Length: 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, ratchet, snare drum, and triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 19, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Following a crushing failure with his first opera (Guntram), Strauss returned to the tone poem. He indulged a sort of revenge in choosing as his topic the individual who thumbs his nose at society (originally intended as another opera). This was the composer’s take on the German legend of Till Eulenspiegel, a mischievous trickster who became known in folkloric stories as a sort of con artist meets jester.
Strauss compared the charming opening measures to a fairy tale’s beginning. Soon Till bursts in on the scene in two themes: the first given to solo horn (spanning nearly three octaves) and the second a giggling flourish on clarinet. Till’s exploits – Strauss’ score has been plundered by generations of cartoon music composers – include riding his horse through the marketplace and overturning its wares to the sound of a ratchet, dressing up as a clergyman (bloated bassoons and violas), flirting with the pretty girls (swooning strings) and getting rejected, and then mocking a parade of pompous academics.
After a galloping horse ride, Till is put on trial, condemned, and – with a sudden change of tone ushered in by a snare drum roll and ominous brass – marched to the scaffold, pleading in vain. A shriek high in the clarinet announces his demise. But Strauss frames the proceedings with the initial fairy tale music, bringing the prankster back for a final surprise.
The result is one of the finest examples of musical humor ever elaborated. But it’s significant that, however detailed the musical “narrative” sounds to us, Strauss insisted that his witty invention was all “spent in notes.” Indeed one of the score’s marvels is its elaboration of such plentiful variety from the source of Till’s two themes.
- Thomas May is senior music editor at Amazon.com and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.