15 Feb 2012

Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, ratchet, snare drum, triangle, strings

Duration: 15 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949) – Strauss was in the midst of rehearsals for his first opera Guntram when he got official word of his appointment as Kappellmeister in Munich. This was 1894 and though Guntram would not be a success, Strauss was on his way to making a name for himself as a conductor and orchestral composer. This was thanks especially to his tone poems, which began to display even more sophistication and instrumental color.

THE MUSIC – Strauss originally considered the story of the mediaeval troublemaker Till Eulenspiegel to be worthy of full operatic treatment. Whether he was still smarting over the failure of Guntram or just simply thought better of it, he eventually struck just the right balance in 1895 with the concentrated energy and concision of the tone poem form. The character of Till himself dates back (at least) to the 15th century in tales of roguish misadventure and trickery. His legend plays largely upon the common man’s belief that avarice can be found behind every pillar in the halls of the entitled and that it is the gift of the good-hearted, witty fool to expose them. The Strauss version of Till’s exploits opens expectantly, like the first page of a child’s board book. Once the stage is properly set and the hero is identified, the listener follows Till’s path of social destruction as he frustrates workmen, pastors and intellectuals alike. His efforts earn him an appearance before the town’s judges and they, upon reviewing his life’s work to date, find him worthy of nothing less than death. Till, perfectly in character to the very end, gets off one last mocking phrase before the execution cuts him dramatically short. With this nasty bit of business done, Strauss uses the last page of the story book to recall the first while also assuring any remaining doubters that Till, regardless of what we have just witnessed, lives on.                  

THE WORLD – Cuba began an attempt to throw off Spanish rule in 1895. The First Sino-Japanese War ended that same year. Also in 1895, H.G. Wells published The Time Machine and Oscar Wilde staged The Importance of Being Earnest.

THE CONNECTIONTill Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks is one of the most popular of Strauss’ tone poems for the Utah Symphony. It was last performed in 2008 with Hannu Lintu conducting.