Program Notes

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These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and others.

Barbara Heninger

Richard Strauss
Don Juan

In the summer of 1888, young Richard Strauss very much needed a vacation. He had taken a post as third conductor of the Munich Hofoper in 1886, but it was not a happy situation: the director was not taken with Strauss's conducting or his compositions. So Strauss traveled that summer to Italy where, in the courtyard of the monastery of San Antonio in Padua, he conceived the first themes for what would become Don Juan.

This, at least, is what he told his friends; other accounts suggest that he had begun sketches earlier, in the fall of 1887. And the germinating seed for his tone poem came even earlier, in 1885, when Strauss and conductor Hans von Bülow (who also encouraged Brahms and Wagner) saw the play Don Juans Ende together in Frankfurt. That play was based on an unfinished 1844 work by the poet Nikolaus Lenau, who in the same year was committed to a mental asylum. Lenau (a nom de plume for Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau) captured in his description of the fictional Don Juan the inescapable sense of futility and despair that Lenau no doubt felt himself. The tale of Don Juan itself dates back to 17th-century Spain, but Lenau's Don Juan is more sympathetic than many other depictions. Although he admits his weakness where women are concerned, Lenau's Don Juan is searching for a feminine ideal that he can never find, and goes to his death willingly, tired of a life without fulfillment: "Steintot ist alles Wünschen, alles Hoffen" (literally: stone-dead is all wishing, all hoping).

The young Strauss, only 21 when he saw the play, was highly influenced by dramatic works. He once wrote that it was impossible for him to compose without some kind of dramatic or literary inspiration, and he used his ability to depict character and incident through music to bring the musical form called the "tone poem" to its peak. Having begun experimenting with the form in Aus Italien in 1886, he embarked on two works based on tragic heroes, Macbeth and Don Juan. He had three excerpts from Lenau's poem (including the phrase quoted above) included in the published score of his finished work, and asked that the lines be printed in the program. Don Juan premiered in November, 1889 in Weimar. It met with such success that it established Strauss's musical reputation, and set the stage for his four other tone poems and, to a lesser extent, his seventeen subsequent operas.

That Don Juan is an early work is obvious from some of its detail. Strauss was still learning how to orchestrate, and Don Juan suffers somewhat from his enthusiasms--the musical textures are exceedingly dense, with several voices doubling or tripling a line at times. The opening is a veritable cascade of sixteenth notes, throwing us headlong into the world of the dashing Don and effectively conveying Lenau's poem, as Don Juan describes his "tempest of enjoyment." We quickly segue to a romantic violin solo against an ethereal, triple-piano chord, followed by some of the most lushly romantic writing in the literature. Yet the opening rush of notes returns, softly, in the cellos, leading the Don on to his next conquest. His opening motif segues to a musical conversation between entreating strings and a sighing flute that introduce his latest conquest. A haunting oboe solo over the tenderest of string harmonies depict this love. From this, Strauss introduces a noble theme for unison horns (quoted later in Ein Heldenleben), and the Don strides into public life. "Swashbuckling" themes rise and fall as the Don seems to contend with a number of opponents. Finally, however, he meets his match--perhaps only his own despair--and, "suddenly, the world was to me a desert, surrounded in night." The violas give a final shudder, and the Don's world is ended.

February 7, 2009