Strauss, R.: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Opus 28

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Opus 28

BORN: June 11, 1864. Munich, Bavaria
DIED: September 8, 1949. At his home in Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED: This tone poem enjoys the full title Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, nach alter Schelmenweise—in Rondeauform—für grosses Orchester gesetzt (see above for translation). It was composed during the winter of 1894-95, and the score’s final page carries the inscription “Munich, May 6, 1895.” It is dedicated to “My good friend Dr. Arthur Seidl,” an author and critic

WORLD PREMIERE: November 5, 1895. Franz Wüllner conducted, in Cologne

US PREMIERE: November 15, 1895. Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1914. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—December 2012. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and English horn, clarinet in D, 2 clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet in B-flat, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 4 horns in D, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trumpets in D, 3 trombones, bass tuba, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, large rattle, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 16 mins

THE BACKSTORY  It is no surprise Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel has become such an audience favorite. It’s one of those magical pieces of music in which everything—form, content, technique, and color—seems to mesh perfectly. A first-time, casual listener can enjoy it thoroughly, but the score also offers subtleties to delight a professional musician.

The fact that this miracle is lavished on the figure of Till Eulenspiegel, one of the great trickster figures of Western Civilization, only adds another layer of enjoyment to the results. As Paul Oppenheimer puts it in the fascinating introduction to his translation of the ninety-five tales that make up Till Eulenspiegel, His Adventures (originally written, or compiled by, a figure identified only as “N.”), “Strauss’s composition captures accurately, and even deliciously, the accents of Eulenspiegel’s foolishness, mischief, courage, and scorn. The composer’s choice of the rondo form is also entirely appropriate to N.’s essentially picaresque demi-novel, which contains many minor climaxes and many unconnected episodes, but no main climax and no main plot. The scampering twists and turns of the music mimic well N.’s style, with its mix of informality, roughness, slang, lightness, and, here and there, formal speech.”

Till Eulenspiegel, the man, is something of a mystery. Did he, in fact, ever live? The last of the tales says he died in 1350, and legend has attributed his death to the plague. But some references throughout the tales remain impossible to verify, and at this point the scandalous (though often lovable) character he has become in our Western collective psyche would probably bear little relationship to any flesh-and-blood man who might have lived centuries ago.

In fact, his very name points us—as the hero of the tales often did—in various directions, all equally plausible. “Eulenspiegel” in modern German means “owl glass,” “owl mirror,” or possibly “wise mirror.” From which it’s a short jump to “wise reflection,” as would befit a collection of tales meant to edify the reader. But in the sixteenth century (when the tales were first collected, or possibly even when they were created) the name had sinister meanings as well. In the Middle Ages, the owl was sometimes regarded as the Devil’s bird, an apt symbol for a diabolical guy who seems intent on upending and poking fun at conventional morality. To add to the confusion, an early form of the name was “Ulenspiegel,” which can be understood as “Ul’n speghel”—in hunter’s jargon of the time, as Oppenheimer points out, “a command or invitation to ‘wipe one’s arse.’ ” Since many of the ninety-five tales are quite scatological, it would be foolish to rule out that derivation of the name, especially in a book which often seems to invite multiple levels of understanding, or that mirrors life in a number of ways at the same time.

Obviously Till Eulenspiegel is more than a charming rogue, and his ninety-five tales are more than an entertaining collection of pranks. Though there’s almost no overt moralizing in the stories (unusual in a book of its nature and era), the fact that time after time Till Eulenspiegel takes people at their word, and acts on what they actually say rather than what they mean, points up the absurdity of much of conventional life. As Goethe said, “Eulenspiegel: All the chief jests of the book depend on this: that everybody speaks figuratively and Eulenspiegel takes it literally.” Or, as Oppenheimer says of the original author, “He certainly seems bent on suffusing his work with a mischievous genius of individualism and independence.”

All of which is exactly why Richard Strauss was so drawn to him.

Strauss already had a growing reputation as a composer of songs when his first major tone poem, Don Juan, established him at the age of twenty-four as an enormously important composer for orchestra. This was confirmed by the appearance of Death and Transfiguration the next year. Add to that his growing reputation as one of the top conductors of the time, and it seemed Richard Strauss had it all, musically. So when his first opera, Guntram, was a giant flop in his hometown of Munich, it was a rejection that stung for the rest of his life. And the idea of writing an opera on Till Eulenspiegel seemed the perfect subject to Strauss at the time, given a protagonist who is a wily independent rogue who follows his own paths, tells unpalatable truths, takes jabs at conventional society, and makes fools of pompous authority figures, all while indulging in scatological humor.

Eventually Strauss realized that the episodic nature of his hero’s story did not lend itself to the operatic form. In a letter he explained, “The book of fairytales only outlines a rogue with too superficial a dramatic personality—the developing of his character on more profound lines after his trait of contempt for humanity also presents considerable difficulty.”

But if Till Eulenspiegel’s character didn’t lend itself to the operatic stage, it was perfect for an instrumental work. And as a tone poem based on the rondo form, the episodic nature was perfect for the concert hall.

