Hofmannsthal, Hugo von

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von
   The son of a bank director, Hofmannsthal was an awesome literary prodigy. His early, and already accomplished, verse appeared under the pseudonym of Loris because publishing the writing of minors was illegal. Though he studied at the University of Vienna for a degree in Romance languages, he abandoned academic pursuits in 1899 to concentrate on a full-time career in literature. His early lyric poetry, marked by an extraordinary sensitivity to linguistic nuances, along with verse dramas completed before 1902, established his international reputation as a major poet and exemplary aesthete.
   But doubts about the moral and epistemological basis of aestheticism appeared in his work fairly soon. In 1902, he published From the Letter of Lord Chandos, in which he raised serious questions about the capacity of language and the human mind to present and comprehend reality in all of its fluid complexity. For a few months after publishing this piece, Hofmannsthal gave up writing altogether. Though he recovered from this particular crisis of uncertainty, four years later he broke off his friendship with Stefan George, the central figure in a famous German circle of aesthetes dedicated to the proposition that society could be redeemed through art. These concerns never disappeared from his subsequent work altogether, which took on an increasingly ethical character.
   He also became more driven by practical concerns, including the need for financial security. In the same year that Hofmannsthal severed relations with George and his circle, he began his collaboration with the composer Richard Strauss, as his librettist. Though their creative exchanges were marked by sharp disagreements—Strauss had a far surer instinct for the stageworthy than did his Viennese partner—the two were responsible for several of the masterworks of the 20th-century musical theater. Among their major achievements were Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), two versions of Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, 1916), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), and Arabella (1933), performed four years after Hofmannsthal’s death. Hofmannsthal’s growing concern about constructing bridges between the artist and the larger concerns of society led him temporarily into service as a propagandist for the Habsburg Empire in the early years of World War I. As editor of the occasional pamphlet series Die österreichische Bibliothek (The Austrian Library), he hoped to enlighten the subjects of the monarchy about important aspects of their history as a way of persuading them to remain true to the house of Habsburg–Lorraine, as most of them did until the end. Financial problems with the series, plus Hofmannsthal’s own distaste for the nitty-gritty of politics, led him to withdraw from this and similar enterprises even before the conflict came to an end.
   Hofmannsthal produced a significant body of writing following the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918. Two masterful comedies, Der Schwierige (The Difficult One, 1921) and Der Unbestechliche ( The Incorruptible One, 1923), explore on a social level the problems of linguistic misunderstanding and inadequacy that had troubled him from the beginning of the century. His concern with reknitting Austrian society following the political trauma of World War I led him to play a central role in the creation of the Salzburg Festival.
   Though far too subtle and refined an intellect to be an effective ideologue, Hofmannsthal also became a spokesman for the so-called Conservative Revolution, which attracted many important intellectuals and artists during the 1920s, such as T. S. Eliot in England and Charles Maurras in France. In “Das Schrifttum als geistiger Raum der Nation” (“Literature as the Spiritual Arena of the Nation”), an address delivered in Munich in 1927, Hofmannsthal described the traditionally individualistic German intellectual as now seeking to find bonds with the totality of German society. The outcome of these efforts was to be a fusion of the aesthetic and the political, which would make it possible for all to play a role in national regeneration. Two years later he died on 15 July, preparing to attend the funeral of his son Franz, who had committed suicide two days earlier.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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