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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Monday, December 23

Humperdinck's "Into the Woods?"

Synopsis

On today's date in 1893, the opera "Hansel and Gretel" written by a 39-year old German composer named Engelbert Humperdinck received its premiere performance at the Court Theater of Weimar. It was conducted by a promising 29-year old composer by the name of Richard Strauss.

It quickly became an international hit, playing to packed houses in Berlin, Vienna and London. Gustav Mahler, head of the Hamburg Opera at the time, declared it a masterpiece, and parents on several continents breathed a sigh of relief: here was an opera without the sex and violence so fashionable in the media—even back in 1893! "Hansel and Gretel" quickly became a Christmastime tradition—even though there's nothing in it particular "Christmas-y" apart from children, sugary things to eat, and the appearance of an angel or two.

Initially, Humperdinck didn't even want to write anything as silly as an opera on "Hansel and Gretel." He was a serious young protégé of Richard Wagner who had helped copy the orchestral parts for Wagner's final opera, "Parsifal."

It was his sister who talked him in to writing some music for a children's play she had prepared on the familiar fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. At some point, Humperdinck must have realized he not only could—but should—work his sister's play into a full-blown opera, which would blend Wagner's complex orchestral technique with a simple but universally appealing story that would charm old and young alike.

Music Played in Today's Program

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) Hansel and Gretel Suite Royal Philharmonic; Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI 68736

Additional Information

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