A Book of Operas
Henry Edward Krehbiel

Part 5 out of 5

In many respects "Hänsel und Gretel" is the most interesting opera
composed since "Parsifal," and, by being an exception, proves
the rule to which I directed some remarks in the chapter on "Don
Giovanni." For a quarter of a century the minds of musical critics
and historians have been occupied at intervals with the question
whether or not progress in operatic composition is possible on the
lines laid down by Wagner. Of his influence upon all the works
composed within a period twice as long there never was a doubt;
but this influence manifested itself for the greater part in
modifications of old methods rather than the invention of new.
In Germany attempts have been made over and over again to follow
Wagner's system, but though a few operas thus produced have had a
temporary success, in the end it has been found that the experiments
have all ended in failures. It was but natural that the fact should
provoke discussion. If no one could write successfully in Wagner's
manner, was there a future for the lyric drama outside of a return
to the style which he had striven to overthrow? If there was no
such future, was the fact not proof of the failure of the Wagnerian
movement as a creative force? The question was frequently answered
in a spirit antagonistic to Wagner; but many of the answers were
overhasty and short-sighted. It needed only that one should come
who had thoroughly assimilated Wagner's methods and had the genius
to apply them in a spirit of individuality, to demonstrate that
it was possible to continue the production of lyric dramas without
returning to the hackneyed manner of the opposing school. The
composer who did this was Engelbert Humperdinck, and it is
particularly noteworthy that his demonstration acquired its most
convincing force from the circumstance that instead of seeking his
material in the myths of antiquity, as Wagner did, he found them
in the nursery.

While emphasizing this fact, however, it is well not to forget that
in turning to the literature of folklore for an operatic subject
Humperdinck was only carrying out one of the principles for which
Wagner contended. The Mährchen of a people are quite as much a
reflex of their intellectual, moral, and emotional life as their
heroic legends and myths. In fact, they are frequently only the
fragments of stories which, when they were created, were embodiments
of the most profound and impressive religious conceptions of which
the people were capable. The degeneration of the sun god of our
Teutonic forefathers into the Hans of Grimm's tale, who could not
learn to shiver and shake, through the Sinfiotle of the "Volsunga
Saga" and the Siegfried of the "Nibelungenlied," is so obvious that
it needs no commentary. Neither should the translation of Brynhild
into Dornröschen, the Sleeping Beauty of our children's tales.
The progress illustrated in these examples is that from myth to
Mährchen, and Humperdinck in writing his fairy opera, or nursery
opera if you will, paid tribute to German nationality in the same
coin that Wagner did when he created his "Ring of the Nibelung."
Everything about "Hänsel und Gretel" is charming to those who can
feel their hearts warm toward the family life and folklore of
Germany, of which we are, or ought to be, inheritors. The opera
originated, like Thackeray's delightful fireside pantomime for great
and small children, "The Rose and the Ring." The composer has a
sister, Frau Adelheid Wette, wife of a physician in Cologne. She,
without any particular thought of literary activity, had been in
the habit of writing little plays for production within the family
circle. For these plays her brother provided the music. In this way
grew the first dramatic version of the story of Hänsel and Gretel,
which, everybody who has had a German nurse or has read Grimm's
fairy tales knows, tells the adventures of two children, a brother
and sister, who, driven into the woods, fell into the toils of the
Crust Witch (Knusperhexe), who enticed little boys and girls into
her house, built of gingerbread and sweetmeats, and there ate them
up. The original performers of the principal characters in the play
were the daughters of Frau Wette. Charmed with the effect of the
fanciful little comedy, Herr Humperdinck suggested its expansion
into a piece of theatrical dimensions; and the opera was the result.
It was brought forward for the first time in public on December 23,
1893, in Weimar, and created so profound an impression that it
speedily took possession of all the principal theatres of Germany,
crossed the channel into England, made its way into Holland,
Belgium, and Italy, and reached America within two years. Its first
performance in New York was in an English version at Daly's Theatre
on October 8, 1895. There were drawbacks in the representation which
prevented a success, but after it had been incorporated in the
German repertory of the Metropolitan Opera-house in the season of
1895-1896 it became as much of a permanency as any opera in the list.

Humperdinck has built up the musical structure of "Hänsel und
Gretel" in the Wagnerian manner, but has done it with so much
fluency and deftness that a musical layman might listen to it
from beginning to end without suspecting the fact, save from the
occasional employment of what may be called Wagnerian idioms. The
little work is replete with melodies which, though original, bear
a strong family resemblance to two little songs which the children
sing at the beginning of the first and second acts, and which are
veritable nursery songs in Germany. These ditties and the principal
melodies consorted with them contribute characteristic motifs out
of which the orchestral part is constructed; and these motifs are
developed in accordance with an interrelated scheme every bit as
logical and consistent as the scheme at the bottom of "Tristan und
Isolde." As in that stupendous musical tragedy, the orchestra takes
the part played by the chorus in Greek tragedy, so in "Hänsel und
Gretel" it unfolds the thoughts, motives, and purposes of the
personages of the play and lays bare the simple mysteries of the
plot and counterplot. The careless happiness of the children, the
apprehension of the parents, promise and fulfilment, enchantment and
disenchantment--all these things are expounded by the orchestra in a
fine flood of music, highly ingenious in contrapuntal texture, rich
in instrumental color, full of rhythmical life, on the surface of
which the idyllic play floats buoyantly, like a water-lily which

starts and slides
Upon the level in little puffs of wind,
Tho' anchored to the bottom.

It is necessary, because the music is so beautiful and also because
the piece, like the "Leonore" overtures of Beethoven and the
"Meistersinger" prelude of Wagner (of which, indeed, it is a pretty
frank imitation) is a sort of epitome of the play, to spend some
time with the prelude to "Hänsel und Gretel." After I have done
this I shall say what I have to say about the typical phrases of
the score as they are reached, and shall leave to the reader the
agreeable labor of discovering the logical scheme underlying their
introduction and development. The prelude is built out of a few
themes which are associated with some of the most significant
elements of the play. Not one of them is a personal label, as is
widely, but erroneously, supposed to be the case in Wagner's dramas.
They stand for dramatic ideas and agencies, and when these are
passed in review, as it is purposed shall be done presently, it will
be found that not the sinister but the amiable features of the story
have been chosen for celebration in the overture. Here, too, in what
may be called the ethical meaning of the prelude, Humperdinck has
followed the example of Wagner in the prelude to his comedy. Simply
for the sake of identification hereafter names will be attached to
the themes out of which the prelude is constructed and which come
from the chief melodic factors of the opera. The most important of
these is the melody sung by the horns at the beginning:--

[Musical excerpt]

Let it be called the "Prayer Theme," for the melody is that of the
prayer which the little ones utter before laying themselves down to
sleep in the wood. The melody seems to be associated throughout the
opera with the idea of divine guardianship, and is first heard in
the first scene, when Hänsel, having complained of hunger, Gretel
gently chides him and holds out comfort in the words (here I use
the English version of the opera):--

When past bearing is our grief
God, the Lord, will send relief.

Humperdinck's splendid contrapuntal skill shows itself in a most
varied use of this theme. Once in the prelude it appears in three
different forms simultaneously, and in an augmented shape it forms
the substratum of the prelude, while other themes are cunningly
woven above it. The second theme is an exceedingly bright and
energetic little phrase with which the rapid portion of the prelude
begins. It shall be called the "Counter-Charm" theme, because it is
the melodic phrase which serves as a formula with which the spell
which the witch puts upon her victims is released by her as well as
by the children who overhear it. When it occurs in the play it has
this form:--

[Musical excerpt--"hocus pocus elder bush!"]

Words and music come from the mouth of Gretel when she releases
Hänsel from the spell in the third act, and from that of Hänsel when
he performs the same office for the gingerbread children. After two
phrases of minor significance there comes the "Theme of Fulfilment,"
so called because of its association with the answer to the prayer
for protection in the woods. Thus it forms part of the dawn music at
the beginning of the third act when the children are awakened by the
Dewman. It makes up the original part of the song of this Dawn Fairy
and is the melody to which Hänsel and Gretel sing their explanation
to the wondering gingerbread children:--

The angels whispered in dreams to us in silent night
What this happy day has brought to light.

[Musical excerpt]

There is a fourth theme, the "Theme of Rejoicing" which is the
inspiration of the dance which the gingerbread children execute
around Hänsel and Gretel to celebrate their release from the
enchantment put upon them by the wicked Witch.

At the parting of the curtain we see the interior of the hut of a
poor broom-maker. Specimens of his handiwork hang upon the walls. A
tiny window beside the door in the background, shows a glimpse of
the forest beyond. Hänsel and Gretel are at work, he making brooms,
she knitting. Gretel sings an old German folk-song, beginning thus:--

[Musical excerpt--"Suse liebe suse was raschelt im stroh?"]

All the melodies in this act have a strong family resemblance, but
this song, a cradle song of the long ago, is the only one not
composed by Humperdinck. Miss Constance Bache has failed, in her
English translation, to reproduce the quaint sentiment of the
old song, which calls attention to the fact that all geese are
shoeless. It is not for want of leather,--the shoemaker has that in
plenty,--but he has no lasts, and so the poor things must needs go
barefoot. The song invites a curious historical note. "Suse" and
"Sause" were common expressions in the cradle songs which used to be
sung to the Christ-child in the German churches at Christmas when
the decadent nativity plays (now dwarfed to a mere tableau of the
manger, the holy parents, and the adoring shepherds and magi) were
still cultivated. From the old custom termed Kindeiwiegen, which
remained in the German Protestant Church centuries after the
Reformation, Luther borrowed the refrain, "Susaninne" for one of his
Christmas chorales. The beginning of the little song which Gretel
sings used to be "Sause liebe Ninne," which, of course, is Luther's
"Susaninne." The song dominates the whole of the first act. Out
of portions of its melody grows a large part of the instrumental
accompaniment to the melodious recitative in which the dialogue is
carried on. Through expressive changes, not only in this act, but
later also, it provides a medium for much dramatic expression. A
little motif with which the orchestra introduces it develops into
a song, with which Hänsel greets his sister's announcement that
a neighbor has sent in some milk, and when Gretel, as soon as
she does, attempts to teach Hänsel how to dance, the delightful
little polka tune which the two sing is almost a twin brother to
the cradle song.

It is the gift of milk which directly brings the sinister element
into the play. The mother comes home weary, hungry, and out of
humor. She finds that the children have neglected their work, and
while attempting to punish them she overturns the milk jug. It is
the last straw, and, with threats of a terrible beating if they do
not bring home a heaping basket of berries for supper, she drives
the little ones out into the forest. Exhausted, she falls asleep
beside the hearth. From the distance comes the voice of the
broom-maker trolling a song which is now merry, now sad. He enters
his hut in great good humor, however, for he has sold all his wares
and comes with his basket loaded with good things to eat and no
inconsiderable quantity of kümmel in his stomach. Till now, save for
the few moments which followed the entrance of the mother, the music
has echoed nothing but childish joy. All this is changed, however,
when the father, inquiring after his children, learns that they have
gone into the woods. He tells his wife the legend of the Witch of
the Ilsenstein and her dreadful practices, while the orchestra
builds up a gruesome picture out of fragments from the innocent song
which had opened the act. Fearful for the fate of her children, the
mother dashes into the forest, followed by the broom-maker.

