Hugo von Hofmannsthal



Hugo von Hofmannsthal was born in Vienna on February 1, 1874. He was the only child of Dr. jur. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a wealthy bank director, and his wife Anna. His family was originally Jewish but had converted to Catholicism many years before.

From an early age, Hofmannsthal showed himself to be an exceptionally talented child, both as an avid reader as well as a writer of poetry and plays. He entered the literary scene at age 16 through the publication of his first poems and essays under the pseudonym of Loris. His father introduced him to the circle of writers called Jung Wien at Café Griensteidl where Hofmannsthal became acquainted with Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, and Stefan George. With the latter Hofmannsthal shared a fifteen-year-long friendship. George was both a father and a friend to Hofmannsthal and published many of Hofmannsthal’s poems in his journal, Blätter für die Kunst until, years later, they parted and went separate ways. 

After graduating from the Gymnasium, Hofmannsthal studied law at the University of Vienna up until his first Staatsexamen in 1894. He then decided to leave the university and entered the Sixth Dragoon Regiment where he served for a year. In 1895, Hofmannsthal returned to university but did not to take up law again – instead he enrolled in the philology of Romance languages in which he received his doctorate in 1899. Contemplating a career in academia, he began his Habilitation but decided against submitting it in the end. Instead he turned his efforts towards developing a career as a serious writer. He married Gertrud Schlesinger and settled down in Rodaun, outside Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In 1905, Hofmannsthal wrote his best-known essay Ein Brief, a fictitious letter of Philip, Lord Chandos, to Francis Bacon. In his letter, Chandos relates a deep philosophical crisis caused by his inability to understand the meaning of words and what they represent. For Chandos, language no longer functions as a reliable means for describing the outer world but rather limits human beings in their thoughts and comprehension of the world. 

Hofmannsthal's drama Elektra written in 1903 led to his acquaintance with the composer Richard Strauss which turned out to be an important professional association. Despite their contrasting temperaments, they collaborated together to produce six operas, among them Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and Ariadne auf Naxos (1913).

After WWI and the downfall of the Habsburg Empire which affected Hofmannsthal deeply, he became more involved in supporting the arts in Austria. He co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt in 1920 where his play Jedermann, a 1912 adaptation of a fifteenth century English morality play, would be performed on a regular basis.

Hofmannthal’s life was marked by great productivity. Particularly at the end of his life, he worked on numerous literary projects and traveled extensively. He died of a heart attack on July 15, 1929. Two days before his death his eldest son Franz committed suicide. His remaining two children survived him.

-Gabi Eichmanns-