A Merry Prank and the Delicate Question of Art

This is art. © My daughter

Said my nine-year old daughter: “Will you use it? Music that rocks would be fitting!” For a second I was speechless, but she gave me no time to react anyway. “Something lively”, she continued. “Do you see the many colours and the wild brush strokes here and here?” Wow. Out of nowhere I had an illustration for a post I had not yet even thought about. And I had a clear mission statement: Find some music! Start writing! But the best was yet to come. “Is this art?” she asked me. Ooops. Carefully now! A serious question merits a serious answer.

“You made a creative effort to express some idea, so yes, this is art”, I ventured… and earned a bright smile. How easy it sometimes is to make a child happy. A  little spontaneous praise from time to time, this is how you build self-confidence and foster creativity. So there I was with the beautiful piece of art you see on top of the post, mulling over what music rocks. Richard Strauss rocks. His symphonic poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” rocks. What a prank!

Exposing foolishness and hypocrisy

Till Eulenspiegel is a legendary figure of German folk tales. According to the legend, he lived in the 14th century and travelled through Germany and the Low Lands. By playing practical jokes on his contemporaries, he exposed vices at every turn, greed and folly, hypocrisy and foolishness. The legend has inspired many German novelists and poets, e.g. Gerhard Hauptmann, who in 1927 wrote a poem that sets Till and his pranks in the world after WW I. The author of the original tales, that circulated in the German-speaking areas of Europe from the 15th century on, is unknown. Since then, they have seen many variations and amendments.

In 1894/95 Strauss wrote his symphonic poem in one movement and called it a “rondo extended by poetic content”. The classical rondo has a recurrent theme, the refrain, that links the different episodes. Strauss associated two main themes – one played by the horn – with Till Eulenspiegel, the prankster, narrated Till’s different pranks in the episodes: the escape with the Seven-Miles-Boots, Till flirting with the girls, Till swearing to take revenge on mankind, finally Till’s judgement and death. Some 15 minutes of amusing miniatures that may even be of interest to children. There’s a nice recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado with two more of Strauss symphonic poems, “Death and Transfiguration” and “Don Juan”.

A composer crying for revenge

As funny as the piece may be, the background of its creation is less amusing. Strauss was looking for revenge. He felt humiliated by his failure to gain recognition for his opera “Guntram”. The  premiere in Weimar did not trigger much applause among the critics, the first performance in Munich was a disaster. Strauss decided to write a satirical opera with Till Eulenspiegel as the main character to mock the provincial and narrow-minded attitude of the audience. He wrote a draft, but cancelled the project for reasons unknown and wrote a symphonic poem on the same subject instead.

Some 100 years later Strauss can be satisfied. “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” is probably one of his most popular non-operatic works. It hasn’t lost any of its attractiveness as its message, expressed through music, is timeless: Comedy and satire are powerful weapons against extremism, oppression and bigotry. When Strauss wrote this poem he had discarded the pessimistic view of human life as it had been sketched by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and sympathized with the (nihilistic) ideas  of Schopenhauer’s counterpart Friedrich Nietzsche: the boundless power of life and beauty kept in check by irony.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.