Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria, on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch, Germany, on September 8, 1949. He completed Till Eulenspiegel on May 6, 1895, and Franz Wüllner conducted the first performance on November 5 of that year in Cologne. Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra introduced the work to this country on November 15, 1895. Henry Hadley led the first San Francisco Symphony performance in February 1914. The most recent performances here were given under the direction of Kurt Masur in January 2007. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes and English horn, two clarinets plus high clarinet in D and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns plus four more ad lib., three trumpets plus three more ad lib., three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, ratchet, and strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.
There was an actual Till Eulenspiegel, born early in the fourteenth century near Braunschweig and gone to his reward—in bed, not on the gallows as in Strauss’s tone poem—in 1350 at Mölln in Schleswig-Holstein. Stories about him have been in print since the beginning of the sixteenth century, the first English version coming out around 1560 under the title Here beginneth a merye Jest of a man that was called Howleglas (Eule in German means “owl” and Spiegel means “mirror” or “looking-glass”). The consistent and serious theme behind his jokes and pranks, often in themselves distinctly coarse and even brutal, is that of an individual getting back at society, specifically, the shrewd peasant more than holding his own against a stuffy bourgeoisie and a repressive clergy. The most famous version of Till Eulenspiegel was published in 1866 by the Belgian novelist Charles de Coster.
Richard Strauss knew de Coster’s book, and it seems also that in 1899 in Würzburg he saw an opera called Eulenspiegel by Cyrill Kistler, a Bavarian composer whose earlier opera Kunihild had a certain currency in the 1880s and early 1890s, and for which he was proclaimed Wagner’s heir. Strauss’s first idea was to compose an Eulenspiegel opera. He sketched a scenario and later commissioned another, but somehow the project never got into gear. “I have already put together a very pretty scenario,” he wrote in a letter, “but the figure of Master Till does not quite appear before my eyes.”
But if Strauss could not see Master Till, he could hear him, and before 1894 was out, he had begun the tone poem that he finished the following May. As always, he could not make up his mind whether he was engaged in tone painting or “just music.” To Franz Wüllner, who conducted the first performance, he wrote: “I really cannot provide a program for Eulenspiegel. Any words into which I might put the thoughts that the several incidents suggested to me would hardly suffice; they might even offend. Let me leave it, therefore, to my listeners to crack the hard nut the Rogue has offered them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems enough to point out the two Eulenspiegel motifs [Strauss jots down the opening of the work and the virtuosic horn theme], which, in the most diverse disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe when, after being condemned to death, Till is strung up on the gibbet. For the rest, let them guess at the musical joke a Rogue has offered them.”
On the other hand, for Wilhelm Mauke, the most diligent of early Strauss exegetes, the composer was willing to offer a more detailed scenario—Till among the market-women, Till disguised as a priest, Till paying court to pretty girls, and so forth—the sort of thing guaranteed to have the audience anxiously reading the program book instead of listening to the music, probably confusing priesthood and courtship anyway, wondering which theme represents “Till confounding the Philistine pedagogues,” and missing most of Strauss’s dazzling invention in the process. It is probably useful to identify the two Till themes, the very first violin melody and what the horn plays about fifteen seconds later, and to say that the opening music is intended as a “once-upon-a-time” prologue that returns after the graphic trial and hanging as a charmingly formal epilogue with a rowdily humorous “kicker.” (Incidentally, if you’ve ever been shown in a music appreciation class how to “tell” rondo form, forget it now.) For the rest, Strauss’s compositional ingenuity and orchestral bravura plus your attention and fantasy will see to the telling of the tale.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance on DVD (ICA Classics) | Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca—out of print but available as a CD reissue from arkivmusic.com) | Karl Böhm with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals) | Rudolf Kempe with the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI Classics)
Reading: Richard Strauss, by Norman Del Mar (Cornell University Press, three volumes) | Richard Strauss—Man, Musician, Enigma, by Michael Kennedy (Cambridge University Press) | Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait, by Kurt Wilhelm (Thames & Hudson) | “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in the essay collection (by Rothe and Michael Steinberg) For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)