top of page

EXPLORING MUSIC: Superb Sound/Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks

The MHS Review 400 VOL. 12, NO. 4 • 1988

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Though he had a greater gift for melody, Richard Strauss is quite properly thought of as the heir to Richard Wagner's crown. Like Wagner, his greatest achievement was in the area of opera. If he was no pathbreaker there, we are, I think, only now beginning to recognize his stature as a dramatist--when we can get around our distrust of our emotions.

But far more ordinary listeners are familiar with his orchestral music. Here he not only speaks the Wagnerian language like a native, but he also extends its possibilities. With supreme confidence he forced his players to do things they didn't know they could do and which, as a mat­ter of fact, probably had not been done before. And though, like Wagner, he could use his orchestra, chamber-style, as a web of individual voices, he loved to pile sound on sound until he had attained a great sonic five-alarm conflagration. (Thus his music lends itself especially well to digital and CD sound, which allow one to hear the warp and woof of the fabric--through one's woofers and warpers.)

But. however masterfully he spoke it, Wagnerian was not Strauss' native tongue. He probably learned it in typical son-to-­father rebellion. He grew up in a household dominated by Franz Joseph Strauss. Franz was a musician--a professional violist, the best virtuoso horn player of his day, and the conductor of a popular orchestra call­ed "Wilde Gungl." (Josef Gungl was a highly successful composer of marches and waltzes.) Old Strauss' admiration of Gungl is perhaps a key to his tastes and his musical sophistication. He loathed "modern" music, and, as a member of the Munich or­chestra quarreled frequently with such of its apostles as Wagner and Bulow, who tolerated him for his performing talent. Later, when his son had joined the move­ment, Franz said that listening to his music made him feel that his underwear was full of june bugs.

When young Richard went to Meiningen in 1885 as Bulow's assistant he met a 52-year-old Estonian violinist named Alex­ander Ritter. Ritter was one of those universal geniuses who never attain real success. He had been a convinced Wagnerian and promoter of the Zukunf­tsmusik since pre-revolutionary Dresden, and hastened to convert his young friend. The first fruits of his efforts appeared the next year with Richard's musical travelogue, Aus Italien (From Italy). Im­mediately afterwards Strauss began to find his own voice in the first of the Lisztian tone poems: Macbeth and Don Juan.

Dissatisfied with Macbeth, Strauss put it away for revision. Don Juan soon joined it, while the composer set to work on a third piece. Death and Transfiguration is supposed to have been inspired by Strauss' experience of a near-lethal bout with pneumonia. In fact, his illness occurred a year after the music was completed. But Strauss' program involves the death of an artist, whose "transfiguration" is surely in terms of posthumous earthly glory rather than of passage through the pearly gates­--hence typically "autobiographical." Ritter was so pleased that he wrote a poem set­ting forth the program, junked it, and did a more ambitious one which was includ­ed in the published score.

Strauss' fourth tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel 's Merry Pranks, is one of his most justly admired works, incorporating musical form (rondo) with narrative im­agination. Till Owlmirror (to translate) ap­parently was a real person who succumb­ed to the Black Death (1350) in Molln (near Lubeck), where you may see his tomb­stone. Whatever he may have been, fic­tional tradition made of him that favorite folk hero, the Common Man Who Gets the Best of the Establishment.

What Strauss had in mind was an opera, but, when it came to writing librettos, he found himself no Wagner and chickened out. The resultant orchestral piece was a resounding success. It carries a detailed program at whose end Till gets his com­euppance on the gallows--a passage that owes no little to Berlioz' "March to the Scaffold" from the Symphonie fantastique.

Salome's famous striptease, while it has some pseudo-oriental frills, is, as has often been noted, a sort of slithery Viennese waltz with an orgiastic ending. Superb sound throughout!

Review of music on page 49

bottom of page