Strauss – Don Juan, Op. 20

by Max Derrickson

Richard Strauss     (b in Munich, 1864; d in  Garmisch-Partenkirchen,Germany, 1949)

Don Juan, Op. 20

Don Juan is one of the great masterpieces in Western music in its intense energy and sweeping themes.  In fact, this youthful piece is filled with some of the best themes Strauss ever composed, and it’s not surprising that from its very premiere in 1889 until now, it has always been a favorite of music lovers.  Amazingly, this was essentially Strauss’ first confident foray into the “tone poem” form, composed at the young age of 23, a masterpiece that showed his precocious maturity and his brilliant ear for the possibilities of color in the orchestra.

It is true that the 23-year old Strauss had already composed quite a few works before embarking on this new musical form, and many of them were great works indeed (such as his Serenade in Eb for Winds).  However, until then Strauss had been following in the composing footsteps of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Mozart, using their Classically defined forms.  Strauss’s primary guide into the musical world had been his father, a professional horn player by trade; his father was disenchanted with the “modern” music of Wagner and Liszt, and he guarded his son from this “Future Music of Germany.”  But things changed when the young Strauss met another musician named Alexander Ritter (1833-1896),
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─ but it was with Don Juan that he composed in 1889 where Strauss’ genius broke out.

The tale of Don Juan is an old one, but it was apparently the version written by poet Nicholas Lenau (1802-1851) that inspired Strauss’ musical version.  In Lenau’s account, the Don was less a scoundrel than a dreamer-philosopher,
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At long last, disenchanted by the folly of it all, he allows himself to die in a duel.  From Lenau’s poem (1844):

It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains.  A trance is upon every wish, every hope.  Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I condemned, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened.  And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.

The musical moments in Strauss’ Don Juan are mesmerizing.  The opening, for example, has been called a chorus of “champagne corks popping” and it’s an unabashed whirlwind of force, charm and surging exuberance.
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When Strauss finished Don Juan, he moved on to other, equally extraordinary tone poems, such as Til Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche, and Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Although these too were masterpieces, his first venture in Don Juan seems to capture the bravura and poetic ideals of a great composer in his indomitable youth, and it remains one of the great works of its kind.