He called the work a Rondo. The form is a free adaptation of the classical A-B-A-C-A rondo form. Two themes, or fragments of theme, represent Till. The first is heard on the strings in the quiet opening under which Strauss in later years wrote the words ‘Once upon a time there was a roguish jester’. This is followed by a phrase on the horn (one of the most famous solo passages in the instrument’s repertoire) which, said Strauss, means ‘whose name was Till Eulenspiegel’. These two motifs unify and dominate the whole work. The second is built to a climax which shows Till in his full colours, cocking a snook on the shrill D clarinet. ‘He was a wicked goblin’, Strauss wrote under this phrase.
After this exposition there is a section portraying no particular incident. Strauss plays about with the themes, displaying a superb lightness of humour and touch, qualities which were not prevalent in German music of this date. The first episode begins with a flourish of clarinets and a cymbal smash. Till rides through the market square, scattering people and produce, and escapes (trombones) in the confusion, ‘off and away in seven-league boots’ (all these quoted descriptions are Strauss’s own). A pause. Till, concealed in a mouse-hole, warily looks to see if he is unobserved and cautiously (minor seconds) escapes into his next adventure.
‘Dressed as a cleric he oozes unction and morality’—this is Strauss’s description of the B section. Violas and bassoons have an appropriately ‘oozing’ theme. ‘The rogue peeps out’ on the D clarinet and there are further hints of the first Till motif. Suddenly (violin and muted brass) he has a fit of conscience about his mockery of religion, but this is overcome and a glissando passage on solo violin opens the third episode, Till in love. Gentle flirting turns into something deeper as ‘he woos her’ with a romantic version of the horn theme. No luck, though. He is jilted, and takes it hard, with the first motif racketing around the orchestra until, on four horns, ‘he vows he will be revenged on all mankind’.
Adventure number four shows Till among the professors, as is evident from the bassoons and bass clarinet. He asks them a few questions (horn motif), they are baffled, and Till yells abuse at them (the snook-cocking theme, ending with an enormous trill on the whole orchestra). This savage mockery magically modulates into a happy-go-lucky tune as Till goes whistling down the street, well pleased with himself.
Now there is an interlude of rest, coming just at the right musical moment. As Till’s whistling fades away the music becomes fleeting and ghostly. This is followed by a lighter episode, in which great play is made with the horn motif and a scherzando fanfare derived from it. Again we hear the ‘sermon’ theme, thundered out on horns and trumpets, and it becomes clear that Till’s escapades are nearing their end—he has been arrested for blasphemy. The side-drum rolls as he steps into the dock. Perhaps he still believes he will escape, for the clarinet recalls his thumb-to-nose gesture. But sentence is pronounced and rapidly executed—Strauss vividly conveys this gallows scene, with the D clarinet rising to A flat, maintaining it and slowly descending while the flute portrays Till’s last convulsions.
This superb work ends with a master-stroke of poetic imagination. A short and poignant epilogue (reminiscent perhaps of Wagner’s 'Siegfried Idyll') recalls the ‘once upon a time’ atmosphere of the opening. It is only a tale, the music says, and this rogue was not such a bad chap.
from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2013