A prime example of the one-hit wonder, history has not been kind to Englebert Humperdinck (1854–1921). However, as William Melton’s attractive new biography demonstrates, there’s plenty more than Hänsel und Gretel to this respected musician who knew all the leading figures of his time. Not only did he manage to be a member of the Bayreuth set, he sufficiently avoided their pernicious anti-Semitism to praise Meyerbeer in print and get away with it. He also, it turns out, invented sprechstimme a good two years ahead of Schoenberg!

Humperdinck book review

A quiet, thoughtful man, Hans von Bülow claimed that compared to Humperdinck, the famously reticent Robert Schumann was “a veritable chatterbox”. Most dubbed him likeable, though his own son described him as “hard to get to know”. Melton nevertheless manages to paint an intriguing picture of a decent, cultivated man whose ready humour was often laced with a self-deprecating irony.

There are plenty of laughs to be had regarding the composer’s legendary forgetfulness, from locking his wife inside their apartment to mislaying manuscripts, but there’s a dark side too. A victim...