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Engelbert Humperdinck: Engelbert Humperdinck (b. Sieburg, 1 Sept 1854; d. Neusterlitz, 27 Sept 1921).
It is one of music's little ironies that the only opera by which Engelbert Humperdinck is widely remembered today, Hansel und Gretel, was composed almost by accident. He was a composition student of outstanding promise both in Cologne and Munich, and in 1879 his winning the Mendelssohn Prize gave him the funds to travel to Italy. There he met Richard Wagner, who invited him to Bayreuth to assist him in the preparation of Parsifal. Helping to write out the orchestral parts of this sacred festival drama, then serving as stage manager for its premiere, Engelbert Humperdinck inevitably fell under Wagner's influence to some extent. Soon he was on his travels again, however, having won a further scholarship which allowed him to go back to Italy, then on to France and Spain, where he became a professor at the Barcelona Conservatoire in 1885. Two years later he returned to his native Germany, taking up teaching again in Frankfurt.
His career as composer began in 1880 with a Humoresque for orchestra and some choral works which were also well received. Then his sister, who had written a play for children based on the Grimm fairy-tale Hansel und Gretel, asked him to supply a little music for it. Engelbert Humperdinck complied with some reluctance, but later became so fascinated by the story that he extended the simple music he had already composed into a full-length opera. He sent the manuscript to Richard Strauss, who wrote back, 'This is truly a masterpiece of the first rank', and arranged for its premiere in Weimar on the 23rd December 1893. The familiar story of Hansel and Gretel, who successfully turn the tables on the evil witch who catches them in the woods at night, is told with admirable directness, the somewhat heavy, Wagnerian-style orchestral writing leavened by the catchy children's songs scattered through the score. The opera quickly became popular, arriving in London at Daly's Theatre in an English translation on the Boxing Day of the following year, then at Covent Garden in 1896. It became a favourite Christmas entertainment the whole world over, winning the distinction of being the first complete opera ever to be broadcast in both Europe (1923) and the United States (1931). It was a success that Engelbert Humperdinck was never to repeat, so that he was obliged to return to academic life in 1900 as Director of the Berlin Meisterschule of Composition.
Fortunately this did not entirely mark the end of the road for Engelbert Humperdinck the composer. After several operatic failures he turned his hand to writing incidental music for various dramatic productions, notably of Shakespeare's As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, though he gained the widest recognition in this field with his music for Max Reinhardt's production of The Miracle in 1911. The previous year he had come close to a second operatic success with Kbnigskinder (The Royal Children) at the Metropolitan in New York, but this is now virtually unknown outside Germany. While there are still people in the world who are young in heart, however, Engelbert Humperdinck will be remembered as the composer of Hansel und Gretel.
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