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Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Don Juan, Tone Poem after Nikolaus Lenau, Opus 20

17 minutes

Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, orchestra bells, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbals, harp, and strings.

The legend of Don Juan seems to have originated in the 16th century.  The tale of the libertine nobleman who is damned for his numerous seductions and unwillingness to repent has found expression in several works.

The Austrian poet and philosopher Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50) offered his own, slightly different perspective in his 1844 poem Don Juan:

My Don Juan is no hot-blooded man eternally pursuing women.  It is the longing in him to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood, and to enjoy, in the one, all the women on earth whom he cannot possess as individuals.  Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him, and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him.

When Lenau’s Don Juan is unable to find his womanly ideal, he allows himself to be killed in a duel, exclaiming: “My deadly foe is in my power, and this, too, bores me, as does life itself.”

Richard Strauss was 24 when, in 1888, he first read Lenau’s Don Juan.  Strauss quickly began to compose an orchestral tone poem based upon the Lenau work, completing his score in 1889.  In that same year, Strauss was appointed assistant conductor in Weimar.  On November 11, 1889, the 25-year-old Strauss conducted Don Juan’s triumphant premiere.

Don Juan opens in bracing fashion with an upward orchestral flourish and the strings’ introduction of the vaulting theme associated throughout the work with the title character.  A series of episodes follows, depicting the Don’s numerous conquests.  Just when it appears that Don Juan will conclude in triumph, Strauss reminds us of his end, particularly as related in Lenau’s poem.  The flurry of activity slams to a halt.  The orchestra’s troubled repose is pierced by the trumpets’ dissonant interjection.  Three pianissimo chords seal Don Juan’s fate.

Notes by Ken Meltzer © 2020