Don Juan, op. 20, TrV 156

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            It is difficult, indeed, to think of a composer more possessed of an overweening ego than that of Richard Strauss (other than that of Wagner, that is).  Thankfully, his was not malicious, and was to some degree justified.  Strauss is almost unique in that his long life (unlike that of, say, Verdi) spanned remarkable changes in musical style, not to speak of world history. He is known both as a master of late romantic symphonic style in his large tone poems for orchestra, composed mostly in the late 1880's and 90's, and also for his modern, often strikingly dissonant operas of the twentieth century.  On the one hand his operas can still seem jarringly challenging--witness the sordidness of Salome (1905) with its lust, incest, decapitation, and necrophilia (including the controversial total nudity in the “Dance of the Seven Veils at the Metropolitan Opera, not long ago).  On the other, few musical compositions are more beautifully romantic and serenely appealing than the Four Last Songs (all of which treat the graceful acceptance of death after a long and rich life) that he wrote in 1948, the year before his death.

Don Juan is a tone poem, a genre whose creation was largely spearheaded by Bedřich Smetana (remember the opera, The Bartered Bride?) and Franz Liszt.   The musical premise is simple--write a single movement composition for orchestra that tells a story about something in the “real” world.  The “stories” of Strauss’s tone poems vary: MacBeth; the final moments of an old man dying in delirium and the transmigration of his soul; Don Quixote; the escapades of a medieval scamp; the life of an anonymous hero (read Strauss, himself, some would say); and a musical depiction of several of the subsections of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

Strauss was a master of writing for the orchestra. He knew exactly how to extract the most from its instrumental resources--so much that generations of players complained of the “difficulty” of his works. He thought nothing of depicting the silverware on his breakfast table or the sheep in Don Quixote.  All of his music is a challenge to perform, but players love to do so.  The story of Don Juan is familiar, and Strauss’s work, written in 1888, firmly established his reputation as a young composer to be reckoned with. Combining elements of both rondo and sonata structure, it evolves as a series of musical illustrations from episodes in the life of the seducer.  At the time, the work seemed a bit explicit, even garnering criticism from his admirer, Cosima Wagner.  Nevertheless, Strauss, as so with many of his musical characters, simply thumbed his nose at the world.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan