Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28 TrV 171

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A precocious musician, Strauss benefitted from an outstanding family life that was immersed in music. He studied musical composition early on, was well grounded in all aspects of harmony, form, and orchestration, and participated in the orchestras that his father, the eminent horn player, conducted. By his teens a series of youthful symphonic works were pouring from his pen: concert overtures, symphonies, marches and, of course, the famous two Serenades for winds, and the horn and violin concertos, which are recognized and frequently performed today. He furthered his intellectual development at University with studies of philosophy, Shakespeare, art, history, and æsthetics. Soon, with his fame as a composer growing, he found opportunities to conduct, and soon landed a minor conducting post in Meiningen. There, apprenticed to the great conductor, Hans von Bülow, he honed his conducting skills and advanced rapidly. And it was there that he began his move away from the conservative musical style of Johannes Brahms and embraced the more extravagant “music of the future” of Wagner and Liszt. That, of course, included a pivotal encounter with Liszt’s symphonic poems, or “tone” poems. An important genre that more or less originated with Liszt, it became the quintessential orchestral means of “telling a story” with a symphony orchestra. More or less the antithesis of a symphony—as in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—the symphonic poem takes as its subject matter, not just an abstract musical theme, but something in the real world and develops a depiction of it, and perhaps a narrative. It is the darling of those who prefer music to be “about” something, and went on to become an important part of romantic musical style in the orchestra. Some choice subjects of Liszt’s symphony poems included: battle scenes, a Shakespeare play, a philosophical idea, poems, a Victor Hugo story, and so forth.

Young Strauss adopted the idea with zeal, and took his first steps in that direction with Aus Italien (1886)—a reflection of his trip to Italy. Macbeth and Don Juan both followed in 1888 and soon Death and Transfiguration (1889). The latter two works brought him great recognition, and firmly established him as a master of writing for the orchestra. He knew exactly how to extract the most from its instrumental resources--so much so that generations of players complained of the “difficulty” of his works. His mastery of orchestration, and the ability to depict realistic, non-musical events and objects still amazes one. Whether sunrises (Also sprach Zarathustra—remember the movie 2001?), the bleating sheep in Don Quixote, or even the silverware on his breakfast table in Symphonia Domestica, his descriptive ability with a symphony orchestra is exceeded by no one. After Death and Transfiguration, he took a break from the composition of symphonic poems, and a six-year hiatus occurred while he turned his efforts to his conducting career and the composition of operas.

Attention to symphonic poems returned in 1895 with his riotous, lighthearted setting of the traditional German folk legend of Till Eulenspiegel—a scamp, a miscreant, and general all round rascal who managed to offend just about everyone before society hanged him. Strauss’ setting of several of these misadventures provided a perfect vehicle for a series of entertaining music scenes, carried along by spectacular orchestral effects and a scintillating musical style. The work is a simple succession of putative episodes in Till’s life, tied together by a few simple, recognizable musical themes.

The gentle opening in the strings—and the epitaph at the end—most conceive as the narrator: “Once upon a time . . .”, etc. Immediately, though, Till’s ubiquitous theme is heard in the solo horn, and will tie much of this work together. Later, the solo clarinet plays a little “yuck, yuck” theme that stands for much of his pranks and essential cheekiness. As the tale unfolds, listen for his riding a horse through marketplace, upsetting all the stalls of the vendors in his mad dash; his wooing of a fair maiden (a tender theme, lushly scored in the violins); and his mocking of the academics, played by the bassoons. For all of his efforts, he is condemned to the gallows, so there is a funeral march, a vivid drag up the stairs of the gallows, and his actual execution, all colorfully and accurately depicted in the orchestra using those familiar themes from the beginning of the work. A little silence observes his passing—followed by a bit from the narrator of the opening and it’s over. But, no! Till, at his obstreperous best, has the last say—from the great beyond, presumably—in one last chortle of his famous theme.

It’s just about as far away from a Beethoven symphony as one can get, in formal structure, modesty of orchestration, melodic economy of means—and just about every other fundamental of symphonic tradition. But it is a work of genius, and simply shows the diversity of accomplished art.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan