Notes by TŌN oboist Jasper Igusa
The Merry Prankster
Richard Strauss depicts the pranks and misadventures of the German peasant folk hero Till Eulenspiegel in his tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). The title character, an infamous trickster always portrayed as the protagonist, precedes Strauss’ work by hundreds of years. His origins are murky, but Till’s first recorded appearance was in a German chapbook in 1515, published by an unknown author who signed their writings only with an “N.” The trickster archetype of Till Eulenspiegel has been adapted since then, including a notable novel written in 1867 that characterizes him as a heroic Flemish prankster during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands.
Strauss’ rendition sticks closer to Till’s origin story. His work opens with what has been described as the musical equivalent to a “Once upon a time” prologue. The piece, and the story it tells, begins in earnest with the first of two themes that represents Till Eulenspiegel himself, played by the French Horn. The orchestra takes over this theme and concludes this section with two repeated notes. Then the second theme arrives, played by an unaccompanied E-flat clarinet. Although some scholars have suggested a detailed sequence of events that Strauss has depicted, from a horse ride to a marketplace to a run-in with the Teutonic clergy, Strauss was not in the business of assigning a detailed story. One is in a much better position to appreciate Strauss’ work if the bulk of the “story” is left for their own imagination and interpretation. That is, save for the graphic ending of the work.
A New Ending
In the original publication, Till dies of the plague in 1350; the infamous “Black Death.” In Strauss’ work, however, Till meets his end at the gallows, sentenced to death for blasphemy. The tutti brass section represents the strong arm of the law while the E-flat clarinet interjects in vain with its theme. The clarinet belts out what sounds like a death scream as the drop begins, and pizzicato strings conclude his death scene. Immediately following, the “Once upon a time” material returns, affirming that the character of Till Eulenspiegel lives on, even though Strauss’ rendition has come to a close.