The image of the absentminded composer is a familiar trope, from the example of Beethoven, who seems to have regularly forgotten to bathe, to Schumann who somehow ‘forgot’ to tell Clara he had syphilis. Search a little further down the pecking list, however, and you’ll find Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), a strong contender for history’s most scatterbrained composer.

Humperdinck is remembered today as something of a one-hit wonder, the man whose opera Hänsel und Gretel conquered the world. Everybody loved Hänsel. Richard Strauss conducted the world premiere, Mahler declared it a masterpiece and Cosima Wagner was so enchanted by the Witch’s Waltz that during a private playthrough she actually got up and capered around the room. Humperdinck wrote considerably more, not least his masterpiece, Königskinder, which triumphed briefly at the Met in 1910, but his life was also spent juggling work as a composer with teaching jobs and journalism. Perhaps that is why his mind was often elsewhere.

As a teacher, Humperdinck was highly regarded by his pupils but even they couldn’t fail to notice his absentmindedness. The composer Cyril Scott, who studied under him in Leipzig, commented on his wandering ways in this curious character sketch: “He was a painfully ugly man with what the Germans uncharitably call a Stink-nase i.e. a nose without any bridge to it. Of how to teach he had no conception at all, and was so absentminded that he would go off into long brown studies, the while he would seem to be counting his fingers until recalled to his surroundings by a giggle or a cough from one of his students… He had such a modest opinion of his own talents as a composer. Indeed, had not some of the professors at the Conservatoire seen Hänsel und Gretel’s possibilities and likelihood of becoming a popular opera, that charming work would in all probability never have reached the public at all, and Humperdinck would’ve remained the indigent, feckless man he was when he taught me how to make notes less suggestive of potatoes.”

William Melton’s fine new biography offers some prime examples of Humperdinck’s forgetfulness. Another of his students, Hermann Grunebaum, recorded a typical moment. “One fine summer day we had final exams. Humperdinck asked the pupils questions and they responded with wrong answers or none at all. [Conservatoire Director] Scholz was about to explode. Afterwards the two went downstairs together in silence. Suddenly Humperdinck stopped, pulled a little book out his pocket, looked inside and said with a quiet smile: ‘I see, Herr Director, that I was asking the wrong questions. I thought it seemed a bit odd. That was my beginner’s class!’”

At the Source: Humperdinck at the feet of the storyteller. Photo ©  Johann Christian Senckenberg Universitätsbibliothek, Frankfurt am Main

At times his vague behaviour could be downright eccentric. “A colleague of mine once asked him to play something from Hänsel und Gretel,” Grunebaum recalls. “He played the second act. My friend, who was struck by the prayer of the two children [at the very end of the act], asked him to play this over again, whereupon Humperdinck started playing the whole act from the beginning again, and when he came to the prayer stopped and said: ‘Is this what you meant?’ My friend saying, ‘yes,’ Humperdinck closed the book without playing it.”

Outside of work he was if anything even worse. Grunebaum again: “One story tells how [shortly after his marriage] the young couple decided to go away for a holiday. Humperdinck handed over the key of his apartment to the people below and left the house. A few minutes later loud noises were heard coming from the flat. Suddenly he came rushing back saying he had just remembered that he had locked up the flat with his wife inside!”

On another occasion, the Humperdincks returned from a lengthy ramble in the woods only to discover a large, and presumably hungry group of dinner party guests waiting on their doorstep. He even once contrived to mislay the only copy of Hänsel und Gretel, only for it to be found weeks later inside a friend’s grand piano.

Humperdinck at the Met in 1910 with conductor Alfred Hertz and General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Photo @ Metropolitan Opera

A diary entry suggests that when necessary, Humperdinck could multitask with the best of them: “4 May 1892: at dentist. Tooth pulled with root. Composed Witch’s Ride.” But on other occasions he clearly struggled to keep his mind firmly on the job at hand, such as the time during rehearsals for Königskinder at the Met when he set his fur coat on fire with a pocket lighter.

No matter who you were, Humperdinck could manage to forget an appointment. According to Cosima Wagner he once rocked up an hour late for a papal reception in the Vatican gardens leaving the Pope clutching a bouquet of flowers for an hour. Another classic followed Siegfried Wagner’s conducting debut. Humperdinck, who had taught the boy, was asked by Cosima to say a few words. According to Siegfried, “He stood up promptly, glanced around with a friendly smile, rubbed his hands, cleared his throat and sat down again without having said a thing. Reinhard Rehkule, the noted archaeologist, exclaimed, ‘that was the best speech I ever heard’.”

Humperdinck could be excused for having his head stuffed full of the onerous responsibilities of being an international musical figurehead. Others have been less charitable, putting his absent mindedness or eccentricities down to the Mercury salve prescribed in his youth by his brother-in-law to stave off the effects of syphilis – yes, Humperdinck was another composer who ‘forgot’ to tell his wife about a certain tiny problem. Scatterbrained or otherwise, perhaps we should leave it at that and simply be grateful for the splendid anecdotes. Oh, and don’t forget the music…

William Melton’s Humperdinck:  A Biography of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel is published by Boydell & Brewer

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