For many of us, the name Engelbert Humperdinck conjures up images of the popular British singer, full mane of hair and sideburns, crooning Release Me or Love Me with All of Your Heart.
But the British Humperdinck, whose real name was Arnold George Dorsey, appropriated his stage name in 1965 from the original Engelbert Humperdinck, a relatively obscure 19th century German composer, who was born in 1854, and whose reputation rests largely on the opera based on the familiar Grimm brothers' fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel.
The synopsis of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel remains true to the fairy tale, incorporating a few memorable characters like the Sandman, the Sleep Fairy, and the Dew Fairy, as well as a children’s chorus and a corps de ballet of fourteen angels.
When it premiered in 1893, conducted in by Richard Strauss in Weimar, the freshness of the subject, its melodic inspiration and instrumental mastery, its use of Wagnerian techniques and of traditional German folk songs, all marked Hänsel und Gretel as a runaway success. Strauss hailed it as "authentically German" and "a masterpiece of the highest quality".
On September 22, the Symphony Orchestra of India will include excerpts from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, as part of its 10th anniversary season programme. The opera will be conducted by Zane Dalal, and excerpts from the opera in the SOI concert will include the overture, the Evening Prayer (the children's prayer before they fall asleep), and Witch’s Ride.
The birth of Hänsel und Gretel
The opera was conceived in 1890 at Frankfurt, when Humperdinck composed the music for four songs written by his sister Adelheid Wette, to accompany a puppet show staged by her daughters based on Hansel and Gretel.
Humperdinck saw tremendous creative possibilities in the work, and subsequently decided to expand it to a full-fledged three-act opera. Instead of the original storyline, Humperdinck chose to use the libretto written by Wette.
Wagner’s influence on Humperdinck's music, which became evident to Strauss in Hänsel und Gretel , began many years ago, when Humperdinck first met Wagner in Naples. The legendary German composer invited Humperdinck to Bayreuth, where Humperdinck taught music to Wagner’s son Siegfried. In 1881, Humperdinck also assisted Wagner in the production of Parsifal.
The collaboration was a tremendous milestone for Humperdinck, who came from Siegburg in the Rhine Province, and began piano lessons early in life, writing his first composition at the age of seven. Humperdinck’s parents disapproved of his interest in music, pushing him towards studying architecture instead.
By the age of eighteen, Humperdinck had joined the Cologne Conservatory with German composers Ferdinand Hiller and Isidor Seiss, against his parents’ objections. He won a scholarship four years later to study in Munich, and at 25, won the first Mendelssohn Award by the Mendelssohn Stiftung Berlin.
In 1923, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, chose Hänsel und Gretel for their first complete radio broadcast, and almost a decade later, it became the first opera transmitted live from the Metropolitan Opera New York. Perhaps because of its fairy-tale origins, Hänsel und Gretel has almost always been performed around Christmastime.
Through the course of his life, Humperdinck remained unfazed by the fame he acquired. He remained devoted to nature, tending the garden at his home in Boppard. His friend, BJ Kreuzberg wrote of the composer:
"Dizzying world success and an excess of recognition have not changed Humperdinck: He remains the same balanced, modest, proper, kind, humorous and loving person, who – like his intellectual and poetic wife Hedwig – valued a simple, private family life and cultivated many hearty friendships this side of the border and beyond."
In 1896, Humperdinck took on prestigious teaching assignments at Frankfurt, Boppard and Berlin. He continued to teach until a severe stroke paralysed his left arm in 1912. In addition to ‘Hänsel und Gretel’, Humperdinck’s oeuvre also included seven other stage productions such as Die sieben Geißlein (The Seven Little Kids), 1895; Königskinder (King's Children), 1897; Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty), 1902. He died of a heart attack in 1921.