Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)
The Creation of Hansel and Gretel
The origins of Hansel and Gretel grew from just such a family situation as Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister Adelheid’s early collaborations. We owe thanks to Humperdinck’s two nieces that the composition exists. One day, Adelheid found her two daughters trying to create a puppet show of Hansel and Gretel, one of the stories in the collection by the Brothers Grimm. Although the action proceeded fluently and rapidly, the dialogue appeared to be a problem. A poetic urge reawakened in Adelheid and she sat down to write verses they could use.
Frau Wette, as she was known in marriage, soon became disturbed by the harshness of the old folk tale. Not wishing her children to become terrified by the story, she interrupted her own work and turned to a less gruesome story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Wette quickly wrote a family play in verse and sent it to her brother, asking him to write its music. Snow White had a tremendously successful premiere in the Wette household. Adelheid sent it to a Swiss family newspaper. They were delighted with the piece and asked for another musical fairy tale which they could print.
Wette turned once again to Hansel and Gretel. Since her previous attempt at the story, she considered tempering the stepmother character and turning her into a real, somewhat irritable, loving mother. Spurred on by this solution, she concluded the work in short order.
Her new piece now needed music and she again approached her obliging brother. Humperdinck completed the music for this project rapidly and enthusiastically, but did not consider it of great importance. He returned the piece with the required music to his sister’s family in Cologne, adding in the postscript to Adelheid “I am sending you the desired music and hope that you enjoy it as much as I enjoy your verses.”
The success of this piece was overwhelming in its destined circle — the Wette family and friends — and Adelheid soon made the suggestion that the work be expanded into a larger Singspiel for stage production.
Humperdinck began developing Hansel and Gretel for stage purposes. He improved some elements, deleted others, demanded new scenes, set them to music and scored the musical numbers, which were then still individual pieces for medium-sized orchestration. New roles were added to the opera, including the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, the Broommaker Father, the gingerbread children and the angels. Subconsciously, the first step towards creating a full opera was taken by resolving to write the title roles for developed artists rather than children.
Hansel and Gretel did not remain long in its singspiel form. The richness of melody, which had so excited the composer before, now drove him on to set the dialogues in the form of recitative. While engaged in this work, he wrote his sister that he was tempted to abandon the singspiel altogether and expand Hansel and Gretel to a full opera.
His endeavors were assisted by what he playfully termed “the family demon,” in the form of Adelheid who continued to rework any scene not perfect in the eyes of her brother. She was also constantly advised by her father and husband. Humperdinck’s bride and her sister would often make helpful suggestions. This helpful collective finally created a libretto which pleased Humperdinck. Similar enthusiasm was evidenced by all who saw the orchestral score and there was soon fierce competition among the most noted conductors of the day as to who would conduct its premiere.
The opening finally took place in Weimar, Germany at Christmastime in 1893, conducted by Richard Strauss. Humperdinck was deeply moved by his new creation and he wrote his sister, “I feel like Moses as he saw the Promised Land in the distance.”
Hansel and Gretel was an immediate success. Shortly after the premiere, it was translated into the major languages of the world, and was largely produced. The opera traveled to Japan and Indochina, in which the gingerbread house was built of bananas and tropical fruits. In 1923 it became the first complete opera ever to be broadcast on radio and eight years later it was the first to be broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera.
The most deeply felt praise came to Humperdinck from his respected colleague and conductor of the first performance, Richard Strauss, who wrote, “My dear friend: You are a great master, who has entrusted the Germans with a work they hardly deserve, but hopefully will know to treasure for its full worth.”
During the summer of 1915, Humperdinck began to compose Gaudeamus, which would be his final work for the stage. His son Wolfram aided its completion in 1918. On September 26, 1921, Humperdinck attended Wolfram’s first performance as director of Weber’s Die Freischütz. Humperdinck died the next day after a series of heart attacks. Hansel and Gretel was performed in Engelbert Humperdinck’s memory several weeks later by the Berlin State Opera.
Courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera