Many people are surprised to discover that Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was first and foremost a 19th-century German composer and not, as they imagined, a 1960s-70s Anglo-Indian crooner. (Indeed, the later Engelbert Humperdinck, famous for hits such as ‘Release Me’ and ‘The Last Waltz’, was born Arnold George Dorsey; he took his name from the German composer.) Humperdinck got his first big break in his mid-20s when he made the acquaintance of Richard Wagner. He assisted Wagner on his final opera, Parsifal, by copying out the score by hand. Once the opera was in rehearsal in 1882 a technical glitch meant that there was not enough music for one of the scene changes. In exasperation, Wagner asked Humperdinck to compose music to fill the gap and the younger composer obliged. Humperdinck’s most famous work, the opera Hansel and Gretel, took shape in the early 1890s. Ironically, he did not set out to compose an opera – the work started out as a kind of domestic entertainment for the family of his sister, and it escalated from there. The finished work was declared a ‘masterpiece’ by Richard Strauss, conductor of the first performance in 1893. Hansel and Gretel proved to be tremendously successful. Indeed, none of Humperdinck’s subsequent works (the best known of which is the opera Königskinder) proved to be as successful as his first opera.
© Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra