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R. Strauss: Don Juan
Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany on June 11, 1864 and died in Garmisch-Partenkirch, Germany on September 8, 1949. He composed Don Juan in 1888. It runs approximately 18 minutes in performance and is scored for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and orchestral strings.
Strauss’s first masterpiece, Don Juan, displays a compositional technique that was already not just mature but breathtakingly potent, and with it he set new standards for orchestral music. The impetus for the work came in the summer of 1887, when he met the woman who would become his wife, though at this time he was still involved in a passionate affair with an older, married woman; his suddenly intense interest in the subject of Don Juan may well have been fed by these romantic entanglements. He conceived the piece in May 1888, on holiday in Italy, and completed it in September.
Although Strauss does depict some episodes in Don Juan’s romantic career, his main priority was to show the evolution of his protagonist’s character. The piece begins, to be sure, with the cynical, nihilistic libertine of legend: the first few minutes offer a shimmering portrait of Don Juan at his most virile and seductive. Three distinct, unequal sections at the beginning of the piece apparently depict incidents in Don Juan’s long catalogue of seductions. But then comes something unexpected—genuine love music. An oboe meditates at length on a dreamy new melody in the traditionally pastoral key of G major, while Don Juan’s music is tamed, recast as quiet counterpoint in the lower strings. An invigorating recapitulation, moving quickly from Don Juan’s original themes to his “heroic theme,” suggests that he now rejects his past and accepts his newly transformed self.
Alas, there can be no happy ending: he has caused too much harm and made too many enemies to escape retribution. The music breaks off as Don Juan, challenged to a duel, throws aside his sword and exposes his breast to the challenger’s blade, and Strauss needs only a brief coda to depict this—an accented dissonance in the trumpet parts shows us the knife going in, a few trills in the violins and violas show us the Don’s dying shudders. And so, for all its glitter and glamour, Strauss’s first masterpiece ends with chilling abruptness, with a musical image of the justice wrought by Fate.
Programme Note by Kevin Bazzana
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