Don Juan – Richard Strauss
For the second Assignment I hand the task to write an essay about the historical background and musical features of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan
The composer of this piece, Richard Strauss, was born in Munich on the 11th of June 1864. He started learning to play the piano and violin at a very young age and composed his first pieces when he was six. In his youth, he also started conducting and taking place in several other musical projects, for example in Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. At around 1895 he composed his first symphonic poem. When he was older he started composing bigger pieces, such as concertos and operas. Towards the end of his life, he nevertheless came back to smaller pieces again. He finished his last four lieder in 1894, before he died a year later. (1)
The original story of Don Juan is based on a legend and was interpreted in many different ways. The very first version is a poem written by Lord Byron. Published in 1819. It tells about an aristocratic man, who tries to find pleasure in seducing women. The story was of great interest to the public especially because it was always expected from aristocrats to always stick to the rules of society. 2,3,4
Strauss used the poem of the Austrian author Nikolaus Lenau as a base for his symphonic poem. Don Juan is not being described as a dishonest man who just looks for his next adventure, but rather as someone, who wants to find “The one true love”. The version of Lenau obviously includes many more scenes, which Strauss didn’t put in his piece. A long part of the poem consists of Don Juan meeting women, who are normally dismissive towards him, but for one of them he starts to develop feelings. After getting a few imputations about former affairs from the women he met, he starts to become feelings of guilt and regret. Knowing, that he won’t be able to stay with the woman he fell in love with, he doesn’t see the meaning of life anymore. At the end a Don Juan is challenged by Don Pedro, the fiancee of a former affair Don Juan’s. Even though Don Juan would have easily won the fight, he throws his sword away and gets killed by his opponent. 5,6
Seeing that the original version was meant to be read, Strauss provided a few lines from Lenaus’ poem for the audience. Not as a help for the plot but to understand Don Juans character better. 7
The following bullet points are a division of the main parts of the piece in correlation with the plot:
- Bars 1-6: A theme is being introduced, which can be seen and heard throughout the rest of the piece, and can therefore be described as the leitmotif. The triads as well as the semiquavers for the strings can be recognised easily. Having four sharps given for the non-transposing instruments, one can see that the piece starts in E-major. In bar 5, the character slightly changes. One can probably see this sequence of the piece more as an “Intro” rather than a part of the plot.
- Bars 7-39: This part involves a very heroic sounding theme. I personally would have considered it as a part of the story already, but doing some research I found, that it introduces the stormy and vivid character of Don Juan to the audience. In my opinion Strauss managed that really well.8
- Bars 40-188: The following bars are completely different than the previous ones. Much calmer and quieter. It starts with a trio for the solo-violin, the chimes and the harp. One can notice, that, in this scene, certain instruments represent certain characters. The violin hereby stands for Don Juan who tries to seduce the lady, who is represented by the harp. This con be noticed during a short sequence, where one can only hear the two of them playing (and the chimes more in the background to emphasize the emotions of the scene). This motif is developed as the violins enhance the music with canon-like entries. The rhythm becomes faster and the pitch increases as this part reaches its climax. After that, the scene changes into something more dramatic, probably meaning that Don Juan is ready to move on, whilst the woman feels sad to be left.
- This part was difficult to categorise, it basically works again with Don Juan’s motif from the beginning, but in a varied way. Seeing that the following sequence is similar to the previous one, it probably just describes his emotions (slightly dramatic but heroic) in between those scenes.
- From bar 197 to 313 one can clearly hear, that Don Juan experiences another love scene. This time though, it seems to be slightly more dramatic, as if the woman wouldn’t feel too comfortable about the situation. Furthermore, I noticed, that the girl is represented by the flutes at the beginning and later on as an oboe, which after a while, changes again to other woodwinds. The oboe adds another mysterious, unsure character to the scene, but sounds nevertheless very passionate.
- As Don Juan moves on, the music becomes very heroic, he seems to be on his own again, but feels very confident about the past events.
