Strauss, R (1864-1949) - Till Eulenspiegels Lustige
Streiche,(nach alter Schelmenweise - In Rondeauform - für grosses
(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.
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
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.
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.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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