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 on Hugo von Hofmannsthal

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.