Hänsel und Gretel

Article by Peter Reed

It must have come as something of a relief to the guardians of the flame of 19th century German opera, as well as to its composer Engelbert Humperdinck, that from its first performance in 1893, Hänsel und Gretel proved to be such a huge success. Wagner, who had died ten years earlier, was an impossible act to follow, as many minor composers discovered to their cost. Moreover, as the presentation of Wagner’s masterpieces entered a lengthy period of ossification under the inflexible guidance of his widow Cosima, Italian verismo operas by composers such as Leoncavallo, Mascagni and, most potently, Puccini were rushing in to fill the vacuum so abhorred by opera-house box offices. Gods and monsters yielded to the moral vagaries of Manon Lescaut. Of course, Humperdinck’s music didn’t single-handedly deflect the flow of German opera back into comfort-zone conservatism, nor did it attempt to stretch the boundaries of late Romanticism in the way that Schoenberg and, to a lesser extent, Richard Strauss did. Yet in spite of its clearly audible debt to Wagner, Hänsel und Gretel has a strongly defined identity that champions the cause of German folk culture against the more lurid, earthy attractions of verismo.

Engelbert Humpderdinck was born in 1854 in Siegburg, the Westphalian town to the east of Cologne and Bonn and the Rhine. After a brief and dutiful period studying architecture, he turned to music in 1871. His teachers included the piano virtuoso and pedagogue Ferdinand Hiller, Joseph Rheinberger (remembered now mostly for his fine church and organ music) and the composer Franz Lachner, all of them at the centre of the German musical and academic establishment.

Humperdinck first met Wagner in Naples in 1880 (Wagner was 67, Humperdinck 26), and the meeting led to Wagner inviting him to Bayreuth to help with preparing Parsifal for performance. As well as copying the score, Humperdinck’s most significant contribution was to supply a few bars of music (subsequently removed) to cover an unexpectedly lengthy scene change. The young man became part of Wagner’s ‘court’ until Wagner’s death in 1883; and while Wagner’s heady and overwhelming influence on the younger composer began to recede, Humperdinck was very much a Bayreuth insider, to the extent that in 1889 he became tutor to the Wagners’ 20-year-old son Siegfried, briefly playing an important part in the young man’s development as a composer of fairy-tale operas, and that in 1894 Cosima directed a production of Hänsel und Gretel.

Academic posts, editing work for Schott’s publishing house and music criticism show what a dynamic, thoroughly connected and national figure Humperdinck became in German music. With the success of Hänsel und Gretel, he had the means to devote more of his time to composing operas, incidental music, and a large number of songs and choral works. He wrote music for Max Reinhardt’s Shakespeare productions in Berlin, and Reinhardt commissioned Humperdinck to write the music for Das Wunder, described as a ‘Mysterienpantomime’, performed at Olympia in London at the end of 1911, a spiritual spectacular with a cast of 2,000, a 500-voice choir and an orchestra of 200 players. In this nun-on-the-run prototype, a novice tests her vocation by experiencing life’s fleshpots; but when she returns to her convent, a sadder but wiser nun, none of the sisters has missed her because the Virgin Mary took her place. Alongside the lofty and philosophic idealism inherent in Wagner’s operas, there ran in all the art forms at the turn of the century a pronounced strain of mawkish sentimentality that took the German concept of ‘gemütlich’ to saccharine extremes, involving squadrons of angels, cloying mysticism and flagrantly manipulative and emotional death scenes. Humperdinck knew the German appetite for such morbid extravagances, but in Hänsel und Gretel tempered the potential for rampant sentimentality – in particular the angel pantomime at the end of Act II – with robust humour and, of course, the beauty and natural charm of his music.

His later opera Königskinder (to the play of 1897 by Ernst Rosmer, the pen name of the playwright Elsa Bernstein, who survived the concentration camp Theresienstadt and died in 1949) was nearer in spirit to the symbolist movement, a Maeterlinck-like fairy-tale play for sophisticated adults. Humperdinck considered it to be his finest work and the premiere, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1910, was a triumph that put the Met’s earlier premiere of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West into the shade. In spite of that, however, it has not enjoyed anything like the popularity of Hänsel und Gretel – in spite of having two children and a witch in common – possibly because the heavily symbolic plot ends with the Royal Children of the title dying starved and frozen in the snow. In his other four operas, he had problems with the librettos and they have never made their way into the mainstream repertoire.

The first version of Konigskinder was as a melodrama. Humperdinck had great faith in the validity of this genre peculiar to German theatre, in which a dramatic recitation is spoken over a musical accompaniment. It was a device used by many composers, including Beethoven and Mozart, and Humperdinck raised it to a new level of expression by notating the pitch of the speech (‘Sprechnoten’), an innovation that in time became known as ‘Sprechstimme’, the weird sounding half-speech, half-singing Schoenberg would use later to unforgettable effect in Gurrelieder and Pierrot Lunaire.

Similarly, the first version of Hänsel und Gretel was a mere four songs with words, based on one of the folk-tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm, by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette (who also provided the libretto for his second opera Die sieben Geislein, The Seven Young Goats). Humperdinck then expanded this into a Singspiel, with 16 songs and piano accompaniment, with spoken text; and then early in 1891 he started work on developing it into the opera as we now know it.

The Grimms’ version of the folk tale, supposedly related to the two brothers by an old German peasant woman, underwent some significant acts of censorship in the course of various editions. The original had the mother, with the father’s collusion, deliberately abandoning the children to die in the forest. In an attempt to maintain the cosy ‘Kinder Kuche Kirche’ (children, kitchen, church) ethos of hallowed German family life as promulgated in the 19th century, the mother became a stepmother, a wicked stepmother familiar to all from the story of Snow White, for a later edition, and the father’s active participation in getting rid of the children was considerably reduced. The version that Adelheid presented to her brother for their opera concentrated all the wickedness into the figure of the cannibalistic witch, with the stepmother reverting to real mother, and both parents benign and protective of the two children, but at the end of their tethers through hunger and want.

Richard Strauss conducted the 1893 premiere, having described the work as a masterpiece, and Humperdinck’s potent mix of Wagnerian harmony and instantly memorable, almost nursery-rhyme melody, along with some highly effective orchestral passages and an unerring sense of theatre, never disappoints. Despite the debt to Wagner, Humperdinck’s music never sounds like parody or pale imitation, promising a profound philosophical subtext that is never delivered (a fate of many opera composers in thrall to Wagner – think of Chausson and his King Arthur).

Hänsel und Gretel is conventionally put on as a Christmas treat for children, as much as for the rollicking grotesqueries of wicked witches being pushed into ovens and gingerbread children restored to life as for its edifying and reassuring celebration of family values and for the fact that it is a fail-safe introduction to opera. Children respond to its boundary-defining realism and sense of justice (however rough), and the magical and spiritual elements have a logic born out of natural wish-fulfilment rather than exotic, otherworldly enchantment. Yet for all that, Hänsel und Gretel remains firmly an opera for grown-ups. Like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and with the same degree of tact and assurance, it shines a light back onto the half-forgotten needs and imperatives of childhood that never stop clamouring to be understood, although at the same time it has an inherent grasp of the relationship of child to parent and the dark forest of experience that is often closer, say, to a good episode of the cartoon series Family Guy or the implacable horror of Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter than to the blue-remembered, slightly clammy nostalgia of Peter Pan.

Hänsel und Gretel has been going strong for more than a century, and the anxieties about the harm we inflict on children have come on apace from the psychologically implicit to the violently and physically explicit, to which any number of cases involving child abuse and child pornography bear witness, and the opera has the trampoline-like flexibility to bounce around many contemporary concerns. For example, David Pountney’s 1987 production for English National Opera was memorable for the nagging possibility of child abuse, for the bittersweet, even cynical subversion of staunch 1950s family values, and for the telling playing of mother and witch by the same singer. Richard Jones’s 1998 production for Welsh National Opera had a great deal to say about the effects of hunger and need. Last year’s Glyndebourne staging turned hunger into rampant consumerist greed, but rather overdid the slapstick humour in the Witch act. Most recently, the Royal Opera House’s more conventional staging was more obviously child-friendly and boasted a fabulously grotesque, three-breasted witch.

Humperdinck’s two operatic offspring still have plenty to sing about. They endure.

Peter Reed