Engelbert Humperdinck

Siegburg, NEAR Bonn, 1854 – Neustrelitz, 1921

The son of a schoolmaster, Humperdinck began taking piano lessons at the age of 7, and sang in the choir at the church in his hometown. Admitted into the Cologne conservatory in 1872, he was awarded a scholarship in 1876, which allowed him to further his training in Munch. He had been a fan of opera since his teen years, when he first encountered the genre through a performance of Undine, a fairytale opera by Lortzing. An even more important discovery was made in 1878, when he attended a performance of The Ring of the Nibelung, which made a lasting impression on him. He met Richard Wagner two years later, when the composer invited him to Bayreuth to take part in the production of Parsifal. He then spent several years in Spain, teaching at the Barcelona Conservatory, before returning to Germany where he devoted himself to conducting, writing musical criticism and, above all, teaching. He was into his forties before he managed to make his mark as a composer of operas with Hänsel und Gretel, his greatest success, which premiered in Weimar in 1893, conducted by a colleague who went on to become a friend, Richard Strauss. Inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairytale, the work has always been well loved by children, as well as by adults who appreciate its blend of folk and formal music, refined orchestration, and judicious use of the Wagnerian technique of leitmotif. Humperdinck would never again enjoy such great success. It wasn’t until 1910 before another of his operas brought him any attention: Königskinder (The King’s Children), which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, was soon forgotten before enjoying a brief renaissance in the last quarter of the 20th century. As a renowned teacher, Humperdinck had several big names as students, including Siegfried Wagner—his mentor’s son—, as well as Kurt Weill. A music festival bearing his name is held each year in his hometown.