Personalities | Engelbert Humperdinck | Turn of the Century | Opera

1854–1921, German

Humperdinck showed an aptitude for vocal composition from an early age and, despite the concerns of his family, entered the Cologne Conservatory in 1872. He was a high achiever, winning multiple prizes for his Schumann-influenced compositions. Wagner soon came to dominate the young composer’s artistic thoughts and, following a short visit to him, in January 1881 Humperdinck was invited to Bayreuth to help Wagner with preparation for the first production of Parsifal.

Wagner’s musical ideals were antithetical to Humperdinck’s naturally simple and ingenuous style, and they caused a long creative hiatus. This difficulty was compounded by the contemporary vogue for baldly realistic subjects. Humperdinck’s natural instincts, however, were largely responsible for the success of his first and most famous opera, Hänsel und Gretel. Humperdinck began by writing a handful of songs for his sister based on the Brothers’ Grimm fairy-tale. These grew into a small work and finally into the full opera we know today. The work’s inventiveness and melodic felicity were largely responsible for its overwhelming popularity. The immediate success of Hänsel und Gretel – it was performed in over 72 theatres within a year of being premiered – encouraged Humperdinck to undertake a second Grimm fairy-tale. Die sieben Geislein (1898), though, suffered from a clumsy libretto and music that was ill-fitted to the subject’s needs. Several other projects foundered for similar reasons until the success of Königskinder (1910), which revealed more fully Humperdinck’s admiration for Wagner.

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