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Engelbert Humperdinck

Biography

German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921) is best known for his first opera, Hänsel und Gretel (1893).

Humperdinck grew up in the Rhine province of Germany, and began composing at the age of seven. He studied at the Cologne Conservatory and with Franz Lachner and Josef Rheinberger in Munich. In 1879 he won the Mendelssohn Award, and travelled to Italy, where he became friendly with Richard Wagner. Humperdinck assisted Wagner with the premiere of Parsifal (1882), famously writing a few bars of extra music during Act I’s transition to cover the scenery change. He also served as music tutor to Wagner’s son Siegfried. He was appointed a professor at Frankfurt Conservatory in 1890, and began work on Hänsel und Gretel the same year. The opera received its premiere on 23 December 1893 in Weimar, conducted by Richard Strauss, and was an instant success. Humperdinck went on to compose six more operas, including Königskinder (1910), Dornröschen (1902), Die Marketenderin (1913) and Gaudeamus (1919). Hänsel und Gretel is the only Humperdinck opera to receive regular performances worldwide, though Königskinder (the first opera to use the Sprechgesang (speech-song) technique used later by Schoenberg and Berg among others) is still occasionally performed and has received several praised recordings.

Humperdinck remained active as a composition teacher, notably in Berlin. He also wrote incidental music for the theatre, collaborating with the stage director Max Reinhardt on Shakespeare productions including The Merchant of Venice. His other compositions include songs, choral pieces, a piano quintet, a string quartet and Moorish Rhapsody for orchestra.

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