Related Artists/CompaniesRichard Strauss
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Celebrating R. Strauss at 150 featuring Iréne Theorin, soprano, and John Relyea, bass-baritone - Mar. 20 - 22, 2014
The NSO salutes Richard Strauss with his Don Juan and selections from Elektra and Salome. The program also marks the NSO debut of soprano Iréne Theorin, praised for her "emotional vigor" (San Francisco Chronicle).
About the Work
It was in the 1630 drama El Burlador de Sevilla ("The Seducer of Seville") by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina that the fantastic character of Don Juan first strutted upon the world's stages. Tirso based his play on folk legends that were at least a century old in his day, and whose roots undoubtedly extend deeply into some Jungian archetype of masculine virility shared, from complementary viewpoints, by men and women alike. Don Juan found frequent literary representations thereafter, notably in works by Molière, Dumas, Byron, Espronceda, de Musset, Zorrilla and Shaw. A story of such intense passion was bound to inspire composers as well as men of letters, and Gluck, Delibes, Alfano, Dargomyzhsky and half a dozen others all wrote pieces based on the character and his exploits. The most famous treatment of the tale is, of course, Mozart's Don Giovanni, and it was through this opera that Richard Strauss first became acquainted with the Spanish Lothario. In June 1885 Strauss attended a production of Paul Heyse's play Don Juans Ende with his mentor, Hans von Bülow, and the drama and its subject, building on the influence of Mozart's masterpiece, made a powerful impression on the young composer.
The year 1885 was also the time when Strauss met Alexander von Ritter, a high priest in the cult of Wagner and Liszt. Ritter introduced his new friend to compositions by the members of his pantheon, and thereafter Strauss' musical language turned from the abstract, classical style of his youth to something quite different. In an 1888 letter, he tried to convince von Bülow of the validity of his new approach: "If one wants to create a work of art, the mood and structure of which are of a piece and which is to make a vivid impression on the listener, then the author must also have had a vivid image of what he wanted to say before his inner eye. This is only possible as a consequence of fertilization by a poetic idea, whether appended to the work as a program or not." From this time, Strauss abandoned the old instrumental forms of symphony, quartet and concerto. Their place was taken by music sprung from a legend or play or book or even a mountain range or a kitchen range. Aus Italien of 1886 was the earliest of Strauss' programmatic works, and Macbeth, completed two years later, initiated the series of one-movement tone poems based on Liszt's model. With Don Juan of 1888, Strauss wrote his first masterpiece.
Strauss started sketching Don Juan late in 1887, soon after he met Pauline de Ahna in August. Pauline, a singer of considerable talent, got on splendidly with Strauss, and they were soon in love and married. The impassioned love themes of Don Juan were written under the spell of this romance. (The couple remained apparently happily married for the rest of their lives, though Pauline was a renowned nag. Gustav and Alma Mahler would cross the street to avoid meeting her. In 1904, his torch still glowing, Richard wrote his Domestic Symphony — that grandiloquent ode to life among the pots and pans — as a tribute to his familial bliss with Pauline.) For the program of his tone poem, Strauss went not to da Ponte or the Spanish authors, but to the 19th-century Hungarian poet Nicolaus Lenau. Lenau, born in 1802, was possessed by a blazing romantic spirit fueled in part by a hopeless love for the wife of a friend. In a fit of idealism in 1832, he came to America and settled on a homestead in Ohio for a few months. Disappointed with the New World, he returned to Europe, where he produced an epic on the Faust legend in 1836, and then undertook a poetic drama based on Don Juan. Lenau left this latter work unfinished in 1844 when he lost his mind and was admitted to an asylum, where he died six years later. Lenau's Don Juan was not a rakish extrovert but rather a vain, sensual idealist. In the author's words, "My Don Juan is no hot-blooded man, eternally pursuing women. It is the longing in him to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood, and to enjoy in the one all the women on earth whom he cannot as individuals possess. Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him, and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him." In Lenau's version, Don Juan meets his death in a sword duel with the father of one of the women he has seduced. Disillusioned and empty, ready for death, he drops his guard and welcomes his fate.
Strauss' tone poem captures the feverish emotion and charged sensuality of Lenau's drama in music that also reflects the turn-of-the-20th-century passion for delving into the recesses of the human psyche. Wrote George R. Marek of Strauss' then avant-garde work, "All of this newness, this desire for experimentation, this curiosity to reach a hitherto closed bourn, this delving into subconscious strata of the mind, this love of color, this inducing of a dream state, this exploration of the use of sex in art, acted on and were absorbed by the young Richard Strauss... How well did Don Juan accord with the spirit of the times!" Such originality of expression called for originality of style, and Strauss developed a dazzling technique that utilized the full resources of the modern orchestra to tell his symphonic stories. The grand orchestral effects, however, were won at no little cost to the participants, as Strauss noted in a letter to his father concerning one of the rehearsals for the premiere. "The sound was wonderful, immensely glowing and exuberant," he wrote enthusiastically. "It will make a tremendous stir here [in Weimar]... The orchestra huffed and puffed but did its job famously. One of the horn players sat there out of breath, sweat pouring from his brow, asking, 'Good God, in what way have we sinned that you should send us this scourge!' We laughed till we cried! Certainly the horns blew without fear of death... I was really sorry for the wretched brass. They were quite blue in the face, the whole affair was so strenuous." Don Juan made a brilliant success at its premiere on November 11, 1889, under the composer's direction. At the end, he was called time and again to the stage with pleas for an immediate encore, which, instinctive showman that he was, he refused. Wagner's widow, Cosima, called the piece "an incredible thing, compared to which other symphonic compositions are milk toast." Von Bülow raved to Strauss, "Your most grandiose Don Juan has taken me captive." Audiences agreed. Strauss became world famous within months. He was 25. With the death of Brahms in 1897, he was universally acknowledged as the greatest living German composer.
Other than three abstruse excerpts from Lenau's poem that appear in the score, Strauss never gave a specific program for Don Juan. (He learned early that he could get far more publicity by letting critics and commentators contend over such details.) The body of the work comprises themes associated with the lover and his conquests. The vigorous opening strain and a stentorian melody majestically proclaimed by the horns near the mid-point of the work belong to Don Juan. The music depicting the women in his life is variously coquettish, passionate and ravishing. (Norman Del Mar called the beautiful oboe melody "one of the greatest lovesongs in all music.") In the closing pages, an enormous crescendo is suddenly broken off by a long silence. A quivering chill comes over the music. A dissonant note on the trumpets marks the fatal thrust. Quietly, without hope of redemption, the libertine dies.