It’s astonishing that, even half a century after a certain pop balladeer’s heyday, the original Engelbert Humperdinck doesn’t turn up in a Google search until Page 6. Humperdinck the composer was a disciple of Richard Wagner, an ardent nationalist who publicly denied Germany’s atrocities against Belgium in the First World War and author of the most beloved children’s opera in the literature.
He had been Wagner’s hand-picked assistant at the 1882 Bayreuth premiere of “Parsifal,” so when his sister, Adelheid, asked Humperdinck to compose some songs to accompany her childrens’ Christmas puppet show in 1889, he may have felt grossly underused. However, he approached the task with seriousness, and the show and music were so well-received that he expanded it into a singspiel with 16 songs to piano accompaniment, later scoring it for a Wagnerian orchestra. Richard Strauss was so taken with it, he led the Weimar premiere in December 1893, and “Hänsel und Gretel” has been a Christmas tradition ever since.
Tonight’s selections are from the end of Act 2 when the children find themselves alone in the dark forest. They sing the “Evening Prayer,” whose lyrics are from the poem Abendgebet in the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
In the evening,
When I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels are at my side,
Two to my right,
Two to my left,
Two at my head,
Two at my feet,
Two to cover me,
Two to wake me,
Two who point me to sweet Paradise.
Humperdinck uses this childlike melody several times in the Prelude so that when Hansel and Gretel – tired, hungry and afraid – sing it here, the audience already knows it intimately. As they drift to sleep, the guardian angels of the poem descend from a staircase in the sky to watch over them in the purely instrumental tableau vivant of the “Dream Pantomime.”