Late 1894 to May 6, 1895 in Munich
November 5, 1895 in Cologne, conducted by Franz Wüllner
Strauss began composing Till Eulenspiegel in late 1894, five years after he had completed his last tone poem, Tod und Verklärung. During this five-year gap, Strauss had been completely preoccupied with writing the music and libretto for his opera Guntram. The opera, which premiered in May 1894, was an uncharacteristic failure for the twenty-nine-year-old Strauss, and it was only ever staged a handful of times during his lifetime.
The next work that Strauss embarked on, Till Eulenspiegel bei den Schildbürgern, also began life as an opera. He originally intended it to take the form of a one-act Volksoper (folk opera) based on the folk character of the same name, but the project was scrapped with only a rough draft of the libretto ever completed.1 It is not entirely clear why Strauss abandoned this opera, but the recent failure of Guntram undoubtedly played a large role in the composer’s decision.
Nevertheless, Strauss remained inspired by the thought of a musical work based on the Till Eulenspiegel character, and soon turned his attention towards creating a purely symphonic work based on the idea. The finished result was titled Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, nach alter Schelmenweise—in Rondeauform—für grosses Orchester gestetzt (Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks, in the manner of an old rogue—in rondo form—set for full orchestra).2
Till Eulenspiegel is considered a heroic character in German folklore, with stories of his adventures dating all the way back to the fifteenth century (and earliest surviving texts dating from 1515).3 In these tales, Till Eulenspiegel is a prankster from Brunswick who delights in playing practical jokes on villagers from every social class. Despite the numerous, oftentimes vulgar tricks that Till Eulenspiegel took part in, he always managed to get away with no punishment. Strauss, however, decided to play his own macabre trick on the infamous joker: in the traditional story, Till outwits the executioners and later dies peacefully in his own bed, but in his tone poem, Strauss makes sure Till never escapes the scaffold.
Originally, Strauss was hesitant to divulge specific details about the various scenes he imagined for Till Eulenspiegel. The conductor of the premiere, Franz Wüllner, asked Strauss for further details on the programme shortly before the first performance. Strauss replied:
It is impossible to give Eulenspiegel a program. Put into words, what I was thinking as I composed the individual parts would appear damned funny and give much offense.4
Not long after the premiere, though, Strauss labeled over twenty different sections in Wilhelm Mauke’s copy of Till Eulenspiegel, which Mauke subsequently published in 1896.5 Since Strauss loosely structured the piece around the classical rondo form, he essentially made each episode a musical representation of one of Till’s various practical jokes. According to Strauss’s notes, some of the episodes depict Till flirting with women, mocking religion while dressed as a priest, and even brazenly riding a horse through a crowded market.
Unfortunately, Strauss did not include labels for the large, complex section between rehearsal numbers 26 and 38 (the bassoon excerpt begins 6 bars before Rehearsal 32). The first label that appears after this blank section is at Rehearsal 38: Das Gericht (The Court), so we can assume that Till had finally been chased down and apprehended by the authorities during the previous unlabeled section. Music historian James Hepokoski offers one explanation for the absence of any labels in this section, and I find it to be highly appropriate considering the difficulty of our bassoon excerpt. In his 1996 article “Framing Till Eulenspiegel,” Hepokoski argues that Till’s final, biggest prank of all is actually a prank on the musicians themselves:
As the programmatic labels fall away, we find that Till’s climactic prank is an essentially musical one, involving, among other things, a marked increase in rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity and a ratcheting up of sheer difficulty of performance… How many ensembles, one wonders, have come undone at just this point, as Till bedevils the very instrumentalists who are bringing him to life?6
1 Mark-Daniel Schmid, The Tone Poems of Richard Strauss and Their Reception History from 1887-1908 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1997), 230.
2 "Till Eulenspiegel," In The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev., ed. Michael Kennedy, Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e10272 (accessed June 27, 2011).
3 "Till Eulenspiegel," In Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/195195/Till-Eulenspiegel (accessed June 27, 2011).
4 James Hepokoski, “Framing Till Eulenspiegel,” 19th-Century Music 30, no. 1 (Summer 2006): 10.
5 Ibid., 11-12.
6 Ibid., 35-36.