There are some composers famous for one work alone. Though he wrote 15 other operas, Mascagni will always be known to the public for Cavalleria rusticana. His rival Leoncavallo, similarly, is indelibly the man who wrote Pagliacci, despite producing a sizeable output of which Italian opera connoisseurs are at least aware. Another example is the German late-Romantic Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), who spent the bulk of his career writing music for the theatre in various genres, and also composed choral, orchestral and chamber works, as well as songs, but whose fame rests on a single achievement: Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel has won a special place in the operatic repertory, regularly revived by companies worldwide – and not only at Christmas. In Germany it is one of the pieces used to introduce children to opera, on account of its familiar fairy-tale basis. But while its semi-comic, semi-horrific witch – a role written for mezzo-soprano, but sometimes played by a tenor in drag – and its easy-to-grasp folk tunes make it a perfect choice for novice listeners, kids included, the most experienced audiences also find in it a great deal to admire. For Humperdinck shows in this opera a thorough command of all the skills he needed as a composer, which he would later pass on to a series of distinguished and disparate pupils, including the English Romantic Impressionist Cyril Scott and his US colleague Charles Tomlinson Griffes, operetta composer Robert Stolz, and the theatrical talent of Kurt Weill.

Technical skills of all kinds shine out of Hansel, and won it the admiration of Richard Strauss, who declared it a masterpiece on his first read-through of the score, going on to conduct the work’s premiere in Weimar in 1893. It went on to receive performances in some 72 opera houses within a year. There is not a dull or redundant bar in the piece, and its fluency in depicting the two neglected children’s scary journey from being naughty in a rundown cottage, to spending a night of mystery in the haunted German forest, to their victimisation by and self-liberation from the predatory witch, is realised in music of immediacy, charm and depth.

Yet the work itself began in a different form from its final one. Humperdinck’s sister-in-law, the writer Adelheid Wette, originally asked him to set just four folk songs as incidental music for her own new dramatisation of the Brothers Grimm tale. Later, the number of songs was increased to 16. Only after these two early versions did Humperdinck decide to join up the dots, as it were, into a through-composed score conceived on a quasi-symphonic basis. The ghosts of previous German composers – Mendelssohn and Weber, but also Brahms, and even the Austrian waltz-king Johann Strauss II – can be glimpsed occasionally peering out from behind the trees in Humperdinck’s magical forest, but it is the impact of Richard Wagner that is obvious: Humperdinck’s orchestral interlude ‘The Witch’s Ride’ is a smaller but more sinister variant on Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. But with all these influences, the result in terms of Humperdinck’s blend of naive folk ditties and German art-music traditions is individual and convincing. All composers learn from their predecessors, but few turn so many influences to such positive account as does Humperdinck in his score.

The Wagnerian input was probably inevitable, given the composer’s pre-eminence in European music while Humperdinck was young. But it became pervasive because Humperdinck became, for a while, a member of Wagner’s inner circle. Born into a middle-class family in Siegburg, not far from Cologne, Humperdinck’s musical inclinations were initially resisted by his father, who insisted that he study as an architect. But music won out, and his education was undertaken by capable minor German masters – figures such as Ferdinand Hiller, Franz Lachner and Joseph Rheinberger – who gave the young composer the technical wherewithal to win a number of prizes. It was on a visit to Italy in 1880 funded by one of these that Humperdinck was introduced to Wagner himself, who was staying at the time in Naples, working on his opera Parsifal. Humperdinck became one of Wagner’s assistants on the project, even constructing a short additional passage required during rehearsals in 1882, when a scene change was taking longer than Wagner’s existing music could accommodate; Humperdinck’s extra material was soon removed, however, when the technical problem was solved. But his association with the Wagner family continued as tutor to Wagner’s son Siegfried, whose subsequent 18 operas often fell into the same genre that Humperdinck preferred. This was the Märchenspiel or Märchenoper – literally ‘fairy-tale opera’ – that developed in the wake of the revival of German folk culture instigated by the Brothers Grimm earlier in the 19th century, and received a further boost from Wagner’s later obsession with Teutonic myth. It flowered at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, though its other exponents are now forgotten. Interesting though some of Siegfried Wagner’s works are, particularly from the psychological perspective of their librettos, his music was not strong enough to last the course.

