Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, known to the world as E.T.A. Hoffmann, was a drunken lunatic. His unbalanced mind created dozens of stories that are almost exclusively dark and nightmarish. It can easily be said that the creation of The Nutcracker was his one redeeming act.
Hoffmann was born in Prussia on January 24, 1776. When he was two years old, his mother’s high-strung personality caused her scandalous divorce from his father. Hoffmann grew up in his mother’s childhood home which, emotionally, was little more than an insane asylum. To escape, he concentrated on art. By the time he was a teenager, Hoffmann was able to draw, play several musical instruments, and was experimenting with writing and composition.
The one true friend of Hoffmann’s childhood and, indeed, of his entire life, was Theodor Hippel the Younger (1775-1843). In addition to being his companion during illness, Hippel would bail Hoffmann out of countless financial and romantic messes.
When he was 16, Hoffmann went away to law school but only to please his family. After barely passing his examinations, he started writing novels and began a pattern of falling hopelessly in love with his music students. In 1802, he married a Polish girl named Maria Trzcinska. By this time, Hoffmann was completely addicted to alcohol and his obsession with death regularly brought about near fatal bouts of depression.
After his marriage, Hoffmann tried his hand at nearly everything artistic. He composed operettas and wrote stage plays, short stories, and even a few novels that have now been lost. Although he did make enough of an impact on the world to now be considered one of the members of the Romantic Movement, his works have been almost completely forgotten. This is mostly because his stories are so macabre, disturbing, and utterly confusing that many people, understandably, cannot be bothered with them. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s one enduring triumph is an 1816 short story titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
This story has become almost solely associated with Tchaikovsky because of his 1892 ballet. The Nutcracker ballet is quite similar to the original story with the exception that the heroine’s name is Clara instead of Marie. Although this story is rather lighthearted and at least has a happy ending, it still carries the dark trademarks of its creator.
After contracting syphilis, E.T.A. Hoffmann died on June 24, 1822. Because The Nutcracker has now been credited to another man, the world now knows his name only because of Offenbach’s 1851 opera The Tales of Hoffmann. This opera is loosely based on three of the author’s stories. Hoffmann himself is the main character and is, appropriately, portrayed as a romantically doomed, drunk loser.
Source: Kent, Leonard J. and Elizabeth C. Knight’s Introduction to the University of Chicago Press’ 1969 Edition of “Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann”