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Examination Of The Motifs In Till Eulenspiegel Music Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 2887 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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After an unsuccessful premiere of the opera Guntram in 1894, Strauss was consistently looking for new material for an opera. It appears he became more concrete about plans for an opera after finding the Eulenspiegel material from the chapbook Ein kurtzweilig lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel [an amusing reading of Dyl Ulenspiegel] from 1515. The opera libretto for Till Eulenspiegel remained only a sketch, but the symphonic poem became a triumph. Franz Wüllner conducted the premiere in November 1895. He asked Strauss for a few programmatic explanations, but the composer restricted himself to enunciating the two Eulenspiegel themes at the beginning. Further, he said that it would be ‘impossible to produce a programme for Eulenspiegel. So this time we will leave the audience to crack the nuts themselves the rogue hands out to them.’

615. Up that ladder. See him hang, he is running out of breath, one last convulsion. Till, the mortal, is no longer

In my work I have decided to focus on Till Eulenspiegel´s melodic motifs and their interpretations presented by Mathias Hansen, Thomas Armstrong and Michael Kennedy (see bibliographical references at the end). I have compared and examined them in reference to points on which they agree or disagree and I have integrated my own ideas by implying text to the score.

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In the first few bars we can find disagreement between the different observations. Mathias Hansen writes that the six introductory bars do not play a role until the epilogue in bar 633. It is true that this introduction does not take over the function of a ritornello in the sense of a “Rondeau”, but I disagree with the claim that this ‘once upon a time’ theme has a separate status in the story. The opening phrase is in a folk-lore character – taking as back to the times when Till was a historical figure.

The first half of Till’s theme, starting in bar six, is hesitant, however the second, identical entry is confident and self-assured, as if Till was checking the scene before appearing.

‘Das war ein arger ‘Kobolt’ wrote Strauss himself under this phrase (‘He was a wicked Goblin’) and the above musical example portrays Till according to Strauss’ description.

Thomas Armstrong notices that prologue is based on the second Till theme in bar 46/47:

By writing this theme in its simplest form, we can easily detect that the prologue is a conclusion of it:

Hansen also notices the ‘Till-chord’, which is the dominant chord in bar 47/48 (related to C and leading to the F home key); further on, he shows the relationship between this chord and the ‘Tristan-chord’: written in another tone or interval position, the harmony of the ‘Till-chord’ corresponds with the one from the ‘Tristan-chord.’

Strauss: Till EulenspiegeWagner: Tristan und Isolde

The section between bars 51 -111 Strauss uses for exposition of the Till themes. One interesting thing is noticed by Armstrong, who shows the appearance of the wicked goblin theme in bar 53, starting with the clarinet and continuing with the first violins, further developments takes place in bassoon and lower strings part. Hansen also refers to these theme in his observation on bar 63 (et sqq) where a compressing through a massive overlapping of the first part of the wicked goblin theme takes place.

Hansen writes that the passage from bar 46 et sqq. is dominated by one motif – ‘ Regardless of its meaning, it [material compression] tries to integrate approximately every note in the context relating to motifs. Such complexity, that tries to dissolve the contrast of “primary” and “secondary” material, of “foreground” and “background” of a piece, is emerging emphatically in Strauss’s way of composing Till’ [1] .

Hansen’s dissolving of “foreground” and “background” material might be suitable for the passage he is describing; however, if we think of Strauss’s Don Quixote, which was written two years after Till, we can find a quite clear separation of “primary” and “secondary” material. Strauss even assigned the characters of the piece to instruments: there is Don Quixote, who is represented by the solo cello and his squire Sancho Panza, who is described by the solo viola and the bass clarinet. In Till Eulenspiegel the whole passage from bar 46 to bar 134 includes figures that imply use of verbal text; this musical narration finds the words and their meaning in the actual notation of the music; e.g.:

Bar. 71 et sqq.: Till is ready for his first prank

Bar. 81-85:

But when? But where?

Bar. 98 et sqq.: Till’s zest for action

Bar. 105-109: Till is thinking of a crude prank

Bar. 111 – 133: Just you wait you bootlicker!

‘War – ten mal! (just you wait)

This is when the first true episode takes place. Clarinets rush upwards, cymbal clashes and Till mounts a horse and…jumps! (137et sqq.) Riding roughshod through the market square – as the beginning is presented in the string section:

Strauss noted down in the score ‘Away in seven-league-boots’ for bar 151 and 152 – notes that depict that theme are assigned to the flutes, the oboes and the clarinets and refer these two bars to the first part of the wicked goblin theme. There is a pause in bar 154 – when Till hides himself in a mouse-hole and carefully puts out his head. Armstrong explains the pause in bar 154 with the words: ‘Till seems to be lost.’ I would rather say that the break has the character of “Phew that was a near thing!”

Starting from bar 157 until 169 Till is again in the heart of a new adventure. Strauss’s note on that passage: ‘He emerges in disguise as a priest, oozing “unction and morality”‘ lets us expect a musical caricature. On the contrary, whatever the clarinet, the bassoon and the violas play in a folksong-way of simplicity it has nothing to do with open mockery or cautious irony. The repeated inclusion of the first part of the wicked goblin theme does not radiate the effect of a caricature. With his note ‘The knave peeps out of [his disguise] at the big toe’, Strauss must have meant the figure in bar 191:

It is when D clarinet presents Till’s second theme – revealing who is under preacher disguise!

The chromatic runs of the horn, trumpets and violins (bars 196 – 198) show how dangerous Till’s practice of mocking religion is at that moment. 9 bars later a glissando in solo violin opens another adventure:

Bar. 209 et sqq.: Till the cavalier, exchanging sweet courtesies with beautiful girls

Till’s horn theme is presented in a romantic way – Till felt in love with one of the girls and the music is coated with harmonically richer material. When Till is mistreated by the girl, his themes stomp through the orchestra until the four horns seem to be shaking their fist at the world and this is when in

bar. 287 – 288: He [Till] vows he will take revenge on all mankind

The most promoted part of the tone poem starts here (bar 293 et sqq.). Strauss brings the rhythmical energy of the motifs into play. Till is amongst the Philistines – whose motif is played by bass clarinet and four bassoons (bar 293 – 299). Till’s horn motif is now played by strings as if Till was asking the pedagogues his questions; this is how Strauss puts it: ‘After he has posed a couple of atrocious theses to the philistines, he leaves them to their fate dumbfounded’. The music of this section portrays pointlessness of pedagogues’ calculations; They have been cornered by Till and left puzzled. Concerning the ‘Philistines’, a series of variations develops, in which the formative force is in the rhythmical richness of creation, some of them are composed as canonical variations:

In the following passage Strauss tries to create a deceptive silence after the council of the Philistines decided to end Till’s days. Till is waiting cautiously for revenge, he takes advantage of this situation and does more and more mischief, rather than trying to become an ordinary citizen. The first Till theme sounds again, Till reappears first in first horn in F in bar 429, then in bar 436 horn in D presents Till’s theme enriching the tonality. Starting in bar 429 (et sqq) Till appears again for new pranks and these know no bounds anymore. Consumed by disappointments, he does not appear as a harmless humorist, but as a revengeful human being in a fool’s costume. It gives a feeling of wildness and in this broadening atmosphere Strauss develops an intensity and complexity of motives combinatory that is difficult to beat. Armstrong’s description is also in this direction: ‘The music is keyed up to a higher pitch of excitement than ever. Till’s last stretch of development, some 140 bars in length, shows Strauss’s music in full and unhesitating flight.’ [2] 

Trying to describe this long passage, I would put the following words:

Bar 410 to 429: There is a deceptive silence

From bar 486: Till is very successful

From bar 546 Till gets up to more and more mischief, he becomes more high-spirited, livelier…

…and even daredevil (bar 555 et sqq.)

He feels like the lord of the world, even a god! (Bar 567 et sqq.) Fanfares in trumpets and horns:

Straus puts an extra emphasis on this passage by expanding the brass section by three trumpets and an optional second quartet of horns.

The boldness and arrogance of Till’s behaviour is growing. He gets arrested and faces judges accusations (bars 573 – 581) accompanied by violent side-drum roll that lasts for fifteen bars.

Till wants to keep his nonchalant attitude but starts to realize he has gone too far. The biggest penalty is given – pictured in music by second Till’s theme instrument – D clarinet playing upward notes falling into major seventh chord (bars 615 – 616), when Till is going up the ladder to be hanged. This is when D clarinet reaches its highest A flat, holding it awhile and starts to move down, accompanied by the flute-trill (bars 619- 620) that describes Till running out of breath. This passage does not only sound like a sharp cry, though, it also portrays the breathlessness of Till.

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None of the authors specifies the epilogue. Kennedy refers the epilogue to Till himself: ‘A gentle epilogue recalls the work’s fairy tale opening, as if to remind us, before he scampers away, that Till was not such a bad fellow. [3] ‘ Armstrong writes similarly: ‘It is Tills characteristic tune with the devil taken out of it, so that it seems almost tender. This epilogue shows the composer’s insight at its keenest [4] .’

The epilogue recalls and extends ‘Once upon a time’ version of Till’s second theme (bar 632 et sqq). The atmosphere is similar to the one from the opening of the piece – with it folk-lore narration and charm. In my opinion, Strauss composed the following content: ‘Once upon a time, there was a fool…he died…but through this story, he is still alive.’ Hansen and Werbeck have differing opinions about the form of Till Eulenspiegel. Hansen describes the form as follows: ‘Basically, there are only two central events, and they are actually a combination of theme and motif – those two of the ‘hero’, of which Strauss informs Wüllner in his letter [5] ‘. Walter Werbeck tries to explain the form more accurately: ‘Strauss composes neither an authentic sonata rondo nor a traditional rondo chain [6] .’ The element of a rondo that is missing is ritornello, but if we see rondo as representation of two themes then we might be dealing with a variant of rondo in Till Eulenspiegel. Walter Werbeck continues: ‘One could easily describe the first part of Till as a free variation form, or, preferably, as a form in which rondo and variation are combined as follows: A (Exposition); A′ (market scene, variation 1); B (sermon scene, episode 1); A ′′ (love scene, variation 2); and C (Philistines, episode 2). Strauss also drew on principles of sonata form. As evidence we might cite especially the emphatic recapitulation of the initial horn theme in bar 429 that opens the second part of the piece’. [7] 

Both Hansen and Werbeck divide the piece in the same way into two main parts. Whereas Hansen only tells us approximately where his second part starts, Werbeck gives us the exact bar number (429) of his division. Hansen is content with the division into two central events; Werbeck, however, tries to show that Till is undoubtedly much more than a sonata rondo. The composer combines sonata form, variations and rondo. These forms cannot be seen separately – they overlap and penetrate each other to varying degrees. At some points the form of a set of variations dominates, sometimes as sonata or as rondo. Warbeck’s quotation ‘As Till Eulenspiegel, the protagonist of the tone poem, resists societal norms by mocking them with continuous pranks, so does the composer thwart the expectations of those who want to pin him down to the norms of a rondo [8] ‘ seems to be especially appropriate here. Trying to fit Till into a rondo form, the following division makes sense:

1. Prologue and Exposition; bar 1-111, the fool is introduced

2. Variation I; bar 112-178, the upsetting of the market place

3. Episode I; bar 179-206, the mockery of the sermon

4. Variation II; bar 207-288, Till in love

5. Episode II; bar 289-409, the confusing of the professors

6. Recapitulation (Variation III); bar 410-594, Till goes on his way

7. Coda (Episode III); bar 595-632, Till is arrested and hung

8. Epilogue; bar 633-658

At this point I would like to summarise the themes of Till Eulenspiegel:

The wicked goblin theme and its modifications:












Till Eu – len – spie— gel, till Eu-len-spie – gel, Till Eu-len – spie-gel








Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel appears as a masterpiece in composer’s career. In this piece Strauss used yet the biggest orchestra – with massive woodwind section and optional second horn quartet. It is in some way symbolical that after serious labour on Guntram Strauss composes such a spectacular work inspired only by a folk legend.

Richard Strauss himself leads us well and truly to believe in something with his title Nach alter Schelmenweise – in Rondeauform [after an old rascal manner – in rondo form]. Whoever thinks that Strauss came to a compromise with the traditional form will notice quickly that any pattern is avoided. It is not the form of the rondo with the methodical; umpteen times reprise of the theme, the unity is reached by the consistent development of the melodical-thematical elements. These elements, which come in the most varying forms, in the bravest disguises and the rhythmical and harmonical transformations, are the two main themes. Strauss uses the specific sound character of an instrument in the score very carefully. This is what gives the whole tone poem the humorous colour. When the notes become alive, everything sounds so simple, natural and unconstrained. Strauss makes high demands on the musical intelligence of the musicians playing his works.


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