Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 on Tuesday, April 30th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

It is no surprise that Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel has become such an audience favorite. It is 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.

As Paul Oppenheimer (b. 1939) puts it in the fascinating introduction to his translation of the ninety-five tales that make up Till Eulenspiegel, His Adventures (originally written, or compiled by, a figure identified only as “N.”), “Strauss’s 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, in fact, ever live? The last of the tales says he died in 1350. But some 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 human who might have lived centuries ago.

Obviously Till Eulenspiegel is more than a charming rogue, and his ninety-five tales are more than an entertaining collection of pranks. Though there is almost no overt moralizing in the stories (unusual in a book of its nature and era), Till Eulenspiegel takes people at their word, acting time after time on what they actually say rather than what they mean—thus pointing out the general absurdity of conventional life. As Goethe (1749 – 1832) said of Eulenspiegel: “All the chief jests of the book depend on this: that everybody speaks figuratively and Eulenspiegel takes it literally.”

Strauss already had a growing reputation as a composer of songs when his first major tone poem, Don Juan, established him at the age of twenty-four as an enormously important composer for orchestra. The appearance of Death and Transfiguration confirmed his rise to prominence the following year. Add to that his growing reputation as one of the top conductors of his day, and it seemed Richard Strauss had it all, musically. So when his first opera, Guntram, was a giant flop in his hometown of Munich, the rejection stung for the rest of his life. And thus the idea of writing an opera on Till Eulenspiegel seemed the perfect subject to Strauss at the time, given a protagonist who is a wily, independent rogue—one 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.

Eventually Strauss realized that the episodic nature of his hero’s story 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. Furthermore, as a tone poem based on the rondo form, its episodic nature was perfect for the concert hall.

Before the 1895 premiere of Till Eulenspiegel in Cologne, the conductor Franz Wüllner wrote to Strauss asking about a written program. 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 offense. 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 overall form of the tone poem is a rondo. Since a rondo is a work with a recurring theme, Strauss united its various "pranks" by associating the character of Till with the recurring theme, which is a magnificent, almost maniacally difficult horn solo. In the course of his mischief, Till encounters peasants and preachers, goes courting and is rejected, and makes fun of intelligentsia. In each of these adventures, Strauss ingeniously weaves the rondo theme into the texture of the music in various guises; one can always tell that Till is in the forefront of the action. In the end, Till is brought before judges, and his life is briefly reviewed before he is sentenced to death. A final mocking gesture ends the work in an amazing transformation of the original theme.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 on April 30th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith