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E. T. A. Hoffmann's Councillor Krespel: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Strange Tale

 

Music has almost always been seen as a sublime expression of the unconscious: singers, players, and composers allow humanity to express and vicariously experience the most complex emotions of our hearts. Amongst these emotions are the spiritual and the aspirational, but close beside them are the carnal and the passionate. Operatic singing, especially, has frequently been interpreted as a sublimation of sexual furor, and prima donnas have stunned the world into a stupor of awe with their rapturous singing.

 

Like many Catholic saints whose trances and visions seemed to unite the spiritual and the sexual, opera singers such as Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, and Christina Nilsson won the adoration of millions with their artful blend of sublimity and passion. In an age when well-polished women were likely to be soft-spoken and mild-mannered, there was something electric and stunning about hearing one of these divas belt out a quavering high note: it seemed pregnant with sensuality and physical expression, and it was not uncommon for strangers to propose to them, or commit suicide in despair of a hopeless adoration.

 

The motif worked its way into world literature as well: in George du Maurier’s “Trilby” (easily inspired by the following story and others by Hoffmann), the title character – a raucous, Irish bohemian – is entranced by the hypnotic Svengali, who uses magnetism to turn the lovable tomboy into an international singing sensation. Steeped in male anxieties about seductive foreigners (Svengali would in turn be a huge influence on “Dracula”), “Trilby” describes the mingled arousal and horror that her friends experience upon realizing that Svengali is capable of inspiring such passionate singing in her (suggestive of the passionate cries of orgasm).

 

Inspired by “Trilby,” Frenchman Gaston Leroux would create the trope’s most famous iteration with his Gothic masterpiece “The Phantom of the Opera.” Like “Trilby,” his heroine – the chaste Christine Daae – appears to be sublimating an intense and wild sexual desire into shockingly expressive singing. Christine herself seems to recognize the erotic nature of her inspiration, as does her jealous suitor, Raoul de Chagny, who loathes her anonymous teacher for bringing such passion out of her. The eponymous anti-hero is ultimately unveiled to be – like Svengali – a social outcast with a genius for hypnosis and slight of hand, and there is no question as to the carnal nature of his feelings for Christine, whom he ultimately kidnaps and threatens to rape and murder.

 

In the following story – one of Hoffmann’s most famous – we have a reiteration of his most common trope: an inappropriate love between an eccentric, older male and a young, virginal girl. These stories always end in the sexual humiliation of the spastic suitor, and (frequently) the death or departure of the girl. As in “The Lost Reflection,” the primary inspiration for this motif was Hoffmann’s miscarried suit of his teenaged music pupil, Julia Mark. He blended into this imprudent attraction his strong feelings of loss for his daughter (who died as a toddler) and his niece (who moved in shortly after the death and left the Hoffmann’s shortly before he met Julia).

 

Hoffmann recognized the inpropriety of his attraction, and the shame of it nearly drove him to – in his own words – insanity and suicide. In “Councilor Krespel” the inpropriety exists between a wildly eccentric polymath (like Hoffmann he appears to be part musician, part engineer, part civil servant, part tinker, part composer, and part mystic) and his once estranged daughter. Like the Phantom, he is intensely jealous of his daughter’s rapturous (one might even say orgasmic) singing voice, which he considers his property, like Svengali, he seems to wield an almost supernatural control over her expressiveness, and like Hoffmann he brings to their relationship the blended shame, adoration, and power of a hopeless suitor, devoted parent, and inspiring teacher.

 

II.

Our story begins with an unnamed narrator relating what he has heard about the enigmatic Councillor Krespel – an eccentric diplomat with countless, strange hobbies. For instance, Krespel designed the layout of his surreal house (which sounds like something out of Escher, Dali, or Tim Burton) without a floorplan (he simply directed the builders by instinct), and has a habit of collecting priceless violins before tearing them to pieces in search of the secret of their beauty.

 

The narrator meets Krespel at a party and learns of his beautiful but infamously delicate daughter Antonia. Their relationship is certainly odd: he is protective to the point of possessiveness, and many people mistake her for his mistress. He seems to have a terror of her death, and indeed – shortly after meeting him – the narrator learns that Antonia has died. At her funeral, Krespel makes a grotesque display in lavish mourning clothes: he comes with a violin bow in place of a ceremonial sword, and ritualistically snaps it into pieces before flying into a hysterical frenzy.

 

Fascinated, the narrator does some more digging and learns the full story of the father and daughter. Apparently Antonia’s mother was a passionate Italian opera singer, whose fiery temper led to a violent confrontation when she smashed her lover Krespel’s violin and – in retaliation – he pushed her out of a window. She survived the fall, but abandoned him for his native Germany where she gave birth to Antonia, who shares her vibrant singing voice.

 

After her mother dies suddenly, Antonia is sent to live with her father, who is smitten by her beauty and jealous of her inherited singing voice. His jealousy is so acute (ostensibly motivated by a doctor’s report that she becomes so wildly passionate during her recitations that she is in danger of going into cardiac arrest due to a heart condition) that he forbids her to sing – except for him. He is particularly jealous of an up-and-coming composer whom Antonia has been dating and who loves playing the piano accompaniment to Antonia’s virtually orgasmic singing.