When Strauss was an old man, his sometime librettist Josef Gregor asked him if he’d been aware that in Till he had reached metaphysical bounds of great humor. Strauss snapped, “Oh no. I just wanted to give the people in the concert hall a good laugh for once.” Perhaps that’s true. But Strauss, like Till, was skilled at hiding his true motives and thoughts, and using the outer surface of a subject to deflect what was actually going on in the depths. For instance, he spent most of his life playing the public role of a rather indolent, superficial man who just happened to be a musician rather than a banker, and who was mostly concerned with money and playing cards. In fact, he was extraordinarily well-read. As a young man he wrestled deeply with Schopenhauer’s work, and he was enormously influenced by Nietzsche’s thought. But, Till-like, he was adept at using a quip to deflect questions he would rather not answer, and the public bought the deception as the truth.

Before the premiere of Till Eulenspiegel in Cologne in 1895, the conductor Franz Wüllner wrote to Strauss asking about a written program. This was a long time before “movie music,” of course, but Strauss was leery of encouraging a literalistic view of his tone poem, even though it was programmatic music. He replied: “It is impossible for me to give a program to ‘Eulenspiegel’: what I had in mind when writing the various sections, if put into words, would often seem peculiar, and would possibly even give offense. So let us, this time, leave it to the audience to crack the nuts which the rogue has prepared for them. All that is necessary to the understanding of the work is to indicate the two Eulenspiegel themes which are run right through the work in all manner of disguises, moods and situations until the catastrophe, when Till is strung up after sentence has been passed on him. Apart from that let the gay Cologners guess what the rogue has done to them by way of musical tricks.”

THE MUSIC  The “two Eulenspiegel themes” are clearly stated in the beginning measures: the first is the opening melody in the violins (the first thirteen notes); the second is the famous horn call that follows immediately. In this opening the two themes are vastly different in character; and these characters will also be altered tremendously. The opening five measures are about as gemütlich as can be—almost too cozy, which is exactly the point. It’s an emotional situation just begging for the horn call that follows—the trickster peeking around the door, ready to unsettle those gathered to listen to a story.

That horn call is the perfect depiction of Till. It ranges widely (almost four octaves), its jaunty rhythms lend themselves to all sorts of different syncopations, the melody is equally infectious and can be cheeky (as in this opening) or romantically sweet (as it is later in the piece). When we first hear it, it’s marked to be played softly. The second time it’s a bit louder (Till is getting more confident), and then, like one mischief-maker infecting a group of well-behaved children, it spreads to the oboes, then the clarinets. The bassoons, contrabassoons, violas, and cellos get into the act, and suddenly Till has the whole orchestra in his grip.

After several measures of quick fortissimo (very loud) eighth-note chords for most of the orchestra, Strauss concludes this opening as Till metaphorically sticks out his tongue at us. While the rest of the orchestra is silent, the solo D clarinet has a saucy seven-note phrase (Strauss marked it to be played “merrily.”) The last note of the phrase is played at the same time the oboes and English horn hit a sforzando (heavily accented) chord held for two measures, then the rest of the orchestra punctuates things with another fortissimo chord—and we’re off, watching Till race away on his adventures. But Strauss has already served notice that there’s more going on here than is apparent at first glance. The chord played by the oboes and English horn punctuating the D clarinet’s musical raspberry is, in fact, the iconic “Tristan” chord—from Wagner’s monumental music drama Tristan und Isolde, close to “sacred” for some German musicians of the day. Using it as Strauss does here is about as Till-esque as he could be. It’s both an inside joke for the connoisseur and, at the same time, a marvelously piquant sound that even the most casual listener will enjoy.

In his own score, Strauss added several annotations in longhand. Underneath the opening four measures of the first theme, he wrote, “Once upon a time there was a roguish jester . . . ,” and underneath the first horn call, “. . . whose name was Till Eulenspiegel.” Underneath the D clarinet’s musical raspberry he penned the words, “That was a rascally scamp!” He added several other comments at various places in the score—as did his wife Pauline, whose comments typically tended toward the caustic (“awful” and “mad” were some of her terms).

Pauline missed the point. With Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss broke new ground. Never before had a composer created with such a vast instrumental palette or used it with an insouciance as breathtaking as it was appropriate to its subject. Strauss’s glee at realizing his audacity and skill runs through every measure. But that, too, is part of the character of Till Eulenspiegel.

Paul Thomason

Paul Thomason is a freelance writer with a special affection for the works of Richard Strauss.

Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) | Richard Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic (Preiser, a 1944 recording in very listenable mono sound)  

Reading: Richard Strauss, by Norman Del Mar (Cornell University Press) |  Richard Strauss—Man, Musician, Enigma, by Michael Kennedy (Cambridge University Press)  |   Richard Strauss, by Tim Ashley (Phaidon 20th Century Composers)  |    “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in the essay collection (by Rothe and Michael Steinberg) For the Love of Music (Oxford) 

(January 2018)