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Engelbert Humperdinck

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel by Brothers Grimm

"Hansel and Gretel" (also known as Hansel and Grettel, Hansel and Grethel, or Little Brother and Little Sister) is a well-known fairy tale of German origin, recorded by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812.

In Germany, Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor woodcutter. When a great famine settles over the land, the woodcutter's wife decides to take the children into the woods and leave them there to fend for themselves, so that she and her husband do not starve to death, because the children eat too much. The woodcutter opposes the plan but finally, and reluctantly, submits to his wife's scheme. They were unaware that in the children's bedroom, Hansel and Gretel have overheard them. After the parents have gone to bed, Hansel sneaks out of the house and gathers as many white pebbles as he can, then returns to his room, reassuring Gretel that God will not forsake them.

The next day, the family walk deep into the woods and Hansel lays a trail of white pebbles. After their parents abandon them, Hansel and Gretel follow the trail back home. When the wife sees them she is furious and locks them in the house. Hansel and Gretel are unable to escape or even simply collect pebbles.

The following morning, the family treks into the woods. Hansel takes a slice of bread and leaves a trail of bread crumbs for them to follow home. However, after they are once again abandoned, they find that birds have eaten the crumbs and they are lost in the woods. After days of wandering, they follow a beautiful white bird to a clearing in the woods, and discover a large cottage built of gingerbread, cakes, candy and with window panes of clear sugar. Hungry and tired, the children begin to eat the rooftop of the house, when the door opens and a "very old woman" emerges and lures the children inside, with the promise of soft beds and delicious food and a hot bath. They do this unaware that their hostess is actually a bloodthirsty witch who waylays children to cook and eat them.

The next morning, the witch cleans out the cage in the garden from her previous captive. Then she throws Hansel into the cage and forces Gretel into becoming her slave. The witch feeds Hansel regularly to fatten him up. Hansel is smart and when the witch asks for Hansel to stick out his finger for her to see how fat he is, he sticks out a bone he finds in the cage every time. The witch is too impatient and decides to eat Hansel anyway.

The next day, the witch prepares the oven for Hansel, but decides she is hungry enough to eat Gretel too. She coaxes Gretel to the open oven and prods her to lean over in front of it to see if the fire is hot enough. Gretel, sensing the witch's intent, pretends she does not understand what she means. Infuriated, the witch demonstrates and Gretel instantly shoves the hag into the oven, slams and bolts the door shut, leaving "the ungodly creature to be burned to ashes", screaming in pain until she dies. Gretel frees Hansel from the cage and the pair discover a vase full of treasure and precious stones. Putting the jewels into their clothing, the children set off for home.

A duck ferries them across an expanse of water and at home they find only their father who revealed that their mother died from an unknown cause. Their father had spent all his days lamenting the loss of his children and is delighted to see them safe and sound. With the witch's wealth, they all live happily ever after.

The tale has been adapted to various media, most notably the opera Hänsel und Gretel (1893) by Engelbert Humperdinck

Illustrations from "Hansel and Gretel" by Kang San (Jamsan - South Korean)

Engelbert Humperdinck - Hänsel und Gretel

Fairy-tale opera in three acts

A film by August Everding

Hänsel - Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano
Gretel - Edita Gruberova, soprano
Peter (their father) - Hermann Prey, baritone
Gertrud (their mother) - .Helga Dernesch, soprano & mezzo-soprano
Die Knusperhexe (the witch) - Sena Jurinac, soprano & mezzo-soprano
Sandmännchen (Sandman) - Norma Burrowes, soprano
Taumännchen (Dew Fairy) - Elfriede Hobarth, soprano

Wiener Philharmoniker
Conductor: Georg Solti

For many years it has been a custom to perform this opera at Christmas time as a matinee for the kiddies, though why a tale which obviously must take place in summertime should be deemed especially appropriate for the winter is not entirely clear. Nor does its very skillful but heavily Wagnerian orchestration and harmonic elaboration strike one as well adapted for little children to love or appreciate. Yet the custom has been so long established, and so many generations of grownups think that they loved it when they were not grownups, that the tradition is beginning to fade only in the United States. Here, for better or worse, the moppets express their opinions more freely than elsewhere, and a Christmas-time consensus of those opinions (which has never been taken in a scientific way) would almost certainly give the palm to Mr. Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Its story is more appropriate—and you don’t have to sit still so long.

Nevertheless, it is a treasurable score. The use of genuine children’s folk songs in Act I, the Prayer as it is sung in Act II, the Witches’ Ride, and several other pages of music have become part of our culture, and deservedly so. One could, however, almost wish that Humperdinck had reined his enthusiasm for writing notes by confining himself to his original intention—that of composing some incidental music for a children’s play that his sister, Frau Adelheid Wette, had written for the family.



Opera in three acts by Engelbert Humperdinck with libretto in German by Adelheid Wette, based on a fairy tale by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm


Peter, a broommaker

Gertrude, his wife

Hansel and Greteltheir children

The Witch
The Sandman
The Drw Man

Time: once upon a
Place: Germany

First performance at Weimar, December 23, 1893




Baritone. Husband of Gertrud and father of Hänsel and Gretel. He is a broom-maker. Created (1893) by Ferdinand Wieder.


Mezzo-soprano. Wife of Peter and mother of Hänsel and Gretel. As there is no food to feed the family, she sends the children to pick strawberries in the Ilsenstein forest, wherein lives the wicked Witch. Created (1893) by Luise Tibelti.