 

A dutiful and obedient daughter, Antonia obeys, and helps her father in his search for the secret behind priceless violins’ sound, taking them apart and hanging the dismantled shells around his workshop. One day he purchases a Cremona violin (a type of instrument second only to the Stradivarius brand in fame) and plays it for his daughter. She has the mystical sense that the Cremona violin is singing in her stead, and seems to accept it as a suitable replacement for her, finding an odd peace that she has heretofore lacked.

 

That night Krespel has a vivid dream that his daughter is singing wildly with her composer beau pounding at the piano keys – singing in gushing, moaning strains that bring a dark flush to her cheeks. When he wakes up from his nightmare, he finds her stretched out on the sofa, stone dead.

 

III.

Like “The Lost Reflection,” “Councilor Krespel” acted as a literary catharsis for his humiliating experience with the young Julia Mark, and was written around the time of her divorce from the lethargic playboy her parents arranged her to marry at the time of Hoffmann’s severance. While “The Lost Reflection” – which depicted Julia as an insidious temptress, prostituted by her vulgar husband – was written during Mark’s first marriage, “Krespel” – which restores her to her innocence and ends with her death – was likely penned during the ignominy of her marital troubles.

 

For Hoffmann, her misery is enough to make him wonder what part his own selfishness played in her destruction. The willful Krespel – part parent, part teacher, and part suitor – demands that Antonia reserve her singing for him, vainly in denial of the fact that she will eventually want to share her music – a metaphor for love in both its sublime and carnal forms – with a younger male closer to her age. Like Hoffmann, Krespel’s repression of his student’s natural desire to range the world and find a suitable companion drives her into the arms of an opportunistic lover, with tragic results. Outside of its biographical parallels, “Councilor Krespel” is a grim philosophical treatise on the consequences of jealousy, the boundlessness of art, the dangers of repression, and the holiness of inspiration.

 

As to the first theme, Hoffmann lays out the way that covetousness almost universally rots the soul with ingratitude and shortsightedness: Krespel is a ruined man after he drives his daughter to her grave – a musician without a song – and learns to repent of his jealousy far too late. His discomfort at the idea of the virginal Antonia sharing her orgasmic singing with a single man of marriageable age failed to recognize the pop culture maxim that “nature will find a way,” which leads us to the second theme: the boundlessness of art. Hoffmann based Krespel on a postal councilor, C. P. H. Pistor, who shocked his friends by deconstructing a priceless Amati violin in a bid to understand its secrets.

 

Krespel does not at first realize that neither Antonia nor the Amati violins were made to be understood, analyzed, or possessed – the beauty of their respective songs is not a logical puzzle but a spiritual reality. Art is not made to be kept, but shared, and beauty is not made to be hidden but to be exhibited and published. Like many overly analytical critics, he boils spiritual expression down to a physical matter of engineering withhold considering the element of the human soul – a component which cannot be channeled once the physical vessel (be it an Amati violin or Antonia’s beating heart) has been destroyed.

 

His desperate mission to understand the secret behind the Amatis is comparable to his desire to hold onto and restrict Antonia, preventing her from sharing her gift with others, but he learns that – as with the destroyed fiddles – to deconstruct is to destroy, and in his attempt to possess Antonia’s song, his stifles it forever, as surely as he shatters his bow into a thousand pieces. This leads to the third theme: the dangers of repression. A common motif in Hoffmann, this concept plays out in stories like “The Sand-Man,” “The Gnome King’s Bride,” and “The Lost Reflection.”

 

In “Krespel” the danger comes from suppressing expression – denying the “boundlessness of art” – and denying it its natural outlets. While Antonia’s death may have been inevitable in either case, perhaps it would not be shrouded in so much shame and secrecy if Krespel had allowed her to flourish without his domineering oversight. Indeed, he is left to wonder if his dream was disconnected from her death, a metaphysical expression of a spiritual reality, or exactly what it appears to be. One way or another, by holding his daughter back from her true nature, he forces the unconscious Self to the surface, where it expresses itself in such a powerful way – whether literally or in a dream – that she dies through the force of its orgasmic resurrection.

 

And lastly, Krespel learns all too late that he should respect the holiness of inspiration: to understand the beauty of music, he resorts to symbolic defilement of the violins he should cherish, metaphorically raping them by forcing his way into their hidden regions and guarded mysteries. Likewise, he fails to respect the awe and wonder of Antonia’s artfulness, and rather than allow it to flourish with a blessing, he tries to restrain her spirit by confining her body, without realizing that to crush one is to crush the other.

 

Rather than viewing Antonia’s gorgeous singing voice as a holy mystery worth sharing and celebrating, he fears the power it will give her over him, fears what its discovery will mean for their relationship, and fears what lusty young men will do to procure its possession. Ultimately “Krespel,” one of Hoffmann’s finest and most popular tales, is a story that – like Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” – bemoans the fate of the man who thinks that the spiritual can be captured and preserved indefinitely like a trinket on a shelf. Only too late do they learn that failing to appreciate what is here in the present may mean an eternal future of shame and regret.    

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Hoffmann's tales HERE!

 

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