Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks(1895)

By the turn of the 20th century, Richard Strauss was considered to be the cutting edge of musical modernism. Through the innovations of Wagner and Liszt, the “absolute” formal music of the symphony gave way to multi-dimensional music drama and then the symphonic tone poem as the leading Romantics sought to express the extra-musical world in program music. Strauss took up the cause pursing this “music of the future” following his own dictum that “new ideas must seek new forms” and elevated the art of the single-movement tone poem to a new pinnacle. His brilliant orchestrations nearly shocked with their vivid realism boldly depicting subject matter previously considered beyond the realm of instrumental music alone: Don Juan, Nietzsche’s Superman, Don Quixote, and the crude practical jokes of a medieval prankster.

Till Eulenspiegel is a colorful figure of Northern European folklore, a vagabond trickster that exposes the vice, hypocrisy and folly throughout society by pranking his fellow man. The name Eulenspiegel translates as “Owl Mirror” suggesting that he revealed wise reflections of the world around him. In 1895, Strauss published his third tone poem with the full title (translated): Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orchestra in rondo form. When asked for a program note, Strauss merely pointed out the two recurring themes representing Till as well as the “death motive” towards the conclusion when he is captured and hanged for blasphemy. The first theme is a rising, buoyant tune played initially by the horn. The second is a leering, falling tune played by the clarinet. Both themes recur in numerous imaginative variations throughout the rondo as Till gallops around the countryside undermining the proper folk represented by parodies of familiar musical clichés. That is, until he meets his fateful demise. But the merry prankster always rises again, a death defying legend. The music begins with a luxurious expansion of the roguish clarinet theme under which Strauss penned, “one upon a time . . .”

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