b Siegburg, September 1, 1854; d Neustrelitz, September 27, 1921
Son of a headmaster and a singer, Engelbert Humperdinck began studying piano at age seven. A performance of Albert Lortzing’s Undine (1845) inspired him to write two Singspiels, Perla and Claudine von Villa Bella in 1868. Overriding his parents’ desire to have him study architecture, the precocious Engelbert enrolled in the Cologne Conservatory, where he was recognized as being especially gifted, winning the Mozart, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer prizes.
Humperdinck’s big break came while studying abroad in Italy. After an introduction to Richard Wagner, the young composer was invited to Bayreuth in 1881 to assist with the premiere of Parsifal (1883). Perhaps overwhelmed by this experience, Humperdinck settled in as a lecturer and music critic, leaving composition in abeyance. A decade later, his sister, Adelheid Wette, asked for some folksongs to accompany her rendition of Hänsel und Gretel (1893), which eventually morphed into a fully staged opera. It was enormously successful, appearing at more than 70 theaters in its first year.
The composer stayed with the fairy tale genre for his next few staged works: Die sieben Geislein (The Seven Little Children, 1895), based on another Grimm fantasy; Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty, 1902); and Königskinder (The King’s Children, 1897), a didactic allegorical melodrama by Ernst Rosmer that exploited the Wagnerian theory of Sprechgesang. Other works include the comedy Die Heirat wider Willen (The Reluctant Marriage, 1905), after Les demoiselles de Saint-Cyr by Alexandre Dumas père; the nativity melodrama Bübchens Weihnachtstraum (The Christmas Dream, 1906); a Spielopera, Die Marketenderin (The Canteen Woman; 1914); and the pantomime Das Mirakel (The Miracle, 1911). The latter work was commissioned by the venerable stage director Max Reinhardt, who had previously engaged Humperdinck to compose incidental music for four Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Twelfth Night.
In 1910, a full-fledged version of Königskinder premiered to great acclaim at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Berlin production the following year was also greeted with enthusiasm – some critics described it as the best German opera since Parsifal. Nevertheless, with its sophisticated, yet substandard text, Königskinder never became as popular as Hänsel und Gretel, which continues to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages to this day.
(Note: there is no relation to the British singer of the same name, born Arnold George Dorsey in 1936.)