IN many respects “Hänsel und Gretel” is the most interesting opera composed since “Parsifal,” and, by being an exception, proves the rule to which I directed some remarks in the chapter on “Don Giovanni.” For a quarter of a century the minds of musical critics and historians have been occupied at intervals with the question whether or not progress in operatic composition is possible on the lines laid down by Wagner. Of his influence upon all the works composed within a period twice as long there never was a doubt ; but this influence manifested itself for the greater part in modifications of old methods rather than the invention of new. In Germany attempts have been made over and over again to follow Wagner’s system, but though a few operas thus produced have had a temporary success, in the end it has been found that the experiments have all ended in failures. It was but natural that the fact should provoke discussion. If no one could write successfully in Wagner’s manner, was there a future for the lyric drama outside of a return to the style which he had striven to overthrow? If there was no such future, was the fact not proof of the failure of the Wagnerian movement as a creative force? The question was frequently answered in a spirit antagonistic to Wagner; but many of the answers were overhasty and short-sighted. It needed only that one should come who had thoroughly assimilated Wagner’s methods and had the genius to apply them in a spirit of individuality, to demonstrate that it was possible to continue the production of lyric dramas without returning to the hackneyed manner of the opposing school. The composer who did this was Engelbert Humperdinck, and it is particularly noteworthy that his demonstration acquired its most convincing force from the circumstance that instead of seeking his material in the myths of antiquity, as Wagner did, he found them in the nursery.
While emphasizing this fact, however, it is well not to forget that in turning to the literature of folklore for an operatic subject Humperdinck was only carrying out one of the principles for which Wagner contended. The Mährchen of a people are quite as much a reflex of their intellectual, moral, and emotional life as their heroic legends and myths. In fact, they are frequently only the fragments of stories which, when they were created, were embodiments of the most profound and impressive religious conceptions of which the people were capable. The degeneration of the sun god of our Teutonic forefathers into the Hans of Grimm’s tale, who could not learn to shiver and shake, through the Sinfiotle of the “Volsunga Saga” and the Siegfried of the “Nibelungenlied,” is so obvious that it needs no commentary. Neither should the translation of Brynhild into Dornroschen, the Sleeping Beauty of our children’s tales. The progress illustrated in these examples is that from myth to Mahrchen, and Humperdinck in writing his fairy opera, or nursery opera if you will, paid tribute to German nationality in the same coin that Wagner did when he created his “Ring of the Nibelung.” Everything about “Hänsel und Gretel” is charming to those who can feel their hearts warm toward the family life and folklore of Germany, of which we are, or ought to be, inheritors. The opera originated, like Thackeray’s delightful fireside pantomime for great and small children, “The Rose and the Ring.” The composer has a sister, Frau Adelheid Wette, wife of a physician in Cologne. She, without any particular thought of literary activity, had been in the habit of writing little plays for production within the family circle. For these plays her brother provided the music. In this way grew the first dramatic version of the story of Hänsel and Gretel, which, everybody who has had a German nurse or has read Grimm’s fairy tales knows, tells the adventures of two children, a brother and sister, who, driven into the woods, fell into the toils of the Crust Witch (Knusperhexe), who enticed little boys and girls into her house, built of gingerbread and sweetmeats, and there ate them up. The original performers of the principal characters in the play were the daughters of Frau Wette. Charmed with the effect of the fanciful little comedy, Herr Humperdinck suggested its expansion into a piece of theatrical dimensions; and the opera was the result. It was brought forward for the first time in public on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, and created so profound an impression that it speedily took possession of all the principal theatres of Germany, crossed the channel into England, made its way into Holland, Belgium, and Italy, and reached America within two years. Its first performance in New York was in an English version at Daly’s Theatre on October 8, 1895. There were drawbacks in the representation which prevented a success, but after it had been incorporated in the German repertory of the Metropolitan Opera-house in the season of 18951896 it became as much of a permanency as any opera in the list.
Humperdinck has built up the musical structure of “Hänsel und Gretel” in the Wagnerian manner, but has done it with so much fluency and deftness that a musical layman might listen to it from beginning to end without suspecting the fact, save from the occasional employment of what may be called Wagnerian idioms. The little work is replete with melodies which, though original, bear a strong family resemblance to two little songs which the children sing at the beginning of the first and second acts, and which are veritable nursery songs in Germany. These ditties and the principal melodies consorted with them contribute characteristic motifs out of which the orchestral part is constructed; and these motifs are developed in accordance with an interrelated scheme every bit as logical and consistent as the scheme at the bottom of “Tristan und Isolde.” As in that stupendous musical tragedy, the orchestra takes the part played by the chorus in Greek tragedy, so in “Hänsel und Gretel” it unfolds the thoughts, motives, and purposes of the personages of the play and lays bare the simple mysteries of the plot and counterplot. The careless happiness of the children, the apprehension of the parents, promise and fulfilment, enchantment and disenchantment all these things are expounded by the orchestra in a fine flood of music, highly ingenious in contrapuntal texture, rich in instrumental color, full of rhythmical life, on the surface of which the idyllic play floats buoyantly, like a water-lily which starts and slides Upon the level in little puffs of wind, Tho’ anchored to the bottom.
