Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)
b Siegburg, 1 Sept 1854; d Neustrelitz, 27 Sept 1921
Engelbert Humperdinck was born to a middle-class family. Exhibiting prodigious musical ability, he composed his first work, a piano duet, at the age of seven, and by 13, he had already written two singspiels (plays with music). His mother was a professional singer. Despite obvious talents, his parents discouraged his avowed commitment to music, instead forcing their son to enter the seemingly more lucrative field of architecture.
In 1872, the composer Ferdinand Hiller intervened and pressured Humperdinck’s family to allow the young man to pursue his gift at the Cologne Conservatory, where Hiller was a faculty member. Humperdinck had been studying architecture at the University and met Hiller at music functions. At the conservatory, Humperdinck first heard Wagner’s operas. Previously, he had only seen scores. Hearing Wagner live was a major turning point; the man’s radical style would greatly influence Humperdinck’s mature works.
Humperdinck traveled to Munich in 1877 to pursue studies at the Königliche Musikschule, where he joined the Munich Wagner Society and promoted Wagner’s music and ideas. After winning an impressive composition prize while in Berlin, Humperdinck was invited to live in Rome on scholarship, and while in Italy, he finally had the opportunity to meet Wagner on March 9, 1880 in Naples. The two got along very well, and Wagner would later invite Humperdinck to help with the preparation of Parsifal. Humperdinck lived at Bayreuth for a year-and-a-half, responsible for training a boys’ chorus for the premiere of that opera. Wagner intended for Humperdinck to teach at the Venice Conservatory, but shortly after assuming a post there, Humperdinck moved to Paris because of increasing anti-German sentiment throughout Italy.
His subsequent travels took him to Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco and Tangiers. He met Richard Strauss in 1885 and began a lifelong friendship with him, then moved back to Spain that same year to assume a teaching post at the Barcelona Conservatory. In 1890, while back in Germany, Humperdinck was introduced to the music of Hugo Wolf, who had a tremendous impact on his compositional output. It was during this same year that Humperdinck composed four songs based on the Grimm story of Hänsel und Gretel, set to texts by his own sister. The work was completed in 1893 and given its premiere under the direction of Richard Strauss in Weimar.
Some critics believed that, in Hänsel und Gretel, Humperdinck had created a new operatic genre, the fairy tale opera, an alternative to the contemporary modes of Wagnerian music-drama and Puccini’s verismo opera. While this was not entirely accurate, Humperdinck continued to explore the possibilities of this subject matter. His next major opera, Domröschen (1902), was based on the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, but failed to attract the same reviews as its predecessor.
As his hearing and health deteriorated, he began to compose almost exclusively songs for solo voice and piano. He eventually turned to writing incidental music for plays, and did complete a few operas, but none of these large works received much praise, despite their prominent debuts under the directorships of Strauss and others.
In 1912, Humperdinck suffered a severe stroke, and although he recovered, his left hand remained paralyzed, and his output dwindled significantly. His wife died in 1916, which only served to worsen his own mental and physical state. By 1920, he formally retired from his compositional duties. After another stroke in 1921, he continued to compose a few brief works for therapeutic purposes mostly, and then suffered a fatal heart attack during a performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz that was being directed by his own son.
Today, Humperdinck is remembered solely for Hänsel und Gretel. Perhaps what made the opera so special was that the notion that family was central to its plot. Humperdinck’s family was very close. In fact, family members wrote the texts to virtually all of his major works. This knowledge might also explain the fact that the character of Gertrude is the children’s loving, biological mother, and not some wicked stepmother as portrayed in the original Grimm fairy tale.