Strauss' tone poem, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, was written in 1894-5 and is a musical portrait of a medieval peasant whose 'merry pranks' became the subject of legend. The tone poem is described as an orchestral rondo and Till's theme (first heard in the Horn) makes constant varied appearances.
Till Eulenspiegel is a masterpiece of musical comedy. Strauss' characterisation of the 14th century rogue is achieved through a perfect control of the orchestra and the musical material. Listen how he varies each of the themes to conjure a different atmosphere. The marvellous 'once upon a time' opening is extended at the end of the work, after the drama of Till's death, in a masterstroke of characterisation.
A bravura piece for the whole orchestra, Till Eulenspiegel shows us the lighter comic side of Strauss. However he handles the music with such assurance and sophistication that the work is lighter in tone only; it is a musical heavyweight that has a permanent place in the repertoire of the world's greatest orchestras.
Strauss’ father was a professional horn player, and he educated his son in music. The young Strauss composed prolifically from the age of six. He went to University for a short time, but had no formal tuition in composition. Despite this lack of education, he had several works performed in Munich, including a symphony, when he was 17. The next year saw performances in Dresden and Vienna.
At the age of 20, Strauss had his second symphony played in New York and he conducted the Meiningen Orchestra in a suite for wind instruments. In 1885 he became conductor of that orchestra, but soon left and visited Italy, composing Aus ltalien as a result which caused controversy when it premiered in 1887. By then Strauss was a junior conductor at the Munich Opera. Other tone poems followed: Macbeth, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung come from the late 1880s. Don Juan is perhaps the first of the really virtuosic compositions.
He moved to Weimar to take up a post at the opera house, and from 1891 to 1893, despite being ill, wrote his first opera, Guntram. It wasn’t very successful, but his conducting career continued; he directed many major operas, including Wagner at Bayreuth. He returned to Munich in 1896 as chief conductor at the opera. More tone poems followed, including Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, (A Hero’s Life).
From 1908, Strauss conducted the court and opera orchestras in Berlin. In 1919, though, he took up a post as joint director of the Vienna Staatsoper, where his latest collaboration with Hofmannsthal, Die Frau ohne Schatten, was performed that year, to great acclaim. His busy international conducting career continued between the wars, taking in North and South America and most of Europe in the 1920s.
During World War II Strauss was frustrated at being unable to work with his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig (Hofmannsthal was also part-Jewish), and he protected his Jewish daughter-in-law. His relationship with the National Socialist government in Germany was at times ambiguous, a fact that protected him but led to post-war difficulties and self-imposed exile in Switzerland, from which he returned home to Bavaria only in the year of his death. When Germany was defeated, and the opera houses destroyed, Strauss wrote a lament, Metamorphosen, for 23 solo strings. He died in his Garmisch home in 1949.
Richard Strauss developed the symphonic or tone poem to an unrivalled level of expressiveness and after 1900 achieved great success with a series of impressive operas, at first on a grand scale, but later tending to a more classical restraint.