Following a conventional education at Paderborn, Humperdinck entered the Cologne Conservatory at the age of 18 and began studies in voice and composition. While a student there, he was the winner of the Mozart Stipend of Frankfurt in 1876; with the aid of its financial award, he went to Munich to study first with Franz Lachner and then with Rheinberger at the Royal Music School. While enrolled there (1877-1879), he won an award from the Mendelssohn Foundation of Berlin, following which he traveled to Italy and had the fortune to meet up with Wagner in Naples.
Written to a libretto by Humperdinck's sister Adelheid Wette (who added characters and scenes to expand the little story to operatic dimensions), Hänsel und Gretel was first presented in Weimar in December of 1893; it was quickly taken up in opera houses all over Europe, representing the perfect antidote to the chill, veristic winds blowing out of Italy at the time. Ostensibly a work for children, the opera has always found favor with audiences of all ages thanks to its odd blend of fable-like innocence and Wagnerian weight. Humperdinck's succesful blending of a children's story with his own, rather monumental, orchestral world has made Hänsel und Gretel the only post-Wagnerian work to be considered a succesful synthesis of the German master's style.
During the course of his musical career, Humperdinck supplemented his compositional activities with turns as a music editor, critic, and, at various times, a music teacher; Wagner's son Siegfried was one of his pupils. His other works, particulary the pleasant 1880 Humoreske for orchestra in E major, find occasional performances today. In the 1960s and 1970s, Humperdinck's name was again on the lips of the public; in this case, however, "Engelbert Humperdinck" was the new persona (chosen from a music dictionary) of a pop balladeer formerly known as Arnold Dorsey, fondly or not-so-fondly remembered for his stagey rendition of "Release Me." The two, needless to say, are not related.