A curious phenomenon occurred in the world of opera at the turn of the last century. Italian opera saw virtually an entire school of composers who are remembered today for a single work: Ponchielli, Boito, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano, Catalani, Cilea, Zandonai, all wrote numerous operas, some of which flourished for a time, but today their name is associated with only one work.  By contrast, German opera has only a couple examples of this, and while Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt looms large in operatic history, one is much more likely to encounter Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the theater. In fact, ever since is premiere on December 23, 1893, Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera has enchanted audiences, never being out of the repertoire.

Though Humperdinck is virtually unknown today (aside from Hansel and Gretel) in his day he was a significant figure in the musical world, an intimate friend of composers like Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler, a teacher of note, a critic, and one of the people responsible for the Berlin opera company known today as the Deutsche Oper. In fact, as the company was being formed it was Humperdinck who was chosen to write to no less than Gustav Mahler on May 30, 1909, offering him the post of general director of “our Richard Wagner Theater.” (As it turned out, Mahler died before the company opened in 1912.)

When Humperdinck won the Mendelssohn Award in 1879 at the age of twenty-five, he went to Naples where he made the acquaintance of Richard Wagner. After a few visits, Wagner invited him to come to Bayreuth and be his assistant. Humperdinck accepted and lived at Bayreuth during 1880–81 where, among his other duties, he copied the score of Parsifal in preparation for its first performance in 1882. The diaries of Wagner’s wife, Cosima, give a glimpse into how the family viewed “Friend Humperdinck” (as Cosima referred to him): on one occasion Wagner—jokingly one assumes—suggested that he write an opera called Egmont, “taking the words from Goethe and the music from Beethoven.” On another occasion during a non-musical rehearsal of Parsifal’s second act, Humperdinck and another young man jumped in and sang the music of the Flower Maidens, causing Wagner to quip, “if not Flower Maidens, then at any rate, Radish Boys.”

As the final pieces of the Parsifal production were being put together it was discovered that the machinery responsible for the Transformation Scene in Act I took too long for the scene change and Wagner needed to write more music. “They always complain my music is too long, now it is too short,” he exploded and ran out of the theater. Years later Humperdinck explained what happened next:

I ran home, quickly sketched out a few transitional bars, orchestrated them and incorporated them into the original score. Then, filled with anxious expectancy, I took the original to the Master. He looked through the pages, nodding affably, then said, ‘Well, why not? It should work! Be off with you to the Chancellery and copy out of parts, so that we can get on.’ No sooner said than done. The sets and music were now in glorious accord and no one in the audience had the least suspicion at any of the performances that the score had been patched together by a back street cobbler plying his modest trade.

By the time Parsifal was given at the following year’s festival the machinery had been adjusted to fit Wagner’s original score and Humperdinck’s contribution was dropped.

After Wagner’s death Humperdinck continued his friendship with the Wagner family as he pursued his own career as composer, teacher, and critic. Cosima asked him to be the musical tutor to their son, Siegfried (who had a very modest career as an opera composer in his own right). Humperdinck also regularly served as assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival where he introduced the composers Max von Schillings and Hans Pfitzner to each other. It seems to have also been at Bayreuth where he first met another of the assistants, a fellow composer ten years younger than Humperdinck named Richard Strauss—who would conduct the world premiere of Humperdinck’s best-known work.

Hansel and Gretel began very inauspiciously in 1890 when Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, asked him to write music for four children’s songs to be sung by her own children in a play she had written, based on the Grimm Brothers fairy-tale, Hansel and Gretel. Humperdinck happened to be looking for a libretto for a comic opera, and he was persuaded to expand the four songs into a Singspiel (a play with music). When this version—sixteen songs with piano accompaniment with connecting dialogue—was performed at the Wette home it worked so well that Humperdinck was urged to expand the material into a full-fledged opera. He was not at all certain the rather brief fairy-tale could sustain an entire opera, but set to work.

The libretto for the opera, written by his sister, differs significantly from the Grimms’ darker, quite horrific story. In it, the children’s mother convinces her reluctant husband that to avoid all four of them dying from hunger they must take the children into the forest and leave them there. (In later editions “mother” was changed to “stepmother.”) The children overhear the conversation and Hansel foils this plan by gathering stones he then drops along the way to reflect the moonlight so they can find their way home. But when he overhears plans to repeat the act, he discovers the door is locked, so he cannot gather the stones and is forced to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, which the birds eat. It is a bird that eventually leads them to the Witch’s house, and after they kill the Witch they discover chests filled with jewels. They take as many jewels as they can carry and return home (having been ferried over a lake by a duck) to discover their mother/step-mother is dead, which means they can live happily with their father, thanks to the jewels. For the softer operatic version, the characters of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy as well as the whole Dream Pantomime were invented by Adelheid Wette, who also introduced the idea of the Witch’s previous victims coming back to life and the arrival of the very concerned parents who have been looking for the children after sending them into the woods to gather strawberries.

The first performance of the opera was scheduled for Munich, but a flu epidemic forced its postponement. The premiere took place in Weimar where it was conducted by twenty-nine-year-old Richard Strauss. When he had seen the score two months before, he wrote to Humperdinck:

[It is] truly as masterpiece of the first class … after a very long time, it’s something that really impresses me. Such heart-refreshing humor, such deliciously naïve melodies, such art and refinement in the orchestration … such resplendent polyphony, and it’s all new, original and so authentically German. My dear friend, you are a great master, and you’ve given the Germans a work they scarcely deserve, but let us hope all the same that they will very soon learn how to appreciate it fully … I implore you to insist on me conducting it—that old simpleton Lassen [the theater’s elderly chief conductor] must not be allowed near it! And young Hansel is devilishly difficult!

The “devilishly difficult” role of Hansel was to have been sung by Strauss’s protégé, a young soprano named Pauline de Ahna, but she jumped around so energetically at the dress rehearsal she sprained her ankle and so missed creating the role. (She rejoined the cast at the third performance—and married Strauss the following September.)

There are several reasons for Hansel and Gretel’s success. It tells a familiar story with a superb blending of innocence and sophistication. Many of the melodies are either folk songs or they sound folk-like, yet they are often blended with extremely complex harmony. The orchestration is lavish. The orchestra approaches Wagnerian size and the percussion section includes triangle, small bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, castanets, xylophone, cuckoo, tambourine, and a thunder machine. But Humperdinck uses these forces deftly. Purely orchestral passages like the Prelude, the Witches’ Ride and the Pantomime with the fourteen angels can utterly sweep away listeners with the dramatic power of the music. But thanks to the flexibility of the score, moving from folk music and child-like innocence to complex orchestral writing, the music never swamps the naïveté of the story itself.  As Michael Kennedy pointed out, “At no point does [Humperdinck] condescend, patronize, or sentimentalize the children or the fairytale. The music of the Evening Prayer has a touching and naïve simplicity that represents the absorption of the folk-song into art-music done with supreme skill and taste.”

Hansel and Gretel was the first complete opera to be broadcast on the radio when it was transmitted from the stage of London’s Covent Garden on January 6, 1923. It was also the first radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera on December 25th, 1931, when it inaugurated the series of regular broadcasts from the Met that continues to this day.  Humperdinck was never able to repeat Hansel and Gretel’s perfect blend of innocence and sophistication—but then again, no one since has managed to do it either.