Richard Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

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

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria, on June 11, 1864, and died at his home in Garmisch, Ger­many, on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1949. His Opus 28 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. The work had its world pre­mière on Novem­ber 5, 1895, in Cologne, con­duct­ed by Franz Wüll­ner. The first per­for­mance in the Unit­ed States was con­duct­ed by Theodore Thomas with the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra on Novem­ber 15, 1895. Till Eulen­spiegel is, indeed, writ­ten for a large orches­tra: three flutes and pic­co­lo, three oboes and Eng­lish horn, clar­inet in D, two clar­inets in B-flat, bass clar­inet in B-flat, three bas­soons and con­tra­bas­soon, four horns in F, four horns in D, three trum­pets in F, three trum­pets in D, three trom­bones, bass tuba, tri­an­gle, cym­bals, bass drum, snare drum, large rat­tle, tim­pani, and strings. 

If Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulen­spiegel were a food, it would be one of the most scrump­tious­ly per­fect souf­flés ever made — the tri­umphant mar­riage of culi­nary tech­nique brought to bear on exquis­ite ingre­di­ents, all at the peak of their savori­ness, result­ing in a dish that could delight both a child and the most jad­ed gour­mand. It is no sur­prise the work has become such an audi­ence favorite. It’s one of those mag­i­cal pieces of music where every­thing – form, con­tent, tech­nique, and col­or — seems to mesh per­fect­ly

The fact this musi­cal-culi­nary 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 95 tales that make up Till Eulen­spiegel, His Adven­tures, (orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten, or com­piled by a fig­ure iden­ti­fied only as “N.”): “Strauss’ 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 ever, in fact, live? The last of the tales says he died in 1350, and leg­end has attrib­uted his death to the plague. But some “prov­able” 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 pos­si­ble even when they were written/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. Oppen­heimer gives yet anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty: an ear­ly form of the name was “Ulen­spiegel,” which can eas­i­ly be under­stood as “Ul’n speghel” (in hunter’s jar­gon of the time “a com­mand or invi­ta­tion to ‘wipe one’s arse.’ ”) Since many of the 95 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 95 tales are more than an enter­tain­ing col­lec­tion of pranks. Though there’s almost no overt mor­al­iz­ing in the book (unusu­al in a book of its nature at the time), 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 famous­ly 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 as an enor­mous­ly impor­tant com­pos­er for the orches­tra at the age of 24. This was con­firmed by the appear­ance of Tod und Verk­lärung (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 any­way. 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 — 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 — well, it seemed the per­fect sub­ject to Strauss at the time.

Wood­cut by Hans Bal­dung Grien for a 1515 edi­tion of the tales.

Even­tu­al­ly Strauss real­ized that the episod­ic nature of his hero 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, using the ron­do form, the episod­ic nature that wouldn’t work on stage, was per­fect for the con­cert hall. The result was Till Eulen­spiegels lustige Stre­iche nach alter Schel­men­weise in Ron­deau­form für gross­es Orch­ester geset­zt—Till Eulenspiegel’s mer­ry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orches­tra in ron­do form.

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 good 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, as well. 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.

Till even got his own postage stamp.

Before the pre­mière of Till Eulen­spiegel in Cologne in 1895, the con­duc­tor, Franz Wüll­ner, wrote to Strauss ask­ing about a writ­ten pro­gram, like the poem print­ed in the score of Don Juan. 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 offence.  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 “two Eulen­spiegel themes” are clear­ly stat­ed in the begin­ning mea­sures of the piece: the first is the open­ing melody in the vio­lins (the first 13 notes); the sec­ond is the famous horn call that fol­lows imme­di­ate­ly. In this open­ing the two themes are vast­ly dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter, but lat­er on Strauss some­times alters their char­ac­ter tremen­dous­ly. The open­ing five mea­sures are about as gemütlich as you can get. It’s almost impos­si­ble to hear it with­out think­ing along the lines of “Once upon a time…” It’s 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 the group of well-behaved chil­dren who are lis­ten­ing to a sto­ry.

That horn call, which every French horn play­er in the world seems to be unable to resist play­ing while warm­ing up for a con­cert, 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 eighth note chords for most of the orches­tra, Strauss brings this open­ing to a close by hav­ing Till metaphor­i­cal­ly stick 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 “lustig” or “mer­ri­ly.”) The last note of the phrase is played at the same time the oboes and Eng­lish horn hit a sforzan­do chord they hold 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, like the gourmet chef, 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, and about as close to “sacred” for some Ger­man musi­cians of the day as it was pos­si­ble to get. Using it as Strauss does here is, well, about as Till-esque as you can get. It’s both an inside joke for the con­nois­seur, but at the same time, it’s also a mar­velous­ly piquant sound even the most casu­al lis­ten­er will enjoy.

Young Strauss the con­duc­tor.

In Strauss’s own score, under­neath the open­ing four mea­sures when the vio­lins play the first theme, Strauss hand­wrote “Once upon a time there was a rougish jester…” And under­neath the first horn call he wrote, “…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. Unlike her husband’s, Pauline’s com­ments tend­ed toward the caus­tic: words like “awful” and “mad.”

Pauline was wrong of course, and maybe she was jok­ing. (In any case, Strauss didn’t erase her addi­tions to his score.) With Till Eulen­spiegel Strauss broke new ground musi­cal­ly. Nev­er before had a com­pos­er cre­at­ed with such a vast instru­men­tal palette or used it with an insou­ciance that was as breath­tak­ing as it was appro­pri­ate to its sub­ject (and tech­ni­cal­ly well-neigh per­fect­ly). The sense of glee at Strauss’ audac­i­ty, and skill, runs through­out every mea­sure of the piece. But that, too, is a part of the char­ac­ter of Till Eulen­spiegel. And to think the sub­ject of his next tone poem would be about as far from the char­ac­ter of Till Eulen­spiegel as it is pos­si­ble to get: Friedrich Nietzsche’s philo­soph­i­cal­ly auda­cious tome, Also Sprach Zarathus­tra.

Per­haps the time has come to admit that as a com­pos­er, Richard Strauss is much more than an enter­tain­ing tech­ni­cian. In fact, he can be one of the most pro­found com­posers West­ern music has.

A slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny pro­gram book and is used here with per­mis­sion.