A Book of Operas: Their Histories, Their Plots, and Their Music Part 15

[Musical excerpt--"Hocus pocus witches' charm"]

This phrase stands in the score as the ant.i.thesis of the "Counter-Charm" mentioned in the a.n.a.lysis of the prelude. It ill.u.s.trates an ingenious constructive device. Desiring to send Gretel on an errand a moment later, the Witch disenchants her with the formula,

Hocus, pocus, elderbush,

already described as the first theme of the Allegro in the prelude.

It is an inversion of the theme of enchantment, a proceeding a.n.a.logous to reversing the rod, or spelling the charm backward.

Wagner makes use of the same device in "Gotterdammerung" when he symbolizes the end of things by inverting the symbol of the original elements in "Das Rheingold." The Witch now discloses her true character, and in the exuberance of her demoniac glee indulges in a ride on a broom, first repeating some jargon in imitation of the cabalistic formulas common to mediaeval necromancy. Frau Wette's lines are partly a copy of the Witch's multiplication table in Goethe's "Faust." The play hurries to its catastrophe. Gretel gives Hansel power of motion by repeating the "Counter-Charm," which she has overheard from the Witch, and the children push the hag into her own oven while she is heating it to roast Hansel. The two then break into a jubilant waltz, which the composer designates the Knusperwalzer, i.e. the "Crust Waltz." A frightful explosion destroys the Witch's oven, and with the crash the gingerbread covering falls from the children, who formed the fence around the house. They are unable to move, being still partly under a spell, but when Hansel repeats the "Counter-Charm," they crowd around their deliverers and sing their grat.i.tude. The parents of Hansel and Gretel, who have been hunting them, appear on the scene. Out of the ruins of the oven the happy children drag the figure of the Witch baked into a monstrous gingerbread, and dance around it hand in hand. At the last all join in a swelling utterance of the "Prayer Theme" to the words, "When need is greatest G.o.d is nearest."

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