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1888 – Strauss, Don Juan

 

1888 Richard Strauss Don Juan
Instrumentation Strings, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (plus cor Anglais), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (plus contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, timpani and percussion
Key concepts Romantic, tone poem, orchestration
Overview Strauss was the next major composer to follow Liszt down the tone poem route. He launched his international career with the masterly Don Juan at the age of 24. His virtuoso treatment of the orchestra along with his ability to paint a picture with music would become the hallmarks of his career. The eponymous hero appears in plays and operas going back to the seventeenth century (including in Mozart’s Don Giovanni) and is (in)famous for his serial womanizing. Strauss’s depiction (based on a range of sources) focuses on someone looking for but never finding his idealized vision of love and the work proceeds via a series of climaxes and disappointments ending in the protagonist’s death in a duel. Look at the full score
A) overall form A single movement based on the broad narrative of Don Juan’s life and death. Unusually it begins in an ebullient E major but ends in a sombre E minor.
F) Development of the orchestra (and texture) The large orchestra is used in an incredibly virtuosic way both in terms of the orchestration itself and the ferocious difficulty of the individual parts, which always crop up in orchestral auditions for nearly any instrument. The glittering range of effects used in the opening pages with its flurries of semiquavers and fanfares alternating with much more delicate textures.

Listen to the opening:

Strauss often develops his basically MDH textures with intricate contrapuntal countermelodies as in this first love theme (just after letter D):

G) Harmony and tonality Strauss’s writing is highly chromatic – the whole work starts in E major but the first chord is a flattened submediant (C major) that leads chromatically to a dominant in the second bar. (there is a link to the full score above)

Listen to the opening:

The E major to E minor overall trajectory is unusual and therefore worth mentioning. Listen to the end:

H) Humour /drama/ narrative Strauss is the absolute master of musical storytelling and description. In other works he depicts storms, waterfalls and even domestic life at home. In this piece we follow the heroes journey through a range of romances and his ultimate disappointment with them and life in general.

Don Juan vividly captures a range of emotions and situations from the ebullient confidence of the beginning (which capriciously gives way to unexpected moments of doubt or tenderness at the drop of a hat):

To the swelling first love theme:

But just as it is reaching its climax, the music breaks off into gloomy disappointment:

The end of the next love theme is followed by one of Strauss’s most famous tunes and the one most associated with Don Juan himself, an energetic theme melody played in unison on four horns:

Ultimately though Don Juan dies in a duel that he cannot quite be bothered to win and the music ends in a downbeat and gloomy E minor: