Engelbert Humperdinck ‘Hansel and Gretel Overture’: A Tasty Treat!

Happy Monday readers! Here we are on day H of my August Alphabet Challenge! Where is the time going?! Lets get cracking on composer ‘H’ who is…Engelbert Humperdinck (no not the pop singer). Now despite having the best name known to man, Humperdinck is perhaps most famous for his opera Hansel and Gretel, which is, of course, based on the tale by Brothers Grimm. I really enjoy this work, so this blog will be on Humperdinck’s overture for the opera – enjoy!

Engelbert Humperdinck was born in Germany in 1854 and he began piano lessons at a very young age. So young, that by the time he was 7 (yes…7!) he had already produced hus first composition. Humperdinck came from a non-musical family, who didn’t support him all that much in his career goals of being a composer. His family, instead, preferred he take a more ‘stable’ career route into architecture. Humperdinck ignored his parent’s wishes and began taking music lessons at the Cologne Conservatory in 1872. Humperdinck evidently thrived in music performance and composition education, because by 1876 he won a scholarship to study in Munich, which then led to him winning the Mendelssohn Award in 1879. The fully fledged composer then went travelling to Naples, Italy, where he met and quickly befriended Richard Wagner. Leading on from this friendship, Wagner asked Humperdinck to assist in the production of Parsifal. Following on from this, Humperdinck’s successes did not falter as he went travelling around Italy, Spain and France, where he taught in Barcelona and then Frankfurt.

Throughout his career and even now as we look back in time as the keen musicologists that we are, its evident to see that Humperdinck was very much in the shadow of Wagner. He was never seen as an innovator, just an incredibly skilled musician. Throughout his lifetime he held many incredibly well-renowned teaching posts around Europe. However, life got in the way somewhat in 1912 for him as he suffered a stroke, which left his left hand permanently paralysed. His son, Wolfram Humperdinck, helped his father with the final compositions. Wolfram himself was also a keen opera fan, and during his first time as stage director for the premiere performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, his father was in the audience. But during this he suffered a heart attack, which was made fatal by a second one the day after. Humperdinck passed in 1921, and a few weeks later the Berlin State Opera performed Hansel and Gretel in his memory.

Hansel and Gretel is by far Humperdinck’s most famous work and it is described by the composer as a ‘fairy tale opera.’ The opera is based upon the fairy tale of the same name by Brothers Grimm. Humperdinck wrote the opera with the aid of his sister, Adelheid, who wrote the libretto for the opera. The work started out initially as a few music sketches threaded together, however after many revisions it ended up being a full-scale opera. Whilst Humperdinck was in Frankfurt teaching, he began to compose Hansel and Gretel (1891). He completed the revisions by 1892, for its premiere in Weimar on 23rd December 1893. The premiere was conducted by Richard Strauss. Due to its instant success, other professional conductors wanted to put it into their concerts. The composer that gave the Hamburg performance was none other than my favourite composer, Gustav Mahler! From that point onwards, Hansel and Gretel started premiering around the globe, with it reach Britain, Australia and the USA.

The opera is in 3 acts and it closely follows the story of Hansel and Gretel. To summarise the story before we get cracking on the music:

Hansel and Gretel are child siblings and they live with their father and his wife (he is a woodcutter by trade). According to the wife, the children eat too much, and they need to be abandoned in the woods so that her and husband do not starve in the woods. The evil wife tries to abandon the children several times, but each time they find a way to return (to her horror). Then one time they became lost within the woods and found themselves at a cottage which was built of gingerbread, cakes and sweets (the dream basically). Bizzarley the children start devouring the house because they are hungry, to which an old hag (who is apparently incredibly hideous) emerges from the house with promises of warm beds and tasty food inside (I mean who could resist that, right?). Little do the children know that the witch is actually a cannibal (to put it bluntly!). The bloodthirsty witch locks Hansel in a cage, whilst making Gretel act as a slave. The witch begins to fatten Hansel up by feeding him food, but she becomes impatient and decides to just kill them both. With Gretel soon realising her tricks, she pushes the old hag into the oven and sets Hansel free from his cage. As they leave the children take the hags jewels and treasures. They find their father, and basically they become rich and live happily ever after (oh and the stepmother died – hooray!).

The Hansel and Gretel Overture opens the whole opera and sets the tone for the story. So, the overture begins with a chorale, which is slowly made thicker in texture by the adding of instruments by Humperdinck. The chorale is essentially very simple, its in C major and it uses basic harmonic progressions, but the effect it makes is wonderfully serene. It has been suggested that this chorale theme reflects the ‘dream and prayers’ section within the opera itself. The horns lead this initial theme, which gives the atmosphere a very warm feel. Lets not beat around the bush here, it sounds like a christmas carol doesn’t it? The timbre created between the lush strings and the horns creates a wonderfully nostalgic feel. The sustained wind solos that soar above the strings below create a very inclusive feel within the orchestra, like every part matters and has a purpose. The initial chorale them is varied and stretched in many different ways to create a beautiful opening section to the overture. This section ends with the flutes and oboes playing a lovely polyphonic passage, with the oboe playing a sustained seventh. The next sections starts with a brass fanfare, led by the trumpets. Another silence occurs briefly, before a new string melody is heard. At this point the curtain is raised on stage. The brass section interrupt with their fanfare theme once more. The orchestra swirls into a crescendo, which quickly dissolves back into the light string melody. This pastoral theme from the strings counteracts the more succinct and sharp wind-dance melody.

By this point all the earlier themes are heard pretty much all at once, with strong links back to the chorale theme and the woodwind dance motif. The orchestra work within a homophonic texture to create a build up for the exciting climax section. This section is very grand and is led by the trumpets. A slightly faster version of the pastoral theme is heard once more, which compliments the now-warm and controlled brass section. The sway in the rhythm here is quite exaggerated and child-like (in terms of say a nursery rhyme) which fits the genre of it being a fairy tale opera. The chorale theme slowly begins to edge back into the orchestra about a minute from the end. A shining C major chord brings us back to the feel of the beginning. It’s quite magical really this last section, and its simple beauty makes it the perfect way to end this lovely overture.

The Hansel and Gretel Overture is a light and warm way to start this opera, which in all honesty actually has some quite dark undertones. Humperdinck’s music is lovely to listen to and I highly recommend you take some time to listen to the other songs within the opera, which are largely based on German folk-songs! I do hope you have liked this piece, I wonder what day ‘I’ has in store for us tomorrow!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This recording by the London Phil is probably my favourite!