About this Recording
8.223369 - HUMPERDINCK: Moorish Rhapsody / Sleeping Beauty

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921)
Moorish Rhapsody • Sleeping Beauty


The present reputation of the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck rests largely on his fairy-tale opera Hänsel und Gretel, based on a well known story retold by the Brothers Grimm and first staged in Weimar in 1893. This, whatever its faults, remains in popular operatic repertoire, with the rather less frequently heard melodrama of 1897, Königskinder, revised as a fairy-tale opera for performance in New York in 1910.

Humperdinck was born in Siegburg into an old Westphalian family. His early education was at the school of which his father was head, followed by a period in Paderborn, where he was a cathedral chorister. He made his first attempts at composition with two music plays, Perla and Claudine von Villa Bella, which he wrote at the age of thirteen. At his father’s insistence he went on at first to study architecture, but soon diverted his full attention to music, studying at the Cologne Conservatory of Music, directed then by Ferdinand Hiller, one of his composition teachers. His experience of music here led him to the compositions of Richard Wagner, whose music was to exert a strong influence over him. The award of the Frankfurt Mozart Prize in 1876 enabled him to enrol as a student at the Royal Music School in Munich, where his teachers included the contrapuntist and organist Rheinberger and Schubert’s friend and contemporary Franz Lachner. At this period he joined a group of Wagnerian enthusiasts founded by a fellow-student, the Order of the Grail (Orden vom Gral). The Mendelssohn Foundation Prize enabled him to travel to Italy and there in 1880 he visited Wagner, then staying at the Villa Angri, at Posilippe, near Naples. Returning there after travelling further south, Humperdinck was engaged as an assistant to Wagner in the production of Parsifal, spending eighteen months at Bayreuth, where he also made the acquaintance of Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt. A further success, this time with the Meyerbeer Prize in Berlin, made possible a subsequent visit to Paris, bringing contact with the Saint-Simonians, with Chabrier and with Vincent d’lndy. Wagner then asked him to direct a performance of his early Symphony in Venice, where he was offered employment at the Liceo Marcello, but this plan came to nothing. Further travel to France, Spain and North Africa, was followed by brief and disappointing employment as a Kapellmeister at the Cologne City Theatre. In 1885 Humperdinck entered the service of the industrialist Alfred Krupp, a man who, he claimed, understood little or nothing of music, and a month later moved to Barcelona to teach “German music” at the Liceo Isabella II. Illness and dissatisfaction with the standards and diligence of his pupils persuaded him to return after less than a year. There followed a short period of teaching at the Cologne Conservatory and as music critic for the Bonner Zeitung. The next year, 1888, he moved to Mainz as a reader for the publisher Schott. Some months as music tutor to Wagner’s son Siegfried in Frankfurt were succeeded by a teaching appointment at the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory. In 1897 he moved to Boppard am Rhein to devote himself more fully to composition and in 1900 took over the composition master-classes at the Berlin Musikhochschule. There were further journeys to Southern Spain, Morocco and Italy and in Berlin collaboration with the theatre director Max Reinhardt. He died in 1921.

Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel, had started as a series of settings of songs by his sister, growing into a Singspiel and then into a fairy-tale opera, to be staged in Weimar finally in the spring of 1893, directed by Richard Strauss. The immediate success of the work was followed by a second Märchenspiel and work on Königskinder. Humperdinck wrote ten stage-works, as well as incidental music for plays staged principally in Berlin. The Märchenoper Dornröschen (“Sleeping Beauty”), based on the story by Perrault, was staged first at the City Theatre in Frankfurt on 12th November, 1902. The Tonbilder derived from it start with an evocative Prelude. The Ballade, opened by flutes and clarinets, leads to the third of the pictures, “Wandering”, as the handsome Prince seeks his way through the forest to the Castle, entangled in thorn-bushes that have grown over a hundred years to cover it. “Festive Music” brings a happy ending, as the Prince breaks the spell that has held the Princess, her parents and the court for so long Incidental music for a staging of Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written in 1905 for the Berlin Deutsches Theater, with which Max Reinhardt was newly associated. “On such a night” (In solcher Nacht) accompanies the scene between Lorenzo and his beloved Jessica, daughter of Shylock, who have eloped to Belmont, and there look down on the idyllic scene before them. They are joined by Portia herself and her maid Nerissa, and the extract closes with Portia’s words “The moon sleeps with Endymion and will not be waked” (Still! Luna schlaft jetzt beim Endymion und will nicht aufgewecket sein).

Humperdinck wrote his Moorish Rhapsody in 1898 and it was first performed at the Leeds Festival in that year. “The Elegy at Sunset” (Elegie bei Sonnenuntergang), set at Tarifa, is gently evocative, something of a Moorish atmosphere created by the use of the cor anglais. More overt melodic reference is made to North Africa in Tangiers, where the scene is a cheerful Moorish coffee-house, musically not entirely remote from Germany, the jollity brought to a close by the bassoon. The Rhapsody ends with a ride in the desert, at Tetuan, the world of Sheherazade now more overtly suggested by the turns of  melody.

Die Marketenderin is a Spieloper, first staged at the City Theatre in Cologne in 1914. The Prelude starts with the ominous sounds of drums, softly accompanying double basses, followed by cellos, in a theme of tragic implication, in music that soon moves to a more cheerful mood, ending with military optimism,

Keith Anderson

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