The Kennedy Center

Don Juan, Op. 20

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

Nothing could have been more "modern" in the music of the 1880s and ‘90s than the tone poem, that bold attempt to create drama without words and to test music's expressive powers to the fullest. Pioneered by Franz Liszt from the 1850s on, the new genre found a practitioner of genius in the young Richard Strauss. In a series of orchestral works that established him as one of the leading avant-gardists of the day, Strauss boldly tackled the most complex literary and philosophical topics.

Many Romantic writers had grappled with the character of Don Juan Tenorio, the legendary skirt-chaser first immortalized by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in the 17th century, then by Molière and, of course, Mozart and Da Ponte. The Don Juan legend has been called "the greatest erotic subject of all time," but it is more than that. Don Juan is not your typical sex addict; by conquering women, he becomes, in a way, the master of the universe (or so he feels, which almost amounts to the same thing). And most importantly, he doesn't hesitate to give up his life rather than making any concessions in his life philosophy, however depraved that philosophy may be.

In the decadent Romantic version by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), left incomplete at the time of the poet's death, Don Juan doesn't need a stone guest to send him to Hell. He willingly lets the brother of one of his lovers defeat him in a duel, for victory "is as boring as the whole of life." Strauss placed three lengthy excerpts from the poem at the front of his score. These excerpts reveal nothing of the plot, but they summarize the life philosophy Lenau had given his hero:


Fain would I run the magic circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful women's manifold charms, in full tempest of enjoyment, to die of a kiss at the mouth of the last one. O my friend, would that I could fly through every place where beauty blossoms, fall on my knees before each one, and, were it but for a moment, conquer...

I shun anxiety and the exhaustion of pleasure; I keep myself fresh in the service of beauty; and in offending the individual I rave for my devotion to her kind. The breath of a woman that is as the odor of spring today, may perhaps tomorrow oppress me like the air of a dungeon. When, in my changes, I travel with my love in the wide circle of beautiful women, my love is a different thing for each one; I build no temple out of ruins. Indeed, passion is always and only the new passion; it cannot be carried from this one to that; it must die here and spring anew there; and when it knows itself, then it knows nothing of repentance. As each beauty stands alone in the world, so stands the love which it prefers. Forth and away, then, to triumphs ever new, so long as youth's fiery pulses race!

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 despised, 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 quest for ideal love, which pushes Don Juan from one woman to the next, is really a quest for the meaning of life. In Lenau's treatment, the Don comes very close to being a cousin of Dr. Faust (about whom he also wrote a drama). The force that moves Don Juan is, of course, not learning but passion; yet the two heroes are similar in their quest for totality and in the fact that both are ultimately denied fulfillment on earth.

Don Juan's passion is evident from the first bars of Strauss's score, which is one of the great symphonic openings of all time. With admirable ingenuity, Strauss adapts classical sonata form (with its contrasting themes and dynamic key changes) to the expressive needs of the tone poem. One of the secondary themes, a sensual motif played by a solo violin, is imbued with special meaning as a representation of the "Eternal Feminine" that so attracts the Don (and not coincidentally, the phrase in quotation marks comes from Goethe's Faust). As this theme is expanded, we can literally feel the power of an all-embracing love. The development section serves as an opportunity to revisit Don Juan's heroic-passionate side, as well as to introduce a new theme. An insistent string theme alternating with some hesitant melodic fragments in the flute: the Don is seducing a timid young girl before our very ears. This extended romantic episode ends abruptly with the appearance of a brand-new theme on the horns: Don Juan, the hero, sallies forth in search of new adventures. The next section, possibly inspired by a masked-ball episode in Lenau's poem and sometimes referred to as the "carnival scene," reaches another emotional "high," but then Don Juan suddenly falls into a deep depression. He does gather enough strength for another show of heroism (in musical terms, this is the recapitulation), but the tragic end cannot be avoided. The Don surrenders to his opponent; the work, so exuberant for most of its length, ends on a bleak note, in the minor mode and pianissimo, with a few short E's played by plucked strings, low winds and timpani.

* Translation from Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on his Life and Works. New York, 1962