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.
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.
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.
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.