R. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
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Emanuel Ax, possessing a pianism that is “always thoughtful, lyrical, [and] lustrous,” (The Washington Post) performs a blockbuster doubleheader of piano concertos including Mozart’s vividly mercurial Piano Concerto No. 14. Then, a German legend is brought to life in R. Strauss’ lively tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, which follows the story of a spirited and sometimes mischievous hero.
Take a peek behind-the-scenes and experience a San Francisco Symphony performance in the making. It begins at 8:30am with coffee, doughnuts, and a half-hour informative talk at 9am. Then, watch as the conductor and musicians collaborate to bring the music to life.
At a Glance
Leonore Overture No. 3 1806 | 14 mins
Beethoven’s love for opera was lifelong, but the success of the only opera he actually wrote (titled Fidelio, though originally named Leonore) arrived slowly and late. Beethoven went so far as to write four (!) overtures for the opera over the course of a decade. The one played tonight is the most popular of the four as a concert piece. Leonore No. 3 is a distillation of the Fidelio story, tracing in music the path from darkly troubled beginnings to a work of victory. It is a potent musical embodiment of noble humanistic passion.
Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K.449 1784 | 25 mins
In the winter of 1784, just after passing his twenty-eighth birthday, “old man” Mozart decided to get organized. By then, he had already composed about 450 pieces, and he had difficulty keeping track of them all. So in February 1784 he acquired a forty-four-page notebook, inscribed the cover with Catalogue of All My Works, and started recording an entry for every new composition he completed. DID YOU KNOW? The first work Mozart entered in the book is the concerto we hear this week. Charm inhabits the first movement. The slow movement is restrained, dignified, and hushed in character. It boasts beautiful melodies for the violas, and the keyboard part is strikingly elegant. The last movement includes some considerably dreamy episodes. The final pages gallop to the end with an extra infusion of vigor.
Piano Concerto, Opus 42 1942 | 20 mins
In the 1920s, Schoenberg was seeking an alternative to conventional Western tonality, the familiar musical language whose principles were being radically challenged by early Modernist composers. His twelve-tone method replaces the hierarchical system of major and minor scales with a tone row as the source of a work’s pitch material. LISTEN FOR: We hear it stated outright by the piano alone, at the very start of the work—well, sort of. Schoenberg allows a repetition of notes that shows him bending one of his own rules: notes of a tone row are not supposed to be repeated. The Piano Concerto teems with such “maverick” gestures. Schoenberg left brief parable-like descriptions of the Piano Concerto’s four sections: “Life was so easy,” “Suddendly [sic] hatred broke out,” “A grave situation was created," and “But life goes on.”
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks 1895 | 16 mins
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. 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. Strauss’s composition captures accurately, and even deliciously, the accents of Eulenspiegel’s foolishness, mischief, courage, and scorn.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.