Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel Overture
Engelbert Humperdinck was born in Germany in 1854. He began taking piano lessons at a very young age, and by age seven he had already composed his first work. Humperdinck came from a largely non-musical family, who, in turn, didn’t support his music career goals. His family, instead, preferred he take a more “stable” career route into the world of architecture and design. Against his family’s wishes, Humperdinck began his music studies at the prestigious Cologne Conservatory in 1872. The young composer-to-be thrived in music education, and in 1876 he won a scholarship to study in Munich. A few years later, Humperdinck was awarded the highly-regarded Mendelssohn Award.
As a young professional, Humperdinck did a lot of travelling around Europe. Whilst in Naples, Humperdinck quickly befriended Richard Wagner. This friendship became rather fruitful for Humperdinck, as Wagner had asked him to assist in the production of his large-scale opera, Parsifal. Sadly, Humperdinck has often been seen in the shadow of Wagner. Seldom regarded as a musical innovator, but instead, a very skilled musician, Humperdinck’s popularity has always been encased by a Wagner-shaped glass ceiling. This does not mean that Humperdinck’s work or musical output should be ignored. He held many highly-regarded teaching posts around Europe, as well as performing as a musician and also working as a composer.
Humperdinck became ill in 1912, after suffering from a stroke, which left his left hand permanently paralysed. His son, Wolfram Humperdinck, helped his father with his 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 in 1891, he began to compose Hansel and Gretel. 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 Hansel and Gretel Overture, opens the whole opera and sets the tone for the story. It begins with a serene brass chorale, led by the french horns. The texture is slowly built up with the addition of other instruments in the orchestra. The chorale is the centre of the whole Overture, and is heard more than once. It is, in essence, quite a simple sequence as it is C major and uses basic harmonic progressions, however in this case it is the effect that it makes that makes it so iconic.
The timbre created between the strings and horns create a somewhat nostalgic feeling, which corresponds with people aligning this theme to the ‘dreams and prayers’ section of the opera. This opening section is bought to a close by the upper winds, who play an intertwining polyphonic motif, with the oboe sitting on a sustained seventh of the chord.
The next section begins with a playful brass fanfare led by the trumpets, who play a call and response figure. There is a quick general pause for the orchestra, and then we’re into the main body of music. In the opera itself, the general pause is a cue for the curtain to be raised. The orchestra is rich in tone colour, with the strings whirling across various scalic passages. This pastoral theme from the strings counteracts the more succinct and staccato-heavy wind dance melody. The orchestra tends to play motif’s within their sections, and then the whole ensemble unites to reinstate passages and develop them either harmonically or rhythmically.
There is a trend throughout that Humperdinck uses the upper winds to segue the orchestra into the next section or theme of the work. The piccolo flute is used numerous times for this purpose, and due to its high register, it can certainly be heard above the orchestra. A shining C major chord brings the music back to the feeling at the beginning of the Overture.
The repeated phrases and the emphasis from the percussion lead us neatly into the gentle final passages of the Overture. The horn motif returns, with a countermelody from the oboe, flute and upper strings. The small flourishes within the orchestra create that magical feel at the end of this work. The most prominent instruments at the end of this work are the horns and piccolo flute, which play opposing themes, and then unite at the end of this wonderful work.