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  • Writer's pictureNorman Young

Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks - Richard Strauss

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

I've just completed a major project performing Richard Strauss's Tone Poem. This took over 200 hours to create and involves 114 tracks, so I hope you enjoy it.

The acoustics used are those from The Sage, Gatehead..

I have also produced a YouTube video of this work, with images and text:

Background to the work:

Richard Strauss said “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer”. He had to, of course, be pulling someone’s leg, but if you don’t believe me, listen to this remarkable work and I’m sure you will understand why I consider this work to show how brilliantly he understood the characteristics of each orchestral instrument and how he could use these to convey Till’s personality in this score.

Till Eulenspiegel is one of the most colourful figures in German folklore dating back to the 16th century.

Some suggest that Till Eulenspiegel was based on a real person. He is believed to have been born in Kneitlingen, Braunschweig and died in Mölln, Schleswig-Holstein in 1350, after succumbing to the Black Plague.

Till travelled extensively across the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Poland, and Italy, during which many of his mischievous adventures took place.

A rogue, a prankster, an impudent mocker of authority, Till sowed confusion and chaos wherever he went, playing the fool whilst exposing vice, corruption, greed and folly as he moves from city to city.

Nobody was immune to his irrational impudence: craftsmen, merchants, clergy, nobility, the judiciary and even the pope were lampooned. 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 — thus provided both entertainment and social satire.

Although accounts of Till’s deeds and misdeeds circulated in Germany from the 16th century, he was little known outside Germany. His fame spread abroard largely due to to this musical portrait. The music is cheeky and light hearted, picturing a medieval prankster doing what he does best.

There are two themes, the first is a lilting melody, known as “Once upon a time” played by the strings. It is followed by the first motif associated with our hero, played on the horn.

After some development of the idea, the orchestra builds to a series of expectant pauses.

At last, the miscreant appears with a second distinctive motif, this time played by a solo clarinet.

The music becomes quiet, and we hear Till's theme fragmented in the lower strings as if he is walking on tiptoe.

A sudden cymbal crash is followed with a scene depicting Till causing chaos as he gallops through the marketplace, upsetting the goods and wares. The shrieks of the market women can be heard in the flutter-toungued trumpets.

There is a comment from Strauss in the score Hop! on horseback straight through the market women.

After making a mess of things, Till escapes by virtue of magic boots that allow him to leap seven leagues away — represented by a pause in the music.

After hiding in a mouse hole, he disguises himself as a priest, oozing of unction and morality.

Strauss portrays in the score using violas, clarinets and bassoons.

Till's mischievous character 'peeks through' with his characteristic clarinet motif.

He delivers a blasphemous sermon depicted by a violin solo, but muted brass express his creeping fears that he might get into serious trouble.

He now exchanges sweet courtesies with beautiful girls. Strauss depicts this through the delicate violin and woodwind solos, and falls for one of them (he has got it really bad, as Strauss notes).

The music becomes more passionate as he attempts to woo her, but quietens down as she tries to gently rebuff his advances. The jilt, although delicate, makes Till furious and he vows he will take revenge on all mankind.

This is scored as the orchestra breaking off, followed by four horns playing Till's theme.

Next he meets the pedagogues — grim school masters — depicted by the bassoons and the bass clarinet. (Interestingly, Strauss also labels them as Philistines in his score).

Till stumps them with questions that reveal the ludicrous nature of their doctrines and dogmas, to which they attempt tangled, contrapuntal responses.

He dances on their heads and after posing a couple of atrocious theses to these philistines, he leaves them to their fate, turning back to them from a distance with a rude gesture — as scored with a long, Dissonant trill chord for the whole orchestra.

Till escapes, whistling a jaunty tune, which quickly falls silent. A still, ominous passage ensues. Has Till perhaps gone too far ? Casting any doubts, his signature tune reappears as he plans an escapade even grander than the rest.

Strauss chose not to specify the precise nature of this adventure, but the intoxicating musical orgy grows wilder and wilder, climaxing with a devil may care rendition of the priest-disguise music.

Suddenly a snare drum ends the merriment, and overbearing brass announce that the authorities have come to arrest Till — presumably for blasphemy.

At first Till continues to joke, but then the motif of his fears returns as he realises that there is no escape.

After a moment of silence, the enchanting epilogue begins and we are gently reminded of the ‘Once upon a time’ theme before the irrepressibly irreverent spirit of Till returns for one final musical gag.

This is likely to be the last work I create like this for a while - I'll be concentrating on new works (my own, if no composers send me some scores to perform)

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