A musical delineation of a witch's ride separates the first and
second acts. It is a garishly colored composition beginning with a
pompous proclamation of the "Theme of the Witch":--

[Musical excerpt]

This is interwoven with echoes from the song of the broom-maker,
and, as might be expected, a great deal of chromatic material, such
as seems indispensable in musical pictures of the supernatural.
Towards the close the weird elements gradually disappear and give
way to a peaceful forest mood, pervaded by a long-drawn melody from
the trumpet, accompanied by sounds suggestive of the murmuring of
trees. The parting of the curtain discovers a scene in the depths
of the woods. Gretel sits under a large tree weaving a garland of
flowers. Hänsel is picking strawberries. The sun is setting. Gretel
sings another folk-song, the meaning of which is lost to those who
are unfamiliar with the song in the original. It is a riddle of
the German nursery: "A little man stands in the forest, silent and
alone, wearing a purplish red mantle. He stands on one leg, and
wears a little black cap. Who is the little man?" Answer:--the
Hagebutte; i.e. the rose apple, fruit of the rose tree. After the
Witch's ride, nothing could be more effective in restoring the
ingenuous mood essential to the play than this song, which is as
graceful and pretty in melody as it is arch in sentiment. With the
dialogue which follows, a variation of the closing cadence of the
song is sweetly blended by the orchestra. Hänsel crowns Gretel Queen
of the Woods with the floral wreath, and is doing mock reverence to
her when a cuckoo calls from a distance. The children mimic the cry,
then playfully twit the bird with allusions to its bad practice of
eating the eggs of other birds and neglecting its own offspring.
Then they play at cuckoo, eating the strawberries in lieu of eggs,
until the basket is empty. They remember the threat of their mother,
and want to fill the basket again, but darkness is settling around
them. They lose their way, and their agitated fancy sees spectres
and goblins all around them. Hänsel tries to reassure his sister
by hallooing, and scores of voices send back echoes, while the
cuckoo continues its lonely cry. Gretel is overcome by fear for a
moment, and Hänsel, too, succumbs to fright when he sees a figure
approaching through the mist. But it is not a goblin, as the
children think--only the Sandman, a little gray, stoop-shouldered
old man, carrying a bag. He smiles reassuringly and sings a song of
his love for children, while he sprinkles sleep-sand in the eyes of
the pair. The second part of his song introduces another significant
phrase into the score; it is the "Theme of Promise," to which the
Sleep Fairy sings the assurance that the angels give protection and
send sweet dreams to good children while they are asleep:--

[Musical excerpt]

"Sandman has been here," says Hänsel, sleepily; "let us say our
evening blessing." They kneel and repeat the prayer to the melody
which has been called the "Prayer Theme," then go to sleep in each
other's arms. All has been dark. Now a bright light pierces the
mist, which gathers itself into a cloud that gradually takes the
shape of a staircase reaching apparently from heaven to earth. The
orchestra plays a beautiful and extended piece of music, of which
the principal melodic material is derived from the themes of
"Prayer" and "Promise," while seven pairs of angels descend the
cloud-stairs and group themselves about the little sleepers, and
a golden host extends upward to the celestial abode. By this time
the scene is filled with a glory of light, and the curtain closes.

The greater part of the dramatic story is told in, the third act.
The opening of the curtain is preceded by a brief instrumental
number, the principal elements of which are a new theme:--

[Musical excerpt]

and the "Theme of Fulfilment." The significance of the latter in
this place is obvious: the promised benison to the children has
been received. The former theme is a pretty illustration of what
has already been said of Humperdinck's consistent devotion to the
folk-song spirit in his choice of melodies. The phrase has an
interrogatory turn and is, in fact, the melody of the mysterious
question which comes from the house of the Witch a few minutes
later, when the children help themselves to some of the toothsome
material out of which the magic structure is built:--

[Musical excerpt--"Nibble, nibble, mouskin, Who's nibbling at my

Simple as this little phrase is, it is yet a draught from a
song-game that comes nigh to being universal. No phrase is more
prevalent among nursery songs than that made up of the first six
notes. The original German song itself has come down to American and
English children, and enthusiastic folklorists see in it a relic
of the ancient tree worship and an invocation of Frau Holda, the
goddess of love and spring of our Teutonic ancestors. It is the
first phrase of the German, "Ringel, ringel, reihe," which our
children know as "Ring around a rosy." It was an amiable conceit of
the composer's to put such a tune into the mouth of the Witch at a
moment of terror in the play. By it he publishes his intention
not to be too utterly gruesome in his treatment of the hag. This
intention, moreover, he fulfils in the succeeding scene. The Witch
appears weird and wicked enough in appearance, in her discordant
laugh, and the instrumental delineation of her, but when she sings
to the children, she is almost ingratiating. Of course, she is
seeking to lure them to a horrible fate, but though she does not
deceive them for even a moment, her musical manner is much like
theirs, except when she is whirling through the air on a broomstick.

