Tricksters – nearly every culture has one (or more) lurking in the darker, mythic recesses of their skeleton cupboards: from the Monkey King to Gwydion; from Coyote and Br’er Rabbit to Loki. They are the law-challengers, the lords of unrule, the irreverent revealers of hypocrisy, the clowns and jesters.
Such a one is the German folk-hero(?) Till Eulenspiegel who, so the story goes, rushed around 14th century Europe leaving chaos and mayhem in his wake. Is it a coincidence that Strauss, a young composer, a leader of his time’s avant-garde – whose music, according to conservative critics, espoused chaos and mayhem – should be attracted to the tales of this mediæval iconoclast?
Above you see a 16th century woodcut of Till himself with his signature owl and mirror (Eulenspiegel means ‘owl mirror’ but there are other much more aptly scatological versions of his name…) together with one of the more cheeky motifs the composer associated with him. Below you can view an older and wiser(?) Strauss, with his famous stoic conducting face on, performing (with some voice-overs) part of his tone-poem:
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