Engelbert Humperdinck

1854 1921

Engelbert Humperdinck

Composer

Biography

Engelbert Humperdinck was a renowned German composer and teacher of the late 19 th century. Humperdinck’s most well-known work, Hänsel und Gretel, has become a standard in the opera genre. His music is individualistic yet shows the influence ofRichard Wagner and his own contemporaries Richard Strauss andGustav Mahler.

Engelbert Humperdinck was born in Siegburg on 1 September 1854 to parents who found music important but disapproved his desire to study it at conservatory level. Humperdinck received piano lessons as a young boy and completed his first composition, the piano duetZu Mantua in Banden, at the age of seven.  By the age of 13, Humperdinck had already composed two stage works, a Singspiel Perlaand Claudine von Villa Bella.

After finishing elementary school in Siegburg in 1869, he continued his education in Paderborn at the Theodorianum Gymnasium. In Paderborn, Humperdinck was active in the choir of the Paderborn Cathedral.  Around this time, he also composedJubelhymnus for choir and orchestra (1871) and Ave Maria for tenor and string quartet (1871). Composers such asMozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Weber were of great influence on Humperdinck in his early years. Unfortunately, these works were all destroyed in late 1874 by a fire at the family home.

From 1871, Humperdinck was forced by his parents to study architecture instead of music. This arrangement only lasted a year however, as the directory of the Cologne Conservatory, Ferdinand Hiller, was able to use his influence to allow Humperdinck to study at the conservatory.

Humperdinck studied at the conservatory for four years with Hiller, Gustav Jensen and Friedrich Gernsheim for harmony and counterpoint.  He studied piano with Eduard Mertke and organ with Franz Weber. As a student, Humperdinck received the opportunity to hear Wagner operas for the first time. He was awarded the prestigious Frankfurt Mozart Prize in 1876 which included a stipend allowing him to travel to Munich the following year.

Continuing his studies at the Königliche Musikschule, Humperdinck received counterpoint and fugue lessons from Joseph Rheinberger and private composition lessons with Franz Lachner, on Hiller’s recommendation. While in Munich, Humperdinck composed preliminary versions of the cantatasDie Wallfahrt nach Kevlaarand Das Glück von Edenhall, which were premiered respectively in 1878 and 1879. Another of Humperdinck’s student works,Humoreske for small orchestra (1878-9), was performed as a comedy overture at the court theatre at Munich.

One of Humperdinck’s fellow students, Oskar Mertz, had founded the society Orden vom Gral, which aimed to promote the music and ideals ofRichard Wagner and consisted of young musicians, artists and academics. Through this society he was able to see the Munich premiere ofDer Ring des Nibelungen.

After winning the Berlin Mendelssohn Prize in 1879, Humperdinck was able to study for a year in Italy. He departed late in 1879 for Rome, where he became acquainted with Giovanni Sgambati. He also met Wagner while in Italy. Humperdinck took advantage of his time in Italy by discovering the local folksong and traditions of the people of southern Italy and Sicily. He also completed music forDie Frösche, a comedy by Aristophane, composed for the Munch court opera at the request of its director Karl von Perfall.

After spending some time at Wagner’s residence in Naples, he travelled to Bayreuth, at Wagner’s request, to help with Parsifal. Humperdinck spent the years 1881 and 1882 copying the score to the opera. During this time, he also became director of Anton Seidl's Bayreuther Musik-Dilettantenverein, where he was able to introduce orchestral and chamber works. Wagner appointed Humperdinck director of a boys’ chorus for Parsifal during his absence.

After the premiere in 1882, Humperdinck returned briefly to Rome and then to Paris. In France he became a member of the Jean Jacques Gabriel Monod’sCercle St Simon, and thus was introduced to many leading figures such as Chabrier, Lamoureux,Saint-Saëns and d'Indy. He went to Venice in December to assist in the rehearsals for Wagner’s Symphony in C.

