HANSEL AND GRETEL, a Fable for Narrator and Orchestra (2001) Op.59

Opus number: 59

Title: Hansel and Gretel

Instrumentation:  narrator and orchestra: 2-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1, 4 perc, hp, cel. strings

Date written: August 2001

Length:  ca. 30 minutes

Performances: November 3, 2002, NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor, Ray Brown, narrator, Jordan Hall (premiere); April 19, 2003, NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor, Ray Brown, narrator, Boston Symphony Hall; June 19–29, NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor, Mexico City and Panama.

Program notes: Hansel and Gretel, a Fable for Narrator and Orchestra, op. 59, is based on the classic Grimm fairy tale. Unlike the familiar Humperdinck opera libretto, the children in the original fable do not lose their way in the forest, but, much more scarily, are deliberately abandoned by their starving stepmother and father. Both children–and especially Gretel–triumph as the heroes of their perilous adventure.

This piece was commissioned and designed to introduce the instruments of the orchestra to children under the age of twelve. As the narrator tells us, various instruments represent the characters in the story. The French horns play the father’s music, the step-mother is played on a muted trumpet, Gretel is represented by the violin and Hansel by the cello. Three friendly animals are heard in the woodwinds: with a tip of the hat to Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf, their cat is played by the clarinet, the bird is played by a flute, and the duck by the oboe. The wicked witch is heard on the xylophone.

In addition certain elements of the story are painted by music. For example, the jewels the children find shine in the orchestra.  The evil step-mother and the witch share the interval of a tritone, and both have similar motives drawn from a half diminished seventh chord. The father’s music centers around c minor, and the music for Hansel and Gretel is closely related to G major.

The challenge of writing a large work for narrator was lightened by the fact that I had previously set two narrator works: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat for narrator, cello and piano (recorded on CD by Robert J. Lurtsema, cellist Eric Bartlett, and myself as pianist), and Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony for narrator, violin and piano.

Hansel and Gretel, finished in August in 2001, was commissioned by New England Conservatory Preparatory School, Mark Churchill, Dean. It was written with the instrumentation of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and with its conductor, Benjamin Zander, in mind.


Text: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, arranged by Andrea Olmstead


Many of you know the Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Today [tonight] we will hear this story with the help of our orchestra. Its instruments will represent the characters, as well as the action.

First we meet their good-hearted father: his music is played on the French horn. [musical example]

Next comes their evil step-mother, played on a trumpet that is muted. [musical example]

Gretel’s sad lament is represented by the violin [musical example] and Hansel by the happy-go-lucky cello [musical example].

Hansel and Gretel meet three animals: their cat is played by the clarinet [musical example]; the bird by a flute [musical example]; and finally a duck, played by the oboe [musical example].

Last and most important is the wicked witch, played by the xylophone [musical example]

Listen for these instruments as we travel with Hansel and Gretel into a deep and scary forest.


[*] By a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. He had little to eat, and when a great famine came, he could no longer get bread. He groaned and said to his wife, “How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?” [*] “I’ll tell you how,” answered the woman, “Early tomorrow morning we will take the children into the forest to where it is the thickest. There we will light a fire, and give each one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.” “No, wife,” said the man, “I will not do that. How can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?” “O you fool,” said she, “then we must all four die of hunger,” and she left him no peace until he consented. “But I feel very sorry for the poor children,” said the man. [*]

The two children heard what their step-mother had said. Gretel wept bitter tears, and said, “Now all is over with us.” Hansel said, “Do not distress yourself, Gretel, I will find a way to help us.” [*]

