Hansel & Gretel programme notes

Our annual Opera collaboration with the talented members of the University of Lethbridge Opera Workshop offers fun for the whole family! Join us as we bring to life a classic childhood fairy tale. Fully staged and sung in English for your for your viewing and listening pleasure, this romantic and wondrous score is a nostalgic reminder of a time when good always won out over bad, witches lived deep in the dark and scary woods, and a life sized gingerbread house was within reach!

If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).

Symphony 4 – Hansel & Gretel

From an early age, Engelbert Humperdinck found fulfillment in composing music, having written his first piece (a piano duet) at age seven and his first staged work at thirteen. Despite this obvious enthusiasm, Engelbert’s parents were not supportive, and he was forced to begin his career in an architectural program at the University of Cologne. During his freshman year he managed to take covert music lessons from the music conservatory director, Ferdinand Hiller, and excelled. Hiller’s sponsorship helped him convince his parents that music was his best career path.

Humperdinck’s success continued when he became a full-time music student, leading to multiple scholarships that enabled him to travel throughout Europe and Northern Africa. On these trips he made contact with many celebrated composers, including German master of opera Richard Wagner. Humperdinck was an avid admirer of his, and Wagner was so impressed with Humperdinck that he recruited him to assist in the preparation of his opera Parsifal and his Symphony in C in 1881. Following these successful collaborations, Humperdinck maintained a close relationship with the Wagner family for the rest of his life, eventually going on to tutor Wagner’s son, Siegfried.

Despite being Wagner’s protégé, Humperdinck was one of few composers in the late nineteenth century to make a name for himself in German Opera without overtly imitating his patron. This is not to say that Wagner’s fingerprints are nowhere to be found on the score of Hansel and Gretel, as Humperdinck’s profound admiration of the older composer would make his influence inevitable. Wagnerian range characterizes the harmonic makeup of Hansel and Gretel, and characters are given leitmotifs, one of the most prominent being the ‘ra la la’ of the children’s father.

Humperdinck struck a balance with his appropriation of Wagner’s methods with his family’s longtime interest in folk song, employing various folk song characteristics. These can be heard diversely throughout the score, whether it is in the dancing rhythms of the opening act or the hymn-like texture of the evening prayer. This mélange of inspirations gives Hansel and Gretel an individualistic makeup, combining with the popular storyline to be the backbone of his legacy.

The opera started small, as Humperdinck’s 1889 setting of four folk songs by his sister Adelheid Wette. Strong approval from the Wette household urged him to expand the songs into a singspiel, a short comedic chamber opera that he gifted to his fiancée for Christmas in 1890. Wanting a full-scale opera, Humperdinck spent much of 1891 preoccupied with orchestration of the piece. He finished a rough draft by Christmas of that year, once again gifting it to his future wife. A debilitating ear infection, burgeoning family, and professorial duties at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt soon robbed Humperdinck of time to compose, delaying the finishing touches until September 1893.

Most who are familiar with the tale will note that Wette’s libretto differs in many key respects from the 1812 folk story recorded by the Grimms. Gone are many darker plot elements, such as the abandonment of the siblings at the behest of their abusive stepmother and their grueling month-long captivity in the witch’s house. Also left out are passages portraying both Hansel and Gretel more negatively, such as their plunder of the witch’s house after her murder, and the famous failed trail of breadcrumbs. Wette’s libretto replaces the stepmother with a loving but firm mother, and adds good-natured characters such as the sandman and dew fairy, to emphasize its theme of childhood innocence.

Before the December 1893 premiere in Weimar, Humperdinck had misgivings about Hansel and Gretel’s potential for success, believing he might have treated a childish subject too loftily. Luckily, he was proven wrong when the opera became a success under the baton of Richard Strauss. Over the course of the following year productions were mounted at over 70 theatres in Germany, earning the composer praise from Brahms, Hugo Wolf, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The first international productions in Switzerland and England were also that year, setting a precedent for many more. Now a standard opera work, Hansel and Gretel secured Humperdinck’s place in musical history.

Notes by Zain Solinski