It is necessary, because the music is so beautiful and also because the piece, like the “Leonore” overtures of Beethoven and the “Meistersinger” prelude of Wagner (of which, indeed, it is a pretty frank imitation) is a sort of epitome of the play, to spend some time with the prelude to ” Hänsel und Gretel.” After I have done this I shall say what I have to say about the typical phrases of the score as they are reached, and shall leave to the reader the agreeable labor of discovering the logical scheme underlying their introduction and development, The prelude is built out of a few themes which are associated with some of the most significant elements of the play. Not one of them is a personal label, as is widely, but erroneously, supposed to be the case in Wagner’s dramas. They stand for dramatic ideas and agencies, and when these are passed in review, as it is purposed shall be done presently, it will be found that not the sinister but the amiable features of the story have been chosen for celebration in the overture. Here, too, in what may be called the ethical meaning of the prelude, Humperdinck has followed the example of Wagner in the prelude to his comedy. Simply for the sake of identification hereafter names will be attached to the themes out of which the prelude is constructed and which come from the chief melodic factors of the opera. The most important of these is the melody sung by the horns at the beginning.
Let it be called the “Prayer Theme,” for the melody is that of the prayer which the little ones utter before laying themselves down to sleep in the wood. The melody seems to be associated through-out the opera with the idea of divine guardianship, and is first heard in the first scene, when Hansel, having complained of hunger, Gretel gently chides him and holds out comfort in the words (here I use the English version of the opera) :
When past bearing is our grief God, the Lord, will send relief.
Humperdinck’s splendid contrapuntal skill shows itself in a most varied use of this theme.. Once in the prelude it appears in three different forms simultaneously, and in an augmented shape it forms the substratum of the prelude, while other themes are cunningly woven above it. The second theme is an exceedingly bright and energetic little phrase with which the rapid portion of the prelude begins. It shall be called the “Counter-Charm” theme, because it is the melodic phrase which serves as a formula with which the spell which the witch puts upon her victims is released by her as well as by the children who overhear it. When it occurs in the play it has this form.
Words and music come from the mouth of Gretel when she releases Hansel from the spell in the third act, and from that of Hansel when he performs the same office for the gingerbread children. After two phrases of minor significance there comes the “Theme of Fulfilment,” so called because of its association with the answer to the prayer for protection in the woods. Thus it forms part of the dawn music at the beginning of the third act when the children are awakened by the Dewman. It makes up the original part of the song of this Dawn Fairy and is the melody to which Hansel and Gretel sing their explanation to the wondering gingerbread children.
The angels whispered in dreams to us in silent night What this happy day has brought to light.
There is a fourth theme, the “Theme of Rejoicing,” which is the inspiration of the dance which the gingerbread children execute around Hansel and Gretel to. celebrate their release from the enchantment put upon them by the wicked Witch.
At the parting of the curtain we see the interior of the hut of a poor broom-maker. Specimens of his handiwork hang upon the walls. A tiny window beside the door in the background shows a glimpse of the forest beyond. Hansel and Gretel are at work, he making brooms, she knitting. Gretel sings an old German folk-song, beginning thus.
All the melodies in this act have a strong family resemblance, but this song, a cradle song of the long ago, is the only one not composed by Humperdinck. Miss Constance Bache has failed, in her English translation, to reproduce the quaint sentiment of the old song, which calls attention to the fact that all geese are shoeless. It is not for want of leather, the shoemaker has that in plenty, but he has no lasts, and so the poor things must needs go barefoot. The song invites a curious historical note. “Suse” and “Sause” were common expressions in the cradle songs which used to be sung to the Christ-child in the German churches at Christmas when the decadent nativity plays (now dwarfed to a mere tableau of the manger, the holy parents, and the adoring shepherds and magi) were still cultivated. From the old custom termed Kindelwiegen, which remained in the German Protestant Church centuries after the Reformation, Luther borrowed the refrain, “Susaninne” for one of his Christmas chorales. The beginning of the little song which Gretel sings used to be “Sause liebe Ninne,” which, of course, is Luther’s “Susaninne.” The song dominates the whole of the first act. Out of portions of its melody grows a large part of the instrumental accompaniment to the melodious recitative in which the dialogue is carried on. Through expressive changes, not only in this act, but later also, it provides a medium for much dramatic expression. A little motif with which the orchestra introduces it develops into a song, with which Hansel greets his sister’s announcement that a neighbor ,has sent in some milk, and when Gretel, as soon as she does, attempts to teach Hansel how to dance, the delightful little polka tune which the two sing is almost a twin brother to the cradle song.
