The Kennedy Center

Don Quixote

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha ("The Ingenious Gentlemen Don Quixote de la Mancha") by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, published in 1605, is widely regarded as the first modern novel.  The hero is a fifty-year-old Spanish nobleman who, inspired by the reading of medieval stories about chivalry, sets out on a series of fantastic adventures.  Identifying with the notions and the ideals of an obsolete world, he inevitably clashes with a reality he refuses to acknowledge.  Over the centuries, he has become a symbol of a person to whom appearance is reality.  His name gave rise to the English adjective "quixotic," which the dictionary explains as "extravagantly chivalrous or romantic," "impractical," or "impulsive and often rashly unpredictable" - all attributes of the immortal Don.

Richard Strauss was neither the first nor the last composer to write music on the Don Quixote theme.  Purcell, Telemann, Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, Massenet and Falla are only some of the most important names, not to mention Mitch Leigh's famous musical The Man of La Mancha.  But it is probably fair to say that no musician has ever had a fuller understanding of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance or captured more facets of his personality than has Strauss.

Strauss cast Don Quixote in the classical form of theme and variations.  By doing so, he gave his music a bit of an archaic flavor, though the harmonic language and the orchestration was musical avant-garde at its most adventurous in 1897, the year the work was composed. 

Of all the tone poems, it is Don Quixote that most directly anticipates the great operas Strauss was soon to write.  The dramatic character of the music can be seen in the virtuoso solo cello part that is intended to personify the Don.  The faithful squire Sancho Panza is represented by a solo viola, frequently assisted by the bass clarinet and tenor tuba.

The tone poem consists of an introduction, ten variations and a "finale."  Each variation is based on a given chapter in Cervantes's novel, but Strauss did not keep the original order of the episodes.  Instead, by selecting the stories among many dozens in the book, he devised his own dramatic sequence, alternating between scenes of combat and moments of lyrical reflection.

The Introduction presents several of the work's main ideas, including the themes of Don Quixote and his "distant beloved" Dulcinea.  Strauss weaves these themes together in a contrapuntal texture of fabulous complexity, perhaps in an attempt to impress upon the audience the extent to which Don Quixote has been caught up in his own fantasies.  A series of powerful chords, underscored by heavy drumstrokes, seems to indicate that he has in fact gone mad.

The solo cello and the solo violin now present Don Quixote's main theme in a graceful duo.  A more jovial theme played by clarinet, tenor tuba and an intentionally long-winded viola solo serve as the "signature" of Sancho Panza (if this word can be applied to someone who can neither read nor write).  Knight and squire are soon on their way.  The windmills, which the Don takes for giants, are represented by a descending motif that clashes with the Don Quixote theme, and quite clearly shatters it to pieces.  But the Don bounces back and shows himself even more forceful than before:  his motif now begins in the major, rather than in the minor as earlier, and is played by not one but three cellos (Variation 2).  This warlike music leads right into one of the work's most famous tone-painting passages.  The bleating of a herd of sheep, which the Don sees as a great army, is rendered by a series of extraordinary dissonances, played tremolo (with extremely quick repeats of the same tones) by the muted brass instruments.

Variation 3 is a dialog between the Don and Sancho.  At length, Don Quixote loses his patience with his gabbing squire and gives him a stern lecture:  the tempo slows down and the melody takes on a solemn tone (with frequent musical allusions to the beautiful Dulcinea).  After this short respite, the Don throws himself back into combat:  in Variation 4, a group of monks appears (chorale-like melody in the brass instruments).  Our Knight engages in a fight and is almost immediately defeated, his theme fragmented and given a descending turn that doesn't stop until the lowest register of bass tuba and contrabassoon has been reached.

Variation 5 is again more contemplation than action.  A declamatory cello solo depicts Don Quixote musing about chivalry and Dulcinea.  The latter thought sends him into the highest raptures, as we may hear in a short cadenza featuring a harp glissando, woodwind tremolos and scurrying string passages.

A lively pseudo-folksong, played by two oboes and accompanied by the tambourine, announces the appearance, in Variation 6, of the peasant Dulcinea, who evidently is a far cry from the lofty being Don Quixote had imagined.  The hero's reaction is entrüstet ("indignant"), as the instruction to the solo cellist says.  Then Sancho pays his respects to the puzzled young girl.

Variation 7 depicts the fantastic flight, where Don Quixote is tricked into believing he is actually flying through the air.  This passage contains a humorous allusion to the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walküre.  The effect of the passage is enhanced by the wind machine and the persistent D pedal in the double basses, increasing and decreasing in volume.

In Variation 8, the Don and his faithful squire take a journey by boat (some commentators detected another reference to Wagner here, this time to the opening of Das Rheingold).  The play of the waves is expressed by a lush polyphony of divided strings, suddenly interrupted by a few dry string pizzicatos (plucked notes):  the boat is shattered by some great mill-wheels, and our heroes find themselves in the water, to be rescued by some friendly millers.

In the short variation 9, the Don, represented by a "fast and stormy" string passage, encounters a pair of peaceful monks (a leisurely duo of bassoons) and, without any further ado, scares them away.

In Variation 10, a gentleman from Don Quixote's home village shows up, disguised as a knight.  Since there seems to be no other way to cure the Don from his folly, the gentleman challenges his countryman to a duel.  The Don is defeated, and has to accept the conditions imposed by the victor, who orders him to return home and lead a peaceful life.  The warlike sounds of the duel soon give way to calm and soft music, as Don Quixote embraces the quiet ways of a shepherd.  In the Finale, we hear a tender variant of the Don Quixote theme, but the old man is not destined to enjoy the pastoral idyll for very long.  In a passage somewhat reminiscent of Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote breathes his last, and the work fades away into silence.




Every one of Strauss's tone poems, in some sense, builds upon the preceding ones, and takes a further step in a new direction.  In Don Quixote, Strauss made use of all the compositional resources he had developed during the previous decade, in the imposing series of tone poems from Don Juan to Also sprach Zarathustra.  Now that he had completed his portrait of a whimsical, "quixotic" hero, he turned to exploring heroism in general, and he composed Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"), which he regarded as a kind of companion piece to Don Quixote.  He referred to the earlier work as a "satyr play," a comical pendant to Heldenleben, which, incidentally, remained the last of Strauss's great tone poems.