Wagner tried to arrange a teaching post for Humperdinck at the Venice Conservatory, but because of political tension and an anti-German sentiment, the Conservatory chose not to employ a German. Upon returning to Paris in 1883, Humperdinck learned of Wagner’s death and felt deeply conflicted. Though he believed his own musical style was constricted by Wagner, he still had much appreciation for him. Evidence of the fading of Wagner’s influence can be heard over the following decade.

During the early 1880s, Humperdinck toured Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco and Tangiers. He also worked briefly as deputy Kapellmeister at the municipal theatre in Cologne. The premiere of Humperdinck’s revised version ofDas Glück von Edenhallwas heard in Cologne in 1883, with the help of Hiller’s successor, Franz Wüllner. The following year, Humperdinck began his Moroccan-inspired orchestral suite,Maurische Rhapsodie.

Humperdinck met Richard Strauss in early 1885 and the two became lifelong friends. It was Strauss who suggested that Humperdinck visit Alfred Krupp, leading to his employment as a pianist at the Villa Hügel. Later that year he was appointed to teach theory and composition at the Barcelona Conservatory, though he was displeased by the local attitude towards German music. While in Barcelona he wrote a method on harmony and a second version ofDie Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar.He left Spain the next summer and found a position teaching harmony and directing the choir of the Cologne Conservatory for nearly a year.

The premiere of his revised Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar took place in Cologne and was unanimously successful, leading to a collaboration with the Mainz publishing house. Other projects in the late 1880s included an arrangement of Wagner’sTristan und Isolde for two pianos, eight hands, with voices.

After a bout of sickness, Humperdinck worked as a concert critic for Bonner Zeitung and then as a reader and editor for Schott. While at Schott, Humperdinck edited works by Auber and later wrote opera critiques for Mainz and theMainzer Tageblatt.

In 1890, Humperdinck was introduced to the music of Hugo Wolf and began his work onHänsel und Gretel, first composing four songs based on text written by his sister. The work was developed into a Singspiel with 16 songs and piano accompaniment. He later orchestrated the work, finally finishing in September of 1893. The opera was immediately successful and was premiered in Weimar under the direction of Richard Strauss; Gustav Mahler later gave the Hamburg premiere.

In 1892, Humperdinck’s hearing began to fail, though he continued to compose. He worked on incidental music forKönigskinder, based on a poem turned fairy tale by his daughter. He later revised this work as a melodrama featuring the first notated Sprechgesang. Again, Humperdinck experienced success after its premier in January 1897. It was expanded to a full opera in 1910, by which point it had already been performed in at least 130 theatres.

In the late 1880s, Humperdinck composed primarily songs for voice and piano. He also sketched a comic opera and completed hisMauriche Rhapsodie for large orchestra, which was premiered in London.

Humperdinck was appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin and became a governor of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein and of the Genossenschaft Deutscher Tonsetzer. He began working on his operaDornröschen (1902) in 1901, but further composed very little. The opera was coolly received,  but not due to a lack of excellent music. The failure was mostly due to a subpar libretto, a problem he encountered quick a lot in his later years.

Humperdinck’s most well-known work, Hänsel und Gretel, has become a standard in the opera genre and received its American premiere in 1905 by the Metropolitan Opera. His opera version ofKönigskinder was also premiered by the Metropolitan Opera and was more popular than the other opera playing in New York, Puccini’sLa fanciulla del West.

Back in Berlin, Humperdinck was appointed the successor of Max Bruch at the Königliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He was known as a very tolerant teacher who encouraged his students to break the academic rules in order to express their own styles.

After a series of strokes and the death of his wife, Humperdinck composed very little. His final stage work was the operaGaudeamus (1915-8). He also composed a few songs and a String Quartet before his retirement in 1920. Before his death he completedSix Children’s Songs (1921) for chorus and piano and the Sonatine in G major for four violins (1921).

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