Engelbert Humperdinck was born September 1st, 1854 in Siegburg in the Rhineland, near Bonn, Germany. Until Humperdinck met Ferdinand Hiller he studied architecture, then Ferdinand saw his talent and took him as a student to the Cologne Conservatory.
Humperdinck had the opportunity to go to Munich where he studied at the Royal School of Music after receiving many awards such as The Mozart Prize in 1876. Humperdinck also went on to win the Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer Prizes. All of these prizes enabled Humperdinck to visit Italy and France. It was Italy where he met Richard Wagner who invited him to be a guest at Bayreuth. During this time Humperdinck assisted Wagner in his score for Parsifal, helping prepare Parsifal for the stage. The time Humperdinck spent with Wagner appeared to have a great impact on his future works which will be discussed further on in this paper.
After Wagner’s death in 1883 the German people believed the last great German opera had been written, which brought a wave of depression over opera in Germany. “The German public, weary of the bombast if the Wagner-imitators, were willing to accept the blunt realism of the Italian ‘verisimo’ as a relief from the labored dullness of it’s native composers.” Italian operas, such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, quickly gained world-wide attention seeming to take away the attention from the German people and their style of music. Audiences enjoyed watching this style of opera because they were easy to follow and did not cause any intellectual strain on them. It seemed to the German people that the Wagnerians had lost the battle, so to speak, and the new Italian style was what the world wanted.
Then in 1893 “Hänsel und Gretel took the German people back once more into the beloved land of their national stories; and it was the work of a composer with a wholly German idiom and a masterly German technique.” Considering the time Hänsel und Gretel was produced and the feelings of the German people at this time, it appears that Hänsel und Gretel is a nationalistic opera.
The original idea for Hänsel und Gretel was actually not Humperdinck’s, but his sister’s. Humperdinck’s sister, Mrs. Adelheid Wette, was fond of writing little plays which her daughters acted at parties. On one occasion, she dramatized the old German nursery tale of a boy and girl who were lost in the forest. Mrs. Wette’s audience was delighted with the plucky pair and the strange adventures that befell them. Just as a diversion, Humperdinck set his sister’s play to music. He was so well pleased with the way it turned out, that he developed in into a grand opera.
The main plot of Hänsel und Gretel is two children that get lost in the forest fall victim to the Little Sandman who puts them to sleep for hours. When they wake up they are trapped with the Witch who proceed to tell the, how she will fatten them up and eat them. Instead Hänsel and Gretel outwit the Witch and shove her into the oven instead. Finally the children return home to their father and mother.
Hänsel und Gretel is a story adapted from one of Grimm’s Tales, Bruderchen und Schwesterchen (Little Brother and Little Sister). As Wette was writing the story she felt that many plot lines were too serious for her target audience and made some changes. Some changes she made were as simple as changing the father’s job from a wood cutter to a broom maker, while other changes had to do with the character’s personalities....