Engelbert Humperdinck was a German composer born at Siegburg in the Rhine Province in September 1854, best known for his opera Hänsel und Gretel.
After receiving piano lessons, Humperdinck produced his first composition when he was 7 years old. His first attempts at works for the stage were two Singspiele written at the age of 13. His parents disapproved of his plans for a career in music and encouraged him to study architecture, however he began taking music classes under Ferdinand Hiller and Isidor Seiss at the Cologne Conservatory in 1872. Two years later, he won a scholarship that enabled him to go to Munich, where he studied with Franz Lachner and later with Josef Rheinberger. In 1879, he won the first Mendelssohn Award given by the Mendelssohn Stiftung foundation in Berlin. He went to Italy and became acquainted with Richard Wagner in Naples, who then invited him to join him in Bayreuth and during 1880 and 1881 Humperdinck assisted in the production of Parsifal. He also acted as music tutor to Siegfried, Wagner's son.
His reputation rests highly on his opera Hänsel und Gretel, which he began work on in Frankfurt in 1890. It all started when he was accompanying a puppet show his nieces were giving at home. Then, using a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette loosely based on the version of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, he composed a Singspiel of 16 songs with piano accompaniment and connecting dialogue. By the start of 1891 he had begun working on a complete orchestration.
On 23 December 1893, the opera premiered in Weimar. Richard Strauss, conductor, called it "a masterpiece of the highest quality... all of it original, new, and so authentically German." With such original synthesis of Wagnerian techniques and traditional German folk songs, Hänsel und Gretel was an instant and overwhelming success.
Hänsel und Gretel has always been Humperdinck's most beloved work. In 1923 it was chosen by the Royal Opera House (London) to be their first complete radio opera broadcast and eight years later, it was the first opera transmitted live from the Metropolitan Opera (New York). To this day it remains a worldwide favourite.