Humperdinck’s, however, was, at least in one work. His other essays in the fairy-tale genre form a thread through his career. After Hansel came Die sieben Geislein (The Seven Little Kids), again developed from a Brothers Grimm story, in 1895; Dornröschen, based on Perrault’s The Sleeping Beauty, followed in 1902, while the premiere of his second best-known score, Königskinder, an invented fairy tale with traditional elements (including another witch), marked his career apex in 1910.

Königskinder had a similarly complex genesis to Hansel. The source was an 1895 play by the German writer Else Bernstein, who worked under the name Ernst Rosmer. It was brought to Humperdinck’s attention by her father, Heinrich Porges, another close supporter of Richard Wagner’s. Bernstein was at first reluctant to present the piece as a full-scale opera, suspecting correctly that composers have a way of taking such things over. The initial version called only on a few songs. Later, Humperdinck expanded this to a full-scale melodrama – a genre in which the text is spoken over the music, and involving, for the first time, the technique of Sprechgesang (‘spoken song’), in which the written notes are fixed points from which the vocal line then wanders as it moves to the next written note. This technique is best known from its use by Schoenberg and his pupil Berg. Even in this half-way-house form – no longer play, yet not opera either – Königskinder achieved many productions following its premiere in Munich in 1897. But Humperdinck hankered after full-blown opera, and a commission from the Metropolitan in New York following the success there of Hansel gave him the opportunity. Königskinder was received well
at its Met premiere in December 1910 but later disappeared from the repertoire. Though there have been recent major revivals – at ENO, Munich and Zurich – it shows few signs of becoming standard repertoire. This may be because it is a much darker subject than Hansel; in Bernstein’s scenario, the two ‘royal children’ of the title are rejected by the cruel citizens of the medieval town of Hellabrunn, and die half-starved and poisoned in the yard of the witch’s cottage. This unhappy ending is misjudged and spun out by the composer. Much of the score, though, is impressive, even if it lacks the spontaneity of Hansel. His other operas – the comedies Die Heirat wider Willen (The Unwilling Marriage, 1905), Die Marketenderin (The Canteen Girl, 1914) and Gaudeamus (1919), the latter dealing with German student life, plus the small-scale children’s entertainment Bübchens Weihnachtstraum (Baby’s Christmas Dream, 1906) – have rarely been revived.

But another international highlight came with a major work premiered in London the year after Königskinder opened at the Met. The Miracle, a mime play with a continuous score, was premiered at the Great Hall in London’s Olympia in 1911. Written by Karl Vollmöller and devised as a spectacular by German theatre director Max Reinhardt, the production retold the legend of a nun who leaves a convent to experience the world, returning to discover that no one has noticed her absence because a statue of the Virgin Mary has come to life to take her place. A cast of thousands launched this mystical epic, and the production was later recreated in Germany and the US, as well as being filmed.

Outside the theatre, he wrote chamber music, including three string quartets; a number of orchestral works, notably his Moorish Rhapsody, inspired by travels in North Africa and premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1898; plus a few choral pieces and songs. A number of his lesser-known works have made it to CD, and they can also be sampled live in his native town, Siegburg, which hosts a festival to honour its most celebrated son. Yet the public’s verdict in remembering Humperdinck almost entirely for one work is understandable. Listening to his other pieces, one admires the craftsmanship, and an old-fashioned quality that attests his lineage from Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann more than his connections to contemporaries such as Strauss or Mahler, let alone any awareness of Schoenberg and the younger generation. Many of these works are agreeable but few stick in the memory. Though Königskinder has genuine qualities, it is in Hansel alone that that mysterious phenomenon occurs when talent becomes genius, and the lovingly carved gilded wood of expertly crafted German late-Romanticism transmutes into pure, shining gold.

George Hall