Hansel and Gretel
Work composed: 1891–92
First complete Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: solo vocalists, children’s chorus, women’s chorus, flute, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 bass drums, castanets, cuckoo instruments, cymbals, glockenspiel, tambourine, tam tam, triangle, xylophone, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 90 minutes
Engelbert Humperdinck displayed prodigal musical ability as a young child; he wrote a piano duet at age seven and his first music for the stage at 10. If Humperdinck had had a father like Leopold Mozart, his talent would have been carefully nurtured and encouraged. Humperdinck’s parents, however, held more bourgeois aspirations for their son, namely, a career in architecture. Fortunately, Humperdinck had an early champion and mentor in composer Ferdinand Hiller, founder of the Cologne Conservatory, whose musical connections included a boyhood friendship with Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and music studies with Johann Nepomuk Hummel (in 1827, the 16-year-old Hiller accompanied Hummel to Beethoven’s deathbed, and clipped a lock of Beethoven’s hair).
At Hiller’s urging, Humperdinck’s parents were persuaded to allow their son to study music, and he entered the Cologne Conservatory at 18. Humperdinck excelled as a student, winning several prestigious prizes. In 1877, Humperdinck moved to the Royal Music School in Munich, where he first encountered Wagner’s music and aesthetics, which were a radical departure from the musically conservative environment of Hiller’s conservatory. After meeting Wagner in 1881, Humperdinck accepted the older composer’s offer to come to Bayreuth and work on the premiere production of Parsifal. During the 1880s, Humperdinck immersed himself in Wagner’s music, while some of his friends and contemporaries feared Wagner’s outsized influence might smother Humperdinck’s own voice. During this time, while Humperdinck kept busy with other musical activities, including tutoring Wagner’s son Siegfried, he composed virtually nothing of his own, and pondered his own operatic future. Humperdinck seems to have been stymied by standard operatic narratives; he once declared he wanted to write music for a plot that “was not made up of murders, brutal deaths, operetta-like nonsense, or sugar-sweet fairy tales.”
As Christmas 1889 approached, Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid asked her brother to write four songs for her children’s holiday puppet show. These proved so successful that Humperdinck quickly expanded the music to a singspiel (spoken dialogue between musical numbers) with piano accompaniment, based on Adelheid’s adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Hänsel und Gretel.” Soon after, Humperdinck began writing a fully orchestrated score in January 1891. Richard Strauss was one of the opera’s earliest champions, describing it as “a masterpiece of the highest quality … all of it original, new, and so authentically German.” Strauss conducted its premiere on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, where audiences and critics received it with great enthusiasm. In 1894, Hansel and Gretel was performed throughout Germany, with additional productions in England and Switzerland. It quickly became a beloved Christmas family tradition in Europe, akin to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in North America. On Christmas Day 1931, the Metropolitan Opera presented Hansel and Gretel as its first-ever complete radio broadcast.
The gingerbread house with spun-sugar windows notwithstanding, Hansel and Gretel, particularly in its original incarnation, is far from the “sugar-sweet” fairy tale Humperdinck scorned. The story, a stark tale of survival, so disturbed Adelheid that she omitted several of the more sinister plot points in her libretto, including the wicked step-mother, the parents’ abandonment of the children, Hansel’s imprisonment, and the children’s looting of the witch’s house after they murder her. Adelheid also added two characters, the Sandman and the Dew-Fairy, who watch over the children (one brings them restful sleep while the other awakens them) and act as benevolent guides.
Adelheid’s version accords more appropriately with a Christmas play performed by children from a comfortably middle-class home in the 1890s. In the 80 years since Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s publication of Children’s and Household Tales, in 1812, societal views of children, and childhood, had radically transformed. The Grimms did not write these stories; they were interested in the origins of German literature, and many of the stories they collected had roots in medieval folk tales. These original stories reflect the brutal nature of a world where most people were desperately poor, and starvation was a fact of life. In fact, the Grimms themselves were severely criticized when their first edition of the Tales came out, because the collection’s title suggested a book for children. Children figure prominently in these stories, but their subject matter was considered unsuitable for young readers even in 1812 (in their subsequent editions, the Grimms themselves toned down or eliminated some of the stories’ coarser elements). By 1890, Victorian ideas of childrearing, particularly the shielding of children from life’s bitter realities whenever possible, had become the norm. In this context, Adelheid’s framing of Hansel Gretel as a story of two essentially virtuous and resourceful children rescuing themselves from evil circumstances is wholly understandable, even laudable.
Humperdinck’s music accounts for Hansel and Gretel’s staying power. He incorporated the dramatic, densely-textured orchestral writing he gleaned from Wagner’s operas, along with the concept of leitmotifs – characteristic short melodic phrases associated with different characters; the father’s recurring four-note “LA-la-la-la” is among the most recognizable of these. To these Wagnerian innovations Humperdinck added his own knack for simple, singable melodies, in the manner of folk songs. Humperdinck also wrote deliberately childlike music for the characters Hansel and Gretel to sing, emphasizing their youth and innocence. The famous “Evening Prayer,” for example, captures the children’s ingenuousness. Humperdinck uses this melody several times in the Prelude, making it familiar to the audience by the time the children, lost and hungry in the forest, sing it at the end of Act II. The “Prayer” melody also closes out the opera, this time as a joyful anthem that, in musical terms, declares, “And they lived happily ever after.”
© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com