The original Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was a German composer best known for his fairytale opera, Hänsel and Gretel, which he wrote in the early 1890s. Humperdinck was strongly attracted to music from earliest childhood. He eventually succeeded in studying music, despite strong opposition from his father who had wanted his son to be an architect. At the age of twenty five, Humperdinck studied first in Cologne, and then in Munich, and was hugely influenced by Richard Wagner, whom he met in Italy.
The enchanting “fairytale play” was originally a labour of love. Humperdinck’s sister had written some verses based on the famous Grimm’s fairy tale and she asked her brother to set them to music for a Christmas party for her children. He then enlarged it to 16 songs with piano accompaniment, called it a ‘Singspiel’, and presented it to his fiancée at Christmas in 1890 as an engagement present. Hardly had the holiday passed, when he began work orchestrating it. The Singspiel gradually became a fully fledged three-act opera and was given its first performance on 23 December 1893, at Weimar. Richard Strauss conducted and – with its Wagnerian techniques and traditional German folk songs – the opera was an instant success.
Humperdinck himself considered the overture to be a prelude and is said privately to have called it ‘Children’s Life’. As with many overtures, it makes reference to songs and dances in the opera including the Witch’s spell hocus pocus and the final scene The witch is dead. It opens with a gentle hymn, ‘Evening Prayer’, which is one of the most beautiful chorales for the French horn section ever written. Humperdinck later returns to this theme for the ‘prayer and dream’ scene in the opera. A trumpet fanfare introduces a faster section, which starts serenely and gradually introduces tension. Towards the end of the overture, the composer weaves together all the various themes in an elegant counterpoint worthy of Wagner’s Meistersinger prelude. This leads to a stirring climax, after which the opening horn chorale once again establishes the dreamy mood with which the opera begins.