On November 29, 30, and December 1, the Houston Symphony celebrates Thanksgiving with A Musical Feast: All-Strauss Thanksgiving, a program featuring four of Richard Strauss’s greatest masterpieces. In this post, discover Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a lively comic work about the conflict between stern forces of repression and the irrepressible spirit of freedom.
The legend of Till Eulenspiegel, the medieval German trickster, is supposedly based on a real person who lived during the first half of the 14th century, although the earliest written accounts of his exploits date from nearly 200 years later. If there ever was a real Eulenspiegel (whose name translates as “Owlglass” in English), he would no doubt be pleased by the extraordinary tales he inspired; in story after story, the irreverent fool exposes the pomposity and hypocrisy of the Holy Roman Empire’s authority figures—be they princes, scholars, clergy, or master craftsmen—through outrageous (and often scatological) pranks.
Such a character might seem an unusually frivolous subject for a major orchestral work, but it was precisely this lack of seriousness that appealed to Strauss. In the post-Wagner era, many cultural critics began to attribute grandiose spiritual or philosophical properties to music, and composers frequently attempted to “scale the heights” and “plumb the depths” of human experience with serious, emotionally intense works. Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung is a prime example; by contrast, Till Eulenspiegel is Strauss’s rebellion against these expectations. Indeed many years later, when asked whether he had any “metaphysical” intentions in Eulenspiegel, Strauss responded, “Oh, no—I only wanted to give the people in the concert hall a good laugh for once.”
Strauss completed Till Eulenspiegel in May 1895, and the premiere took place in Cologne the following November. At first, Strauss was strangely reluctant to provide a detailed program for this explicitly narrative music. To the conductor of the premiere he wrote, “Let the gay Cologners guess what a rogue has done to them by way of musical tricks […]” Later, he sanctioned a program based on notes he had scribbled into his score. Interestingly, it is difficult to link the episodes of Strauss’s tone poem to specific literary sources, and when such links are possible, Strauss frequently diverges from the accepted narrative with his own plot twists. In the end, Strauss’s version seems to focus on the conflict between repressive authorities and the merry, libidinous spirit of freedom and irreverence that would expose their illegitimacy.
The piece begins with a gentle introduction—a musical “Once upon a time”:
This leads to the first motif associated with our hero: introduced by a solo horn, this short, repeated figure perfectly fits the syllables of the name “Till Eulenspiegel.” After some development of this idea, the orchestra builds to a series of expectant pauses. At last, the miscreant appears with a second distinctive motif, this time presented by a solo clarinet. In the score, Strauss wrote “das war ein arger Kobold”—“he was a troublesome devil!”
The following development is not accompanied by any programmatic note; presumably Till is looking for trouble, which he soon finds. The music becomes quiet, and we hear Till’s theme fragmented in the lower strings, as if he is walking on tiptoe. A sudden cymbal crash is accompanied by a note from Strauss: “Hop! On horseback straight through the market women,” whose shrieks are vividly depicted with flutter-tongue trumpets. After making a mess of things, Till escapes by virtue of magic boots that allow him to leap seven leagues away (a pause in the music).
After hiding in “a mouse hole,” he disguises himself as a priest, “oozing of unction and morality” (a faux-dignified theme for violas, clarinet, and bassoons), but his mischievous character peeks through with his characteristic clarinet motif. He delivers a blasphemous sermon with a violin solo, but muted brass express his creeping fears that he might get into serious trouble. Next, he exchanges “sweet courtesies with beautiful girls” (delicate violin and woodwind solos) and falls for one of them (“he has got it really badly,” Strauss notes). The music becomes more passionate as he attempts to woo her, but quiets down as she tries to gently rebuff his advances. “A delicate jilt is still a jilt,” however, and Till is furious; “He vows he will take revenge on all mankind” (the orchestra cuts off and four horns play Till’s theme in unison).
Next he meets the pedagogues—grim school masters depicted by bassoons and bass clarinet (interestingly, Strauss also labels them “Philistines” in his score). Till stumps them with questions that reveal the ludicrous nature of their doctrines and dogmas, to which they attempt tangled, contrapuntal responses. He “dances on their heads” and after posing “a couple of atrocious theses to these philistines, he leaves them to their fate,” turning back to them from a distance with a “big grimace”—or perhaps some other rude gesture—a long, dissonant chord for full orchestra.
Till escapes, whistling a jaunty tune that could have come from an operetta by one of those other Strausses; his whistling quickly falls silent, however, and a still, ominous passage ensues. Has Till perhaps gone too far? Casting aside any doubts, his signature horn tune reappears as he plans an escapade even grander than the rest. Strauss chose not to specify the precise nature of this adventure, but the intoxicating musical orgy grows wilder and wilder, climaxing with a devil-may care rendition of the priest-disguise music.
Suddenly, a snare drum ends the merriment, and overbearing brass announce that a party has come to arrest Till—presumably for blasphemy. At first Till continues to joke, but then the motif of his fears returns as he realizes that there is no escape. Till is hanged, graphically depicted with a strangled clarinet. This is perhaps Strauss’s most significant deviation from the traditional legend, in which Till always escapes.
The tone poem ends with an epilogue; the “once upon a time” narrator’s voice that began the piece returns, as if summing up the moral of the story: “and so my children, it’s best to be good and behave.” Till’s mischievous motifs have the last word, though, suggesting that his spirit of rebellion is ultimately irrepressible.