- I found it difficult to find out what scene Don Juan was in at the end. I would have considered it as a simple resumption of the previous theme, but I found out, that it was meant to be a festival. It seems that the scene changes rather quickly: Don Juan starts to feel bad about his actions. One can even notice that Strauss included the two themes from the love scenes again. Don Juan’s doubts can be heard through ongoing downwards-going arpeggios. 9
- From bars 474 to the end the mentioned fight takes place. At the beginning of the duel Don Juan’s heroic theme can be heard again in the tonic E-major. He seems to win at first, but as the music suddenly stops he seems to come to that mentioned moment of realisation, and lets his opponent kill him. Lots of dissonances can be heard, presumably as he fades always in agony. The end chord is in e-minor (Minor-tonic).
In terms of instrumentation Strauss chose, as it was usual for the Romantic period, a big orchestra, the instruments were the following: 3 flutes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones tuba, harp, timpani, triangle, cymbal, chime and strings. 10
Further things, which Strauss included and are also typical for the Romantic era are the expressions of strong emotions. In my opinion the change between the scenes is almost always clearly noticeable and especially the love-scenes are filled with strong expressions. I also noticed, that Strauss uses a lot of chromatic movement, often according to the emotions involved in the scene either going up or down. 11
I listened to the piece before and after I read the story of the poem linked to it. Altogether I could say, that even though I didn’t know the plot at the beginning one could still hear what Don Juan was experiencing, this especially counts for the second love scene and the fight at the end. Whilst listening to it I already had the impression, that it sounded similar to early film music. After knowing more about the plot, I recognised all scenes almost immediately, helpful for that was also, that Strauss put general rests between many of them.
Personally, this piece gave me a great idea on how many different emotions one can put into music and how well written scenes can be expressed in a musical way. Seeing that I really enjoyed listening to it, I came across a few more audio examples of Stauss’ symphonic poems and found he always managed it incredibly well to “catch” a moment or a feeling in his pieces.
The music examples were provided by the Petrucci Music library, the full piece can be heard under the following link. https://imslp.org/wiki/Don_Juan,_Op.20_(Strauss,_Richard). The only score I was able to find was included in a YouTube video, provided by musiclycee 1 000 000 vues and can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8woshq-F21s
1 Klassik Heut, (2019). Richard Strauss. [online]. Available at: http://www.klassik-heute.com/4daction/www_komponist?id=2789&bio [Accessed: 9th Aug. 2019]
2 Hooper, K and Birch, D. (2013). The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 caltech, (2018). The Legend of Don Juan. [online]. Available at: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~tacit/hell/djplot.html [Accessed: 9th Aug. 2019]
4 British Library. Learning English Timelines-Lord Byron, Don Juan. [online]. Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126945.html [Accessed: 9th Aug. 2019]
5 Schwarm, B. Don Juan, Op.20. [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Don-Juan-tone-poem-by-Strauss [Accessed: 9th Aug. 2019]
6 Rosendahl, C. (2013). Don Juan-Variationen und die Fragen nach dem “Mythos von Don Juan”. [PDF]. pp:43-53. Available at: http://www.mythos-magazin.de/methodenforschung/cr_donjuan.pdf [Accessed: 10th Aug. 2019]
7 Hennerfeind, M. (2019). “Don Juan”-Tondichtung op.20. [online] Tonkünstler. Available at: https://www.tonkuenstler.at/de/contents/opus/don-juan-tondichtung-op-20 [Accessed: 12th Aug. 2019]
8 Listening Guide: Richard Strauss’ Symphonic Poem. Do Juan. [PDF]. pp:1-2. Available at: https://www.lifelonglearningcollaborative.org/philharmonic/listeningn-guide–strauss.pdf [Accessed: 10th Aug. 2019]
9 Möller-Ainsberg, U. (2009). Don Juan. [online]. BR-Klassik. Available at: https://www.br-klassik.de/themen/klassik-entdecken/starke-stuecke-strauss-don-juan-100.html [Accessed: 10th Aug. 2019]
10 Pankhurst, T. 1888-Strauss, Don Juan. [online]. A-Level-Music. Available at: https://alevelmusic.com/resources/development-of-the-symphony/1888-strauss-don-juan/ [Accessed: 10th Aug. 2019]
11 Music Theory Academy, Romantic Period Music. [online]. Available at: https://www.musictheoryacademy.com/periods-of-music/romantic-period-music/
[Accessed: 11th Aug.2019]