Early in the morning came the woman, and took the children from their beds. Their piece of bread was given to them. On the way into the forest Hansel crumbled his in his pocket, and often stood still and threw a morsel on the ground. “Hansel, why do you stop and look round?” said the father, “go on.” “I am looking back at my little white cat which is sitting on the roof, and wants to say good-bye to me,” answered Hansel. “Fool,” said the woman, “That is not your little cat, that is the morning sun shining on the chimney.” [*] Hansel, little by little, threw all the crumbs on the path. [*] The woman led the children still deeper into the forest, where they had never in their lives been before. Then a great fire was made, and the step-mother said, “We are going into the forest to cut wood, and in the evening when we are done, we will come and fetch you away.” [*] When it was noon, Gretel shared her piece of bread with Hansel, who had scattered his by the way. Then they fell asleep and evening passed, but no one came to take the poor children back. When they awoke it was dark, and Hansel comforted his little sister saying, “Just wait until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread I have strewn about. They will show us our way home.” [*] When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds that fly about in the woods had picked them all up. [*] They walked the whole night and all the next day too, but they did not get out of the forest, and were very hungry. When their legs would carry them no longer, they lay down beneath a tree and fell asleep. [*]

It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house. They began to walk again, and at mid-day they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. [*] And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted. They saw that the little house was built of gingerbread and covered with cakes, and that the windows were of clear sugar. [*] Hansel reached up and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted, and Gretel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes. [*] Then a soft voice cried from the parlor-

“nibble, nibble, gnaw

who is nibbling at my little house?”

The children answered –

“the wind, the wind,

the heaven-born wind,”

and went on eating. Suddenly the door opened, and a woman as old as the hills came creeping out. Hansel and Gretel were so terribly frightened they let fall what they had in their hands. The old woman nodded her head, and said, “Oh, you dear children, do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.” She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven. [*]

The old woman had only pretended to be so kind. She was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only build the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked, and ate it. [*]

She seized Hansel with her shriveled hand, carried him into a little stable, and locked him behind a grated door. Then she went to Gretel, and cried, “Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for your brother. He is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.” Gretel began to weep bitterly, but she was forced to do what the wicked witch commanded. [*]

The witch crept to the little stable, and cried, “Hansel, stretch out your finger that I may feel if you will soon be fat.” Hansel, however, stretched out a little bone to her. The old woman, who had dim eyes, could not see it, and thought it was Hansel’s finger; she was astonished that there was no way of fattening him. After four weeks, she would not wait any longer. “Let Hansel be fat or lean, tomorrow I will kill him, and cook him.” Ah, how the poor little sister did lament. [*]

Early the next morning, the old woman said, “We will bake first. I have already kneaded the dough.” She pushed poor Gretel to the oven, from which flames were darting. “Creep in,” said the witch, “and see if the oven is properly heated, so that we can put the bread in.” Once Gretel was inside, she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it, and then she would eat her, too. [*] But Gretel saw what she had in mind. “I do not know how to get in?” “Silly goose,” said the old woman, “the door is big enough. Just look, I can get in myself,” and she  thrust her head into the oven. Then Gretel gave her a push that drove her far into it, and shut the iron door, and fastened the bolt. [*]  Oh. Then the godless witch began to howl quite horribly, and she was miserably burnt to death. Gretel ran like lightening to Hansel, opened his little stable, and cried, “Hansel, we are saved. The old witch is dead.” Then Hansel sprang like a bird from its cage when the door is opened. How they did rejoice and embrace each other. They looked in the witch’s house, and in every corner stood chests full of pearls and jewels. Hansel thrust into his pockets whatever he could, and Gretel said, “I, too, will take something home with me,” and filled her pinafore full. “But now,” said Hansel, “we must get out of the witch’s forest.” [*]

When they had walked for two hours, they came to a great stretch of water. “We cannot cross,” said Hansel, “I see no foot-plank, and no bridge.” Gretel answered, “but a white duck is swimming there.” Then she cried –

“Little duck, little duck, do you see,

Hansel and Gretel are waiting for thee.

There’s no plank, or bridge in sight,

take us across on your back so white.”

The duck came to them, and Hansel seated himself on its back, and told his sister to sit by him. “No,” replied Gretel, “that will be too heavy for the little duck. She shall take us across, one at a time.” The good little duck did so. When they were safely across and had walked for a short time, the forest seemed to be more and more familiar to them, and at length they saw from afar their father’s house. [*] Then they began to run, rushed into the parlor, and threw themselves round their father’s neck. The man had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest. The step-mother, however, was dead. Hansel and Gretel emptied their pockets until the pearls and precious stones ran about the room. Then all anxiety was at an end, and they lived together in perfect happiness. [*]