Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel

William Melton takes an episode from his Toccata Press ‘life and works’, Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel, to illuminate the creation of the world’s best-loved fairy tale opera.

At the close of the evening of 18 December 1894, the eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick was of two minds about the opera world’s newest success. ‘Siblings Hänsel and Gretel have triumphed in Vienna,’ he was forced to report, ‘just as they already have in the most famous musical cities of Germany’. The opera’s composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, presented a problem; though Hanslick’s nemesis Richard Wagner had died a decade before, Humperdinck was Wagner’s apprentice. The new success needed to be explained away, and the very real talents of the composer glossed over. ‘With keen vision’, Hanslick continued, ‘Herr Humperdinck recognised that bringing the homely fairy tale onto the operatic stage was totally new and surprising. … He is no musical pathfinder, no original genius. Only the happy idea to transplant a well-known fairy tale to the operatic stage is wholly his’. Hanslick’s byline in Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse had been must-read journalism for decades, and it was reinforced by his university professorship in music history and aesthetics. Yet operatic treatments of fairy stories had been common in the century that had preceded Humperdinck’s effort (including a distinct genre, opéra féerie, that spanned Grétryto Offenbach), and Vienna and Hanslick himself had seen many of them. Almost all, despite the choice of a fairy tale text, had faded quickly into obscurity.

Engelbert Humperdinck succeeded while so many had failed because the fairy tale genre meant more to him than just a likely libretto: folk and fairy tale were an essential component of his upbringing. At Humperdinck’s birth in 1854 his hometown of Siegburg, south of Cologne and east of Bonn, was a backwater. ‘In a singularly beautiful situation’, related the mid-century guide A Hand-Book for Travellers on the Continent, ‘immediately overhanging the town, stands the ancient Benedictine abbey’. The devastations wreaked by war and fire through past centuries had retarded industrial growth and the population numbered under four thousand. Buildings, including the ruined medieval walls that still surrounded the city perimeter, took up less than three percent of municipal lands, and the remainder were occupied by woods, fields, meadows, gardens, orchards and ponds.

Sketch of Siegburg in 1863 by J. R. Rahn
Courtesy of the Stadtarchiv, Siegburg

The composer’s mother Gertrud, known for her fine voice and her own piano accompaniments in folk and Schubert songs, provided the soundtrack for her firstborn’s youth. Mozart and Haydn were early guides in the youngster’s education, his first opera experience was Lortzing’s fairy tale Undine, and his conservatoire teachers shared with him memories of Beethoven and Schubert. Then, while in southern Italy, Humperdinck ran into Richard Wagner and was co-opted into the Bayreuth Parsifal premiere. His preparation of the full orchestral score from Wagner’s highly-detailed four-stave miniature was the final master class of his student career. He was ready to create.

That Humperdinck would seize upon a fairy tale for inspiration was increasingly clear, as glimpses from his diary reveal:

I could hear the forest resound like a vast orchestra. Beech- and fir-trees beckoned to me in gorgeous string-quartet harmonies and mingled with the flute and bassoon murmurs of the woodland brook, the long-breathed trombone tones of a nearby waterfall and the soft trumpet and horn flourishes of sunbeams streaming through the foliage.

That evening in bed I read some of Grimm’s fairy tales and felt so stirred up by them that my engaged fantasy did not let me rest for a long time.

Determining which fairy tale would be chosen took most of the next decade, and the production of a likely libretto would occupy the entire Humperdinck family. The composer’s sister Adelheid Wette wrote children’s plays for household magazines, and her husband, medical doctor Hermann Wette, was a budding novelist and collector of folk poetry. Father Gustav Humperdinck, who had met the Brothers Grimm while studying philology in Berlin, gave voice to the family’s fairy tale credo in 1886:

That children believe without reservation in the fairy tales they are told is by no means universally the case. What children possess is a particular receptiveness for fairy stories. They give themselves freely to the bright pictures, happily accepting the incredible as fact and able to subscribe to the reality of desirable ideals of goodness and beauty. To preserve something of this childlike state, to recover the feeling for innocent play of fantasy, stands one in good stead even in more advanced years.

Adelheid Wette’s Liederspiele (part song cycle and part nursery panto) included ‘Schneewittchen’ (‘Snow White’; 1888), ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ (1890) and finally ‘Die Sieben Geislein’ (‘The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids’; 1895). Of these ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ was the only tale that was judged robust enough to survive expansion into an opera. Adelheid Wette knew instinctively how best to distill and combine versions of the ‘Hänsel’ story by the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein with background sources fromDes Knaben Wunderhorn and the Kinderlieder of Hoffmann von Fallersleben. These elements were woven together in sturdy rhyme and given to her brother to compose in three expanding stages: first a Liederspiel, then a Singspiel, and finally a through-composed opera.

‘At the Source’; Humperdinck at the feet of the storyteller
Courtesy of the Johann Christian Senckenberg Universitätsbibliothek, Frankfurt am Main

Hänsel und Gretel debuted in Weimar on 23 December 1893 and quickly went on to impressive successes across Europe and beyond (when staged at the Metropolitan the opera set a record for performances in a season), the text was translated into sixteen languages, and audiences in Cairo, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Tokyo granted the humble middle-European fable a durable place on the operatic stage. The fortunate publisher B. Schott’s Söhne issued myriad paraphrases (and fantasies, marches, quadrilles and potpourris), as the opera’s popularity continued into the 20th century. Hänsel und Gretel was the first complete opera that was broadcast in Europe, from the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1923, and on Christmas Day 1931 the work would be the first opera to be broadcast from the Metropolitan.

Eduard Hanslick closed his Neue Freie Presse review, a deft 1,900 word demolition of Humperdinck’s opera, in what seems like a complete contradiction of his previous efforts:

Young Siegfried Wagner’s dictum has gone through all the newspapers: Hänsel und Gretel is the most important German opera since Parsifal. That means, then, the best in the last twelve years? A disturbing claim, and the most disturbing thing – is that it is true.

Hanslick’s critiques have since echoed through a slew of reference works. At the same time, the opera’s transcendent public success continued uninterrupted. As Hänsel and Gretel’s father, Peter Besenbinder, put it: ‘Hark to heaven’s judgement passed: works of evil do not last’.


This guest post was written by William Melton who completed his graduate studies in music history at the University of California Los Angeles and spent his career in the horn section of the Sinfonie Orchester Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). In addition, he is a contributor to The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013) and the author of The Wagner Tuba: A History (edition ebenos, Aachen, 2008

Humperdinck
By William Melton
9780907689928, Hardback, £25.68 or $38.35

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