Throughout the history of Western music, musicians have almost invariably discussed the keyboard fugue and other extreme forms of polyphony as signs of something that transcends human subjectivity. Despite the persistence of this critical topos, musicians shifted their approach to it around the beginning of the nineteenth century. The shift involved both a change in the technique of counterpoint and a change in the way counterpoint was interpreted. Composers sought to invest the fugue with a new dramatic and teleological thrust suitable to modern times, and critically minded musicians changed their interpretive method so as to emphasize the passage of time. Whereas musicians of the early eighteenth century read counterpoint and the fugue allegorically and annulled time through the conceptual precision of the allegorical image, musicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries read the fugue symbolically and worked time into their interpretive process. In both eras, the practice of interpretation coincided with and affected the reading of the genre's temporality.
E. T. A. Hoffmann spoke with the conviction of one who thought to reveal the essence of music. However, the bold and emphatic character of his words masked the subtleties and the variations of his positions. This article examines their nuances from two perspectives. It first examines the literary techniques he used to present his ideas and to give them substance. He presented his ideas in alternately enthusiastic and satirical tones. He used words connotatively, and he dealt different positions to different narrators and characters. Second, the article discusses the course of his career and the cast of his writings. After he received critiques of his high-handed attitudes in the Fantasiestucke (1814) and after he rejoined the Prussian bureaucracy, he changed the tenor if not the foundations of his positions. In its appendix, the article offers the first English translation of the most striking of the critiques: Jean Paul's preface to the Fantasiestucke.