and New Church Music” (“Alte und neue Kirchenmusik”), published in 1814 in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. In this essay he stipulated that composers did not write church music any longer because “
Of Hoffmann’s three surviving sacred works, only the a cappella Canzoni come close to successfully representing in music Hoffmann’s ideals of church style. The Mass in D minor and the Miserere employ orchestra in addition to soloists and chorus, and conspicuously resemble the predominant symphonic style of church music he would later reject in his essay. In that respect, additional interest lies in how his music compromises the two opposing forces of rationalism and romanticism, so heavily juxtaposed in his 1814 essay.
The Miserere in B-flat minor, AV 42 was composed in Bamberg, in the early months of 1809. The text comes from Psalm 50, “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O God”), and Hoffmann set 11 of the 21 verses (numbered I through XI on the score). It employs 5 soloists (two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass), a 4-part chorus, and an orches- tra that includes 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings and organ. Polyphonic settings of the Miserere had existed since the sixteenth century and were often sung for the service of Tenebrae. Probably the most notable example belongs to Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), whose setting for two choirs attracted intense fasci- nation, from Mozart and Charles Burney (who published it for the first time in 1770) to Goethe and Mendelssohn. Hoffmann himself discussed Allegri’s work in his 1814 essay as representative of the lofty “Palestrina style.” …
Eftychia Papanikolaou, PhD, 2015
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