When the curtain opens on the third act the scene is the same as at
the close of the second, except that morning is breaking and the
background is filled with mist, which is slowly dissipated during
the song of the Dewman (Dawn Fairy), who sprinkles dew on the
sleeping children as he sings. The beginning of his song is like
that of the Sandman, but its second part consists of the melody of
"Fulfilment" instead of that of "Promise." Gretel is the first to
awake, and she wakes Hänsel by imitating the song of the lark. He
springs up with the cry of chanticleer, and lark's trill and cock's
crow are mingled in a most winsome duet, which runs out into a
description of the dream. They look about them to point out the spot
where the angels had been. By this time the last veil of mist has
withdrawn from the background, and in the place of the forest of
firs the gingerbread house stands glistening with barley sugar in
the sunshine. To the left is the Witch's oven, to the right a cage,
all inside a fence of gingerbread children. A duet of admiration and
amazement follows in a new, undulatory melody. Hänsel wants to enter
the house, but Gretel holds him back. Finally they decide to venture
so far as to nibble a bit. Hänsel stealthily breaks a piece of
gingerbread off the corner, and at once the voice of the Witch is
heard in the phrase already quoted:--

Nibble, nibble, mousekin,
Who's nibbling at my housekin?

After a moment of alarm Gretel picks up a bit of the gingerbread
which had fallen from Hänsel's hand at the sound of the Witch's
voice, and the duet of enjoyment is resumed in a higher key. Then
a second piece of gingerbread is stolen and munched, and the weird
voice is heard again; but this time without alarm. The Witch
stealthily approaches and throws a noose about Hänsel's neck. They
have fallen into her clutches, and in a luring song she tells of
the sweetmeats which she keeps in the house for children of whom
she is fond. Hänsel and Gretel are not won over, however, by her
blandishments, and try to run away. The Witch extends her magic
wand and chants the charm which deprives her victims of the power
of motion, beginning:--

[Musical excerpt--"Hocus pocus witches' charm"]

This phrase stands in the score as the antithesis of the
"Counter-Charm" mentioned in the analysis of the prelude. It
illustrates an ingenious constructive device. Desiring to send
Gretel on an errand a moment later, the Witch disenchants her
with the formula,

Hocus, pocus, elderbush,

already described as the first theme of the Allegro in the prelude.
It is an inversion of the theme of enchantment, a proceeding
analogous to reversing the rod, or spelling the charm backward.
Wagner makes use of the same device in "Götterdämmerung" when he
symbolizes the end of things by inverting the symbol of the original
elements in "Das Rheingold." The Witch now discloses her true
character, and in the exuberance of her demoniac glee indulges in
a ride on a broom, first repeating some jargon in imitation of the
cabalistic formulas common to mediaeval necromancy. Frau Wette's
lines are partly a copy of the Witch's multiplication table in
Goethe's "Faust." The play hurries to its catastrophe. Gretel gives
Hänsel power of motion by repeating the "Counter-Charm," which she
has overheard from the Witch, and the children push the hag into
her own oven while she is heating it to roast Hänsel. The two then
break into a jubilant waltz, which the composer designates the
Knusperwalzer, i.e. the "Crust Waltz." A frightful explosion
destroys the Witch's oven, and with the crash the gingerbread
covering falls from the children, who formed the fence around the
house. They are unable to move, being still partly under a spell,
but when Hänsel repeats the "Counter-Charm," they crowd around their
deliverers and sing their gratitude. The parents of Hänsel and
Gretel, who have been hunting them, appear on the scene. Out of the
ruins of the oven the happy children drag the figure of the Witch
baked into a monstrous gingerbread, and dance around it hand in
hand. At the last all join in a swelling utterance of the "Prayer
Theme" to the words, "When need is greatest God is nearest."


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