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Program Notes & Synopses

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R. Strauss: Don Juan

R. Strauss: Don Juan


522 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Don Juan
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Composed 1888. First performance: November 11, 1889, Weimar, Germany. Weimar Opera Orchestra, cond. Richard Strauss.

Since long before Mozart, composers have attempted to portray art and literature through music. Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and (most notably) Liszt made strides in this direction with efforts that remained firmly rooted, despite Liszt’s best attempts, in classical structure. The term “Tondichtung” (tone poem) was first used in the mid-19th century, and program music gained increasing popularity throughout the Romantic era. However, it was with the 24-year-old Richard Strauss’ Don Juan that the genre truly came into its own.

Earlier composers made great attempts at musicalizing dramatic and poetic source material. However, while prior “symphonic poems”, such as Liszt’s, generally developed their musical form first and then worked the programmatic material into that structure, Strauss chose in Don Juan to take the opposite approach. The work’s structure follows the dramatic arc of the tale told in the source poem by Nikolaus Lenau, and the music unfolds organically as the plot reveals itself.

The result is a piece with a profoundly satisfying dramatic arc and structure which nonetheless defies traditional labels. Many music theorists have chosen to view the work as a heavily-modified rondo (a form featuring a recurring primary theme that alternates with various differing verses or episodes). Though the work’s alternation between statements of the “hero” theme and episodes describing his romantic exploits do share some similarities with the rondo, the differences are too many to make this a convincing explanation.

It wasn’t just the piece’s structure that made Don Juan innovative. This work makes demands on the orchestra that far exceed anything previously composed. The musicians are expected to perform effortlessly at the extremes of their instruments’ ranges, and the work demands breath control from the wind players unmatched in earlier music. The story is told that during rehearsal for the work’s premiere, a horn player asked Strauss if Beethoven’s sixth symphony was still to follow the piece on the program. Strauss confirmed this, and the horn player muttered, “That remains to be seen.”

Don Juan opens with one of the most dramatic flourishes in musical history as our protagonist bounds onto the stage, a dashing Romantic hero in the Byronic mold, devoting his life to the pursuit of the ideal woman. After each relationship (the four “verses” of the rondo) fails to satisfy him, his theme returns, taking him back into the chase. Each woman has a distinct character portrayed through the music. In fact, at a 1904 rehearsal, the composer told the Boston Symphony not to play one section so beautifully: “That woman was just a common tramp!” The young paramour finds his pursuit to be increasingly fruitless, however, and, succumbing to his own despair, allows himself to be killed in a duel. Rather than the grand finale we might have expected from the opening fanfare, Strauss leaves us with a strain of pensive, hesitant tones as our hero breathes his last.

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