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Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28

About the Work

Richard Strauss
Quick Look Composer: Richard Strauss
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Heinz Fricke, conductor/Christine Brandes, soprano Jan. 13 - 15, 2005
© Richard Freed
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, composed in 1894 and '95, was given its premiere on November 5 of the latter year by the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Franz Wüllner. The National Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of the work on October 27, 1946, under Hans Kindler, and presented it most recently in a National Conducting Institute concert on June 30, 2001, with Kevin Allen Woods conducting.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo; 3 oboes and English horn; 2 clarinets, small clarinet in D and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns (and 4 more ad lib.), 3 trumpets (e more ad lib.), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, rattle, and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.
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A short time after he completed Don Juan and Macbeth, in his 25th year, Strauss wrote to his mentor Hans von Bülow that he did not intend to compose his subsequent tone poems according to a “formula”:
To create a correspondingly new form for every new subject, to shape which neatly and perfectly, is a very difficult task, but for that very reason the more attractive.
Within about ten years he produced a half-dozen more tone poems, and he did undertake to cast each of them in a different form. One of the most substantial, Don Quixote, is laid out as a set of expansive variations in which the solo cello has a role of such prominence that all virtuosi of that instrument include the work among the concertos in their repertoires. For Till Eulenspiegel, which is both the shortest work in the series and the most ingratiating (though its early audiences didn't always find it so), Strauss chose the appropriately good-natured form of the rondo and labeled the piece as such, adding, on the title page, “in the old-style roguish manner.”

“Roguish” is certainly the word for the work's hero, a notorious prankster said to have flourished in northern Germany and Flanders in the fourteenth century. Till was real enough to have a statue erected in his memory in the town of Mölln, where according to legend he died in 1350 or thereabouts and was given a gravestone that bore no written name, but only the chiseled image of an owl with a looking glass. The name Eulenspiegel means “Owl's Mirror” and alludes to an old adage, “One sees one's own faults no more clearly than an owl sees its own ugliness in a looking glass.” The bearer of this name became a sort of folk hero over the centuries: the prototype of the rogue, the scamp, the practical joker without peer, the free spirit thumbing his nose at the hypocrisy of the Establishment, holding his “owl's mirror” up to society. A good-sized literature grew up around him, and there have been stage works as well.

The actual Till, or Tyl, may not have been quite such a jolly fellow. Until about thirty years ago, the earliest account of his adventures was thought to be the one in the Volksbuch of Thomas Murner (1475-1530), who depicted him as a vagabond tinker from Brunswick. In the early 1970s, though, Bernd Ulrich Hucker, a history scholar in Münster, discovered what now appears to be the earliest Eulenspiegel edition, written by a customs scribe named Hermann Bote (ca. 1460-1520) and published by him in 1510 and 1511. In 1977 Hucker published his study of the Bote version, which portrays Till as a far less humorous character and indeed a downright malevolent one, a symbol of the Devil, created as a dire warning to good Christians, a serialized “bad example” whose misdeeds and retribution were to provide a chilling object lesson in the wages of sin.

That original image was broadly modified with the passing of time, much as Billy the Kid and other figures of our own Wild West were romanticized. What is of concern to us in the context of Strauss's musical depiction is that the composer based his work on the popularly accepted figure of fun and mischief, not on the original grim deterrent to temptation, and the young upsetter of the musical Establishment in the 1890s surely found this rogue a character after his own heart.

The music begins with the strings' affectionate statement of a phrase that fits the words “Es war einmal” (“Once upon a time”), and then the solo horn introduces Till's odd-shaped, energetic theme and we are off and away on a chain of adventures. Here is Till charging through the market place and upsetting the housewives' baskets, Till disguised as a monk preaching a blasphemous sermon, Tell the flirt, the rejected suitor, the false scholar. Eventually the impish ne'er-do-well goes too far, and must answer for his enormities on the gallows; but even here he manages to have the last laugh, and the brief epilogue, with its reprise of the “Es war einmal” theme, is a touching observation that Till was a good fellow after all, superior to his judges in humanity and eminently worthy of the tribute rendered him in Strauss's colorful, warmhearted portrait.