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Strauss, R (1864-1949) - Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche,(nach alter Schelmenweise - In Rondeauform - für grosses Orchester gestetzt)

The adventures (misadventures?) of Till Eulenspiegel first appeared in a Fifteenth Century book, and have since entered the realm of German folklore. Attracted by its many comic and dramatic possibilities, Strauss at first considered an opera, but soon abandoned this in favour of a compact symphonic poem. This was a Good Idea, because it gave us his most brilliant, inspired, and action-packed score (probably). Strauss had transcribed several incidents from the book, but not into the score. He clearly intended us to invent our own storylines, a principle he held less than consistently! Actually, his attitude to “programme music” was, rather surprisingly, ambivalent: on the one hand he boasted that he could portray even a stein of beer in music, while on the other he asked, “Do you know what 'programme music' is? I don't. There is only good and bad music.” Good point. Maybe ambivalence is ultimately the best attitude. If particular music conjures up vivid images, just enjoy them along with the music. If not, just enjoy the music. Certainly with this music, superlatively crafted and characterised in every respect, we stand a better than average chance of either. 

Till Eulenspiegel, or (to translate its full title) Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, after an old rogue's tale - in rondo form - set for full orchestra, appeared in 1895, a full six years after his immensely successful first symphonic poem, Don Juan. It was followed during the next few years by three more, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben, all much bigger and (some would say) sprawling, even inflated pieces. 

Although Strauss said Till Eulenspiegel is in rondo form, you might have trouble discerning it because the music is virtually devoid of literal repeats. Only once, just over two-thirds through, do you find something like a repeat, lending a feeling of sonata-form recapitulation. It's a rondo only inasmuch as its three main themes “come round in turn”, though even this is camoflaged by subjecting the themes to an utterly incredible range of variations, frequently sucking fragments of the other themes into the fray. This is surely deliberate, part of the characterisation of Till, the archetypal troublemaker, a legendary “lovable rogue”, though I'd hesitate to call any rogue “lovable” if he upset my apple-cart! Apparently, my reservations were shared by at least some of his neighbours, if the graphic “execution scene” near the end is anything to go by. 

The work opens lyrically, the first theme starting in two-note violin phrases, then briefly flowing. A woodwind tail links to the famous second theme, a horn surging optimistically aloft before cascading catastrophically downwards. Strauss works this into a climax preceding the third subject, a mischievous little skirl from the woodwind. The stage is set, and the adventures of Till Eulenspiegel begin in earnest. Should I go on to “describe” the music, elucidate its form? I think not (it'd take pages, anyway!). No, this time I shall simply leave you in the capable hands of a supreme orchestral magician, to weave his eternal spell once again, and transport you into your own secret playground.
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© Paul Serotsky
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