It is the gift of milk which directly brings the sinister element into the play. The mother comes home weary, hungry, and out of humor. She finds that the children have neglected their work, and while attempting to punish them she overturns the milk jug. It is the last straw, and, with threats of a terrible beating if they do not bring home a heaping basket of berries for supper, she drives the little ones out into the forest. Exhausted, she falls asleep beside the hearth. From the distance comes the voice of the broom-maker trolling a song which is now merry, now sad. He enters his hut in great good humor, however, for he has sold all his wares and comes with his basket loaded with good things to eat and no inconsiderable quantity of kümmel in his stomach. Till now, save for the few moments which followed the entrance of the mother, the music has echoed nothing but childish joy. All this is changed, however, when the father, inquiring after his children, learns that they have gone into the woods. He tells his wife the legend of the Witch of the Ilsenstein and her dreadful practices, while the orchestra builds up a gruesome picture out of fragments from the innocent song which had opened the act. Fearful for the fate of her children, the mother dashes into the forest, followed by the broom-maker.
A musical delineation of a witch’s ride separates the first and second acts. It is a garishly colored composition beginning with a pompous proclamation of the “Theme of the Witch”.
This is interwoven with echoes from the song of the broom-maker, and, as might be expected, a great deal of chromatic material, such as seems indispensable in musical pictures of the super-natural. Towards the close the weird elements gradually disappear and give way to a peaceful forest mood, pervaded by a long-drawn melody from the trumpet, accompanied by sounds suggestive of the murmuring of trees. The parting of the curtain discovers a scene in the depths of the woods. Gretel sits under a large tree weaving a garland of flowers. Hansel is picking strawberries. The sun is setting. Gretel sings another folk-song, the meaning of which is lost to those who are unfamiliar with the song in the original. It is a riddle of the German nursery : “A little man stands in the forest, silent and alone, wearing a purplish red mantle. He stands on one leg, and wears a little black cap. Who is the little man?” Answer:the Hagebutte; i.e. the rose apple, fruit of the rose tree. After the Witch’s ride, nothing could be more effective in restoring the ingenuous mood essential to the play than this song, which is as graceful and pretty in melody as it is arch in sentiment. With the dialogue which follows, a variation of the closing cadence of the song is sweetly blended by the orchestra. Hansel crowns Gretel Queen of the Woods with the floral wreath, and is doing mock reverence to her when a cuckoo calls from a distance. The children mimic the cry, then playfully twit the bird with allusions to its bad practice of eating the eggs of other birds and neglecting its own offspring. Then they play at cuckoo, eating the strawberries in lieu of eggs, until the basket is empty. They re-member the threat of their mother, and want to fill the basket again, but darkness is settling around them. They lose their way, and their agitated fancy sees spectres and goblins all around them. Hansel tries to reassure his sister by hallooing, and scores of voices send back echoes, while the cuckoo continues its lonely cry. Gretel is overcome by fear for a moment, and Hansel, too, succumbs to fright when he sees a figure approaching through the mist. But it is not a goblin, as the children think only the Sandman, a little gray, stoop-shouldered old man, carrying a bag. He smiles reassuringly and sings a song of his love for children, while he sprinkles sleep-sand in the eyes of the pair. The second part of his song introduces another significant phrase into the score; it is the “Theme of Promise,” to which the Sleep Fairy sings the assurance that the angels give protection and send sweet dreams to good children while they are asleep.
“Sandman has been here,” says Hansel, sleepily; “let us say our evening blessing.” They kneel and repeat the prayer to the melody which has been called the “Prayer Theme,” then go to sleep in each other’s arms. All has been dark. Now a bright light pierces the mist, which gathers itself into a cloud that gradually takes the shape of a staircase reaching apparently from heaven to earth. The orchestra plays a beautiful and extended piece of music, of which the principal melodic material is derived from the themes of “Prayer” and “Promise,” while seven pairs of angels descend the cloud-stairs and group themselves about the little sleepers, and a golden host extends upward to the celestial abode. By this time the scene is filled with a glory of light, and the curtain closes.
The greater part of the dramatic story is told in the third act. The opening of the curtain is preceded by a brief instrumental number, the principal elements of which are a new theme and the “Theme of Fulfilment.” The significance of the latter in this place is obvious : the promised benison to the children has been received. The former theme is a pretty illustration of what has already been said of Humperdinck’s consistent devotion to the folk-song spirit in his choice of melodies. The phrase has an interrogatory turn and is, in fact, the melody of the mysterious question which comes from the house of the Witch a few minutes later, when the children help themselves to some of the toothsome material out of which the magic structure is built.
Simple as this little phrase is, it is yet a draught from a song-game that comes nigh to being universal. No phrase is more prevalent among nursery songs than that made up of the first six notes. The original German song itself has come down to American and English children, and enthusiastic folklorists see in it a relic of the ancient tree worship and an invocation of Frau Holda, the goddess of love and spring of our Teutonic ancestors. It is the first phrase of the German, “Ringel, ringel, reihe,” which our children know as “Ring around a rosy.” It was an amiable conceit of the composer’s to put such a tune into the mouth of the Witch at a moment of terror in the play. By it he publishes his intention not to be too utterly gruesome in his treatment of the hag. This intention, moreover, he fulfils in the succeeding scene. The Witch appears weird and wicked enough in appearance, in her discordant laugh, and the instrumental delineation of her, but when she sings to the children, she is almost ingratiating. Of course, she is seeking to lure them to a horrible fate, but though she does not deceive them for even a moment, her musical manner is much like theirs, except when she is whirling through the air on a broomstick.
When the curtain opens on the third act the scene is the same as at the close of the second, except that morning is breaking and the background is filled with mist, which is slowly dissipated during the song of the Dewman (Dawn Fairy), who sprinkles dew on the sleeping children as he sings. The beginning of his song is like that of the Sandman, but its second part consists of the melody of “Fulfilment” instead of that of “Promise.” Gretel is the first to awake, and she wakes Hansel by imitating the song of the lark. He springs up with the cry of chanticleer, and lark’s trill and cock’s crow are mingled in a most winsome duet, which runs out into a description of the dream. They look about them to point out the spot where the angels had been. By this time the last veil of mist has withdrawn from the background, and in the place of the forest of firs the gingerbread house stands glistening with barley sugar in the sunshine. To the left is the Witch’s oven, to the right a cage, all inside a fence of gingerbread children. A duet of admiration and amazement follows in a new, undulatory melody. Hansel wants to enter the house, but Gretel holds him back. Finally they decide to venture so far as to nibble a bit. Hansel stealthily breaks a piece of gingerbread off the corner, and at once the voice of the Witch is heard in the phrase already quoted :
Nibble, nibble, mousekin, Who’s nibbling at my housekin?
After a moment of alarm Gretel picks up a bit of the gingerbread which had fallen from Hansel’s hand at the sound of the Witch’s voice, and the duet of enjoyment is resumed in a higher key. Then a second piece of gingerbread is stolen and munched, and the weird voice is heard again ; but this time without alarm. The Witch stealthily approaches and throws a noose about Hansel’s neck. They have fallen into her clutches, and in a luring song she tells of the sweetmeats which she keeps in the house for children of whom she is fond. Hansel and Gretel are not won over, however, by her blandishments, and try to run away. The Witch extends her magic wand and chants the charm which deprives her victims of the power of motion, beginning.
This phrase stands in the score as the antithesis of the “Counter-Charm” mentioned in the analysis of the prelude. It illustrates an ingenious constructive device. Desiring to send Gretel on an errand a moment later, the Witch disenchants her with the formula,
Hocus, pocus, elderbush,
already described as the first theme of the Allegro in the prelude. It is an inversion of the theme of enchantment, a proceeding analogous to reversing the rod, or spelling the charm backward. Wagner makes use of the same device in “Götterdämmerung” when he symbolizes the end of things by inverting the symbol of the original elements in “Das Rheingold.” The Witch now discloses her true character, and in the exuberance of her demoniac glee indulges in a ride on a broom, first repeating some jargon in imitation of the cabalistic formulas common to mediaeval necromancy. Frau Wette’s lines are partly a copy of the Witch’s multiplication table in Goethe’s “Faust.” The play hurries to its catastrophe. Gretel gives Hansel power of motion by repeating the “Counter-Charm,” which she has overheard from the Witch, and the children push the hag into her own oven while she is heating it to roast Hansel. The two then break into a jubilant waltz, which the composer designates the Knusperwalzer, i.e. the “Crust Waltz.” A frightful explosion destroys the Witch’s oven, and with the crash the gingerbread covering falls from the children, who formed the fence around the house. They are unable to move, being still partly under a spell, but when Hansel repeats the “Counter-Charm,” they crowd around their deliverers and sing their gratitude. The parents of Hansel and Gretel, who have been hunting them, appear on the scene. Out of the ruins of the oven the happy children drag the figure of the Witch baked into a monstrous gingerbread, and dance around it hand in hand. At the last all join in a swelling utterance of the “Prayer Theme” to the words, “When need is greatest God is nearest.”