Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Strauss - Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks

Richard Strauss was born into a very musical family. His father Franz Strauss was a virtuoso horn player and the principle horn of the Munich Court Opera.  Franz Strauss personally gave his son a thorough musical education and Richard was talented enough to have written his first composition when he was six years old.  He was also given private instruction by the assistant conductor of the Munich Court Orchestra and attended rehearsals of the orchestra on a regular basis.

Although Strauss heard his first Wagner opera when he was about ten years old, the elder Strauss was a musical conservative that detested 'modern' music.  Richard was not allowed to study any new music, as his father's strictly classical tastes ran to Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.   A side note about the elder Strauss, as principle horn in the Munich Opera Orchestra, he played in many premiers of Wagner's works. Although he hated Wagner's music, he was the consummate professional and studied the horn parts of the operas and played them to Wagner's satisfaction and praise.

Richard Strauss's early compositions were chamber works, and it was during this same time that he began his orchestra conductor apprenticeship with Hans von Bulow who was very fond of him and recommended Richard to take over the head conductor job of the orchestra when von Bulow resigned.

Strauss was introduced to much of Wagner's music by Alexander Ritter, who was a composer and violinist,  whom he met in 1885.  Strauss came under the influence of Wagner's music and began a series of tone poems that showed Strauss a master of orchestration and effects.. His first successful tone poem was Don Juan,  written in 1888.  Strauss made up for lost time and wrote many tone poems, all of them brilliantly orchestrated for a virtuoso orchestra. Most of Strauss' tone poems were written before 1900, as he concentrated on opera after that.

Til Eulenspiegel is a mythical man of German and North country folklore. There have been attempts to link the legend with a real person, but there has been no conclusive evidence to date. Til Eulenspiegel is a prankster, practical joker and all-around trouble maker of medieval northern Europe. There were books written about Til's exploits, and it appears no one was immune to the jokester's pranks. From craftsmen to officials of the church and state, Til fooled them all.  The literal translation of his name means 'owl mirror', and he is sometimes portrayed with both an owl and a mirror.  But there is also an unexpurgated version of the legend, where the name is translated from a different dialect in German that means 'wipe the backside'.  Tales of this Til are scatological and more for the adult reader than children.

Strauss represents Til in the very opening of the work with a quirky melody for horn that reaches the very bottom of the register of the instrument.  The work is in essence a rondo, and the horn tune is heard throughout the work. The clarinet also has a prominent part, but more for expressing the giggles of Til as he thinks up new ways to torment his victims. Much has been made of what the 'pranks' actually are that the orchestra relates,  but there can be too much made of trying to define the actual events and actions. It is more a question of what kind of mood the orchestra is conveying, in my opinion.  Whether teasing the pretty girls, tricking the local priest, mayor or blacksmith, the orchestra chuckles and chortles away as Til does his dirty work.

Towards the end of the piece, the tone painting becomes more distinct.  Right in the middle of Til's most boisterous shenanigans the orchestra turns stern and foreboding as drum beat out a rhythm and the brass blare out accusations- Til has been caught and must pay the price for his tom foolery.  The clarinet whimpers in between outbursts of the brass, and the clarinet finally shrieks its innocence as judgment comes down on Til's head, or rather his neck. A chord is heard in the brass, the music sweeps down low and the clarinet screams one last scream as Til is executed by the powers that be.  The music fades away, Til's tune is softly heard once again before the orchestra rouses to full force and blares out the ending of the piece, as if to say Til may be dead, but his spirit lives on.

1 comment:

  1. Aren't the first 15 notes of that Til Eulenspiegel "quirky melody for horn" a steal from Dragonetti's first waltz in F major for double bass and piano?

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