Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20

performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe


Despite excerpts from Don Juan being on the auditions for like, every instrument ever, and it being (I feel, right?) an outstandingly popular tone poem, I was super late to the party and never really got around to becoming familiar with it until very recently.

Spoiler alert: Don Juan dies in the end, and with that, Strauss’s career begins.

At only around sixteen minutes, it’s a quick, fun little ride, with a whole story and extramusical (or rather just literary) ideas of its very own, and does away so abruptly with so much of the formality of Aus Italien.

To say this piece is famous is an understatement, so there is no shortage of great program notes, like those from the Chicago Symphony or New York Philharmonic.

In short, though, this piece is romantic from top to bottom. For one, it’s a late Romantic era extravagantly orchestrated, virtuosic expressive vibrant work. Strauss’s Don Juan himself, who explodes onto the scene in the first two bars of the piece in an orchestral flourish, is also a doubly romantic individual: his ‘romance’ (if it could be called that) of affairs and trysts is one of the endless pursuit of women and ‘love,’ but also the Romantic (capital R!) idea (from the NY Phil’s program notes above),

a deeply Romantic quest for the ever-elusive ideal — in this case, “to enjoy in one woman all women, since he cannot possess them as individuals.” This may seem a rationalization for bad behavior, but it was a popular idea among the Romantics

In this short seventeen-ish minute work, we are not only introduced to the (in)famous Libertine of stage and film, but follow his transformation as he enjoys (or at least experiences) a few romantic encounters, and ultimately surrenders himself and gives up the pursuit. There are a few moments to pay attention to. The bold, galloping, exciting introduction when our antihero jumps onto the scene sets the mood for the whole piece: furious strings, lots of brass. After this fun subsides, there are more delicate, intimate violin and oboe solos, perhaps suggesting romantic encounters, but at least the oboe solo sounds heartfelt, like love more than lust. 

In either case, that mood is broken by strangely heroic, triumphant sounding horn calls, one of the greatest moments in the whole piece, as below:

It’s not long after this that we hear some of the previous material in fits and starts, and it seems we are nearing the end. The piece ends as surprisingly as it began, however, in a quiet, solemn slowing onset of silence rather than a grand finale of any kind. The strings compel us enough almost to see Don Juan’s chest struggle to take his final breaths, relinquishing himself to death. It is just as surprising as the gallivanting, loud powerful music that came before it, perhaps not the finish one would expect, but still wonderfully fitting for the piece and the programme.

The piece was incredibly well-received in Weimar, and the young 25-year-old Strauss had made his biggest impression yet.

As with Liszt, Strauss had refined his craft, from the traditional four-movement ‘symphonic fantasy’ form that lasts over forty minutes to this poignant, powerful, energetic work that lasts a mere seventeen, Strauss produced something that had never been done before and which  continues to charm and delight audiences to this day.

A few sources cite Fritz Reiner’s recording with the Chicago Symphony as definitive, and while I have fallen in love with Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden, I just went to have a listen…

… and it is indeed exquisite, if of slightly worse audio quality than Kempe’s later recording.

In any case, this work is a must-hear for anyone, like me, who has somehow come to it so late in the game. There’s a reason it’s so popular, a crowd pleaser for sure. But that’s it for Strauss, for now. We’ll get to his other tone poems later. Next week, a single work from a composer known for much else than his symphonic poems, and not his first appearance on the blog. See you then.


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