Wagnerian Influences in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’
On the 23rd of December 1893, Hansel and Gretel, an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, premiered in Weimar, under the baton of Richard Strauss. Humperdinck composed nine works in total for the stage. But Hansel and Gretel brought him the biggest critical acclaim. The libretto, written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, was loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale with the same title.
The Grimms travelled all around Germany collecting allegedly authentic folk stories. Their collection of tales “reflected the ideology of 19th century German Romanticists: the stories were intended to infuse national pride and awaken the consciousness of the German peoples who were politically alienated but united by culture and language… These Romantics were seeking a spiritual renaissance: they found their cultural soul in their ancient myths, legends, and epics, a vast legacy that they believed possessed powerful universal truths that were waiting to be reborn and revealed again… [Their tales] generally focused on intra-family strife that was at times violent, sibling rivalries, or parents’ jealousy of their growing children. They particularly emphasized the battle between good and evil, ensuring that evil was always dutifully punished and that good was rewarded.” (Burton D. Fisher, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel). Hansel and Gretel is maintained in exactly the same convention. The struggle between the good – represented by the siblings, and evil – represented by the Witch and the sinister stepmother, ends with a worthy moral lesson – the stepmother dies, the wicked Witch is punished for her wrongdoings and Hansel and Gretel rewarded for their troubles. Although, whether they should be regarded as the archetype of good in the story is questionable; after all, Gretel pushes the Witch into the oven and leaves her inside to perish.
Famous twentieth-century psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim proposed several in-depth interpretations of Grimms’ fairy tales. They explained them as “manifestations of universal fears and desires: children’s development and initiation toward maturity. In many respects, the Hansel and Gretel story is archetypal, no different than the growth to maturity of Tamino and Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or that of Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring.” (Fisher).
Humperdinck’s opera is reminiscent of Wagner’s Ring as much in the libretto’s story line as in the musical themes. Humperdinck was largely under the influence of the composer. In 1880, he met Wagner who invited him to Bayreuth to assist with the premiere of Parsifal. Eventually, Wagner impressed with Humperdinck’s talent, entrusted him with composing a bridge passage between the first two scenes of Parsifal, which was then performed during the premiere. The collaboration with Wagner influenced Humperdinck’s later style, which is also noticeable in Hansel and Gretel. “ There is one episode in Hansel and Gretel in which Humperdinck’s orchestra seems to transcend Wagner: in the second act, as darkness falls and the children prepare to return home, Hansel tries to reassure Gretel that they will be safe, but she becomes hysterical. Humperdinck translates Gretel’s fear in orchestral terms: the theme associated with “fright” is first introduced in a slow tempo by the English horn, but then it is accelerated as it travels from one instrument to another. The theme is then combined with “barking” noises, the new theme of the Witch, and then with themes suggesting the blinking and flashing of the “fireflies”. In another “Wagnerian” example, the Waltz celebrating the demise of the Witch ultimately combines and interweaves three different themes.” (Fisher).
The libretto of the opera skipped more gruesome elements of the original tale to make it lighter and probably more approachable for children. But the fact that the audiences have to wait until Act III to see the Witch and her gingerbread house, plus the somewhat heavy Wagnerian themes, make the opera’s suitability for children questionable. Nevertheless, the premiere of Hansel and Gretel was a huge success and the opera has become popular Christmas entertainment ever since.