Listening Guide: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss

Inspired by a mythical figure from 16th century German folkfolore, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks tells the story of Till’s pranks at the expense of the rich and powerful.

By Paul Schiavo

Till Eulenspiegel is one of the most colorful figures in German folklore. A rogue, a prankster, an impudent mocker of authority, Till sowed confusion and disorder wherever he went. He overturned stalls in the marketplace, caricatured priests and politicians, seduced young girls and deceived old maids. His tricks usually were at the expense of the most staid members of society — the prosperous and the powerful, the pious, the dull and the prudish — and thus provided both entertainment and social satire.

Accounts of Till’s deeds and misdeeds have circulated in Germany since the 16th century, but his fame has spread abroad largely by way of the musical portrait of him created by Richard Strauss in Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Completed in 1895, this tone poem is unusual among Strauss’ works in this form for its brevity, humor and lack of a detailed program — that is, an outline of the dramatic ideas embodied in the music.

On this last matter, the composer wrote: “It is impossible for me to furnish a program for Till Eulenspiegel; were I to put into words the thoughts which its several incidents suggest to me, they would not suffice for the listener and might even give offense. Let me therefore leave it to my hearers to crack the nut the rogue has presented them.” Strauss went on to admit only that the final “scene” of the tone poem represents Till’s capture, trial and hanging.

Till Eulenspiegel opens with five measures of prologue whose gentle musing seems to say: “Once upon a time ...” Immediately a horn intrudes with the first of two thematic ideas associated with the title character. The second, a sly motif announced by a solo clarinet, follows shortly. These two subjects appear repeatedly and in a variety of guises during the episodes that follow, as the orchestra romps with Till through his riotous adventures.

But just as the proceedings reaches a height of exuberance, they are halted by a chilling drum roll. Loud chords now thunder accusations at Till, which he answers with the insolent clarinet motif. A rope is tightened around Till’s neck, and he meets his end. Now the mild music of the prologue returns, as if to assure us that all this has been only a story. But Till may yet have the last laugh: the final moments suggest his spirit still alive and at large in the world.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony perform Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, June 13–15 at Benaroya Hall.

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Posted on May 23, 2019

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