Overture to “Hansel and Gretel”
The overture to the opera “Hansel and Gretel” is one of the most charming pages of post-Wagnerian music. The text of the opera, based upon the Grimm fairy tale, was written by Humperdinck’s sister, Frau Adelheid Wette, for her children. Humperdinck had more than once composed music for such entertainments. He was much intrigued by the story of the two children lost in the wood and captured by a witch, whom they outwit by learning her spell, thus saving themselves and other children she had turned into gingerbread.
In due course the composer suggested that this subject be arranged in operatic form, and promised to write the score. The conductor Hermann Levi learned of the project. Later he obtained Humperdinck’s permission to perform at a Munich concert the “Dream Pantomime”the music for the scene in which the children fall asleep in the dark wood and are visited in their dreams by angels who descend a Jacob’s Ladder and surround them. From that moment the fate of the opera was sealed. Levi wished to produce it, but a young man named Richard Strauss got ahead of him. Strauss, twenty-nine years of age, was then second conductor at the Weimar Court Theater. He asked permission to examine the score, and the enthusiasm of the composer of vast and problematic tone-poems for this delightful and innocent creation was unbounded. Ile wrote Humperdinck, in words that hold as true now as they did then: “It is a masterwork of the first rank…. What fresh humor, what charming, naive melody, what art and delicacy in the handling of the orchestra, what fine invention, what splendid. polyphonyand all original, new and so genuinely German! My dear friend, you are a great master, who has given to our people a work which they scarcely deserve, although it is to be hoped that they will soon value it at its true importance.”
Humperdinck’s fairy opera produced at WeimarDecember 23, 1893. It quickly spread through Germany to the rest of Europe and to America. It is Humperdinck’s one important work, the only music from his pen that will outlive him. There are such mencomposers of one opera who concentrate in a single score all their genius. Humperdinck was reproached, and with some justice; for his employment of the immense Wagnerian orchestra for the music of a child’s fairy tale. This was instinctive with him. He was a Wagner disciple. He had helped Wagner prepare the “Parsifal” performances of Mo and 1881 at Bayreuth. He was the teacher in composition of Wagner’s son, the late Siegfried. The immense, luminous, polyphonic Wagnerian orchestra was his natural instrumental speech. He did not plagiarize Wagner’s music, but employed his orchestra. When Humperdinck dressed his themes in elaborate counterpoint he was not only following Wagnerian method but that substantial manner of composition which is the expression of the German nature. It is true that the orchestration of “Hansel and Gretel” is weighty, that a barrelful of notes taken out of the score at certain places would only clarify it. But this proportion of sediment, as Huneker remarked of Brahms, is naturally a part of the brew. It does not contaminate the flavor. The overture begins and ends with the prayer sung by the children before they fall asleep in the wood. The quick movement is ushered in by the solo trumpet with the music of the witch’s spell, heard in the opera to the words, “Hocus, pocus, elderbush.” Other themes of the fairy play are woven into the fabric of the melodious, apple-checked music.