Mezzo-soprano. Travesti role. Son of Peter and Gertrud and brother of Gretel. He helps his father make brooms to sell. Is sent with his sister to pick strawberries in the forest. They become lost and are put to sleep by the Sandman and protected by angels. When they wake the next morning, they are captured by the Witch and Hänsel is put in a cage to be fattened up before he is baked. He is rescued by Gretel who pushes the Witch into the oven. Duet (with Gretel): Abends wenn ich schlafen gehn (‘In the evening when I go to sleep’). Created (1893) by Fräulein Schubert


Soprano. Daughter of Gertrud and Peter and sister of Hänsel. As there is no food to eat, she and her brother are sent by their mother to pick strawberries in the forest. They become lost and frightened. They are put to sleep by the Sandman and watched over by angels. When they wake they see a gingerbread house and fence. They taste it and are captured by the Witch, who puts Hänsel in a cage. Gretel rescues him and pushes the Witch into the oven. The oven explodes and the gingerbread fence becomes a row of children who have been captured and baked by the Witch. Duet (with Hansel): Abends wenn ich schlafen gehn (‘In the evening when I go to sleep’). Created (1893) by Marie Kayser.


Mezzo-soprano. Lives in the Ilsenstein forest to which she tempts young children with gingerbread. She catches them and bakes them alive in her oven and turns them into gingerbread. She is pushed into her own oven by Gretel and herself turned into gingerbread. Created by Hermine Finck


Soprano. Travesti role. He throws sand in the eyes of the two children when they are lost in the forest, thus making them go to sleep. Creator (1893) not traced.

Dew Fairy:

Soprano. Wakens the sleeping children in the forest when morning comes. Created (1893) probably by Hermine Finck (who created the Witch, the roles often being doubled).



A favorite number on pops concerts, the overture begins with the Prayer from Act II, continues with contrasting themes from other parts of the score, and develops quite elaborately till the Prayer is thundered out as if it were a hymn to victory.


In the cottage of a poor broommaker his two children, Hansel and Gretel, are hungry but nevertheless working, playing, and quarreling in the best of spirits. They sing the old German folk song about Susie and her geese (who have no shoes), and they end up by singing and dancing the familiar “Brother, come and dance with me” ( Briidereh, komm tanz’ mit mir). Their mother’s entrance puts a quick stop to the laughing, and they guiltily try to explain away the broommaking they have abandoned. In her anger the mother knocks over a pitcher of milk, leaving nothing for supper. With threats of a dire beating she sends them into the woods, warning them not to come back before they have picked a full basket of strawberries.

Peter, the father, returns home, jolly and drunk, and mollifies his wife, Gertrude, by exhibiting a basket of sausages, coffee, and bread and butter, which he has bought after an unexpected windfall of business in the village. As she prepares the supper, he misses the children, and Gertrude tells him that she has sent out the brats for strawberries. She doesn’t care if they're at a mountain called Ilsenstein. Peter is horrified; and, as Gertrude does not seem to be up on local sociology, he sings her an aria explaining that there is a witch at Ilsenstein who navigates a broom and bakes little children into gingerbread. Gertrude at once rushes out after the children, and Peter follows, armed with his bottle of liquor.


As intermission time can be troublesome when an audience includes many children, the management often labels this act “Scene 2” and the orchestra plays the Hexenritt (“Witches’ Ride”), a lively little tone poem, while the scenery is being changed.

At the foot of the dread Ilsenstein the children are casually gathering—and eating—their strawberries. Gretel sings the charming folk song Ein Mannlein steht im Walde, likening a mushroom to a man; but as it begins to grow dark, they begin to be frightened. They have lost their way; they think they see mysterious figures and hear mysterious voices (there is a female chorus off-stage to lend some verisimilitude to this); and they fall into each other’s arms in fright. But the Little Sandman comforts them, strews the sand of sleepiness over them, and disappears as they sing the lovely Children’s Prayer about fourteen angels who will guard them in their sleep.

A light shines on them from the mountain, and the fourteen angels descend, gather round them, and perform a quiet and modest ballet.


After a short prelude, the curtain rises on the same scene next morning, except that there is now visible in the back a charming old German house decorated all over with life-size figures of children looking like gingerbread. It is, of course, the Witch’s house.

The Dew Man, after singing a little self-identifying song, wakes the children, who are delighted to see the attractive dwelling. Hansel breaks off a piece of gingerbread and begins to eat it; and they decide it is merely the wind when they hear someone inside singing the old game tune “Who’s Nibbling at My House?” But it is really the Witch, who tosses a rope around Hansel’s neck (he frees himself), invites the children into the house (they refuse), and only manages to make them prisoners by the use of magic. She waves a juniper bough, utters the words “Hocus-pocus Hexenschuss" and they are paralyzed. She thereupon places Hansel in a cage, orders Gretel to work about the house, prepares the big stove, and takes a fiendish ride on her broom.

But this Witch is not very competent. When she tests Hansel to see how good he is to eat, he presents her with a stick instead of his finger, and she is satisfied that he is too bony to cook. When she isn’t looking, Gretel gets hold of the magic wand and frees her brother. And when Gretel asks for instructions about looking into the stove, she shows her how and is pushed into the fire for her pains. Delighted with their arson, the children start gathering sweetmeats from all over the house, when the big stove crackles and then explodes. With this turn of events the children whom the Witch had baked into her gingerbread house become partially free of the spell; Hansel completes the reverse spell with the wand; and they all join in a chorus celebrating the end of the black magic.

Just then Peter and Gertrude find their children, with all their new friends; the Witch, now in the shape of a great gingerbread cake, is dragged from the debris of her oven; Peter finds an appropriate moral (wickedness gets punished); and everyone praises God in a choral variation of the Prayer.


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