Richard Strauss and Don Juan: The Lover’s Quest

Don Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villena and Master of the Order of Santiago — better known simply as Don Juan — is one of the most famous people who never lived, a fictional character who is usually portrayed as an aristocratic scoundrel with a single-minded desire for sexual gratification.

Don Juan’s legend began in 1630 when Tirso de Molina published
El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville), a fictional work based on the Spanish nobleman Don Juan Tenorio. After the publication of Molina’s work, Don Juan become one of history's most durable myths. He has been the main character in plays by Molière, Alexandre Dumas, and George Bernard Shaw, a poem by Lord Byron, and an opera by Wolfgang Mozart. In the movies, Don Juan has been played by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and Johnny Depp.

Don Juan is most often portrayed as an immoral and irresponsible philanderer, an arrogant man, lacking in moral conscience and unwilling to apologize for the life he leads. In stories about his life, he gets his comeuppance at the end, paying a price for his philandering.

Probably the most famous version of Don Juan comes from Mozart’s
Don Giovanni, an opera with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. In Don Giovanni, Don Juan is such a rascal that he seduces a young bride on her wedding night. He also seduces a woman whose father is a Commendatore. When the Commendatore discovers what Don Juan has done to his daughter, he challenges Don Juan to a duel and then dies at Don Juan’s hands. Some time later, Don Juan comes upon a statue of the dead Commendatore and asks the statue to dinner. In one of the most dramatic moments in any opera, the statue arrives for dinner, takes Don Juan by the hand, and drags him into Hell.

Contrary to the traditional portrayal of Don Juan as a libertine and scoundrel, the Hungarian writer Nikolaus Lenau published a story in 1851 that was more sympathetic to Don Juan. For Lenau, Don Juan was an idealist, a man in search of perfect love. During his search, he grew increasingly disillusioned and disgusted with himself.
Lenau wrote, “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 possess as individuals. 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.”

Lenau’s portrayal of Don Juan was adopted by Richard Strauss for a
symphonic poem. Strauss was only twenty-four years old when he composed Don Juan, and at its premier in 1889 the piece was received with such enthusiasm that Strauss immediately became a significant figure in German music.

To understand Strauss’s version of Don Juan, think of the Don as a romantic young man searching for the woman of his dreams. Picture him as a philosopher and dreamer, someone driven by the nobility of a young man’s idealism. Think also of his continuing disappointment at not being able to find the ideal woman and the disillusionment that takes over as he loses his idealism.

Whenever I analyze the structure of Strauss's
Don Juan for my students, I run into two problems. First, Strauss did not provide program notes for the piece, and the musicologists who have deconstructed it seem to point in all directions. Some claim the piece is composed in sonata form, while others claim it is a fantasia. What helps me most is to think of the piece as a series of episodes that follow the periodic return of a main theme — quasi-rondo form, one might say.

I've provided my outline below, hoping it will help those who are new to the piece begin to understand of it. My interpretation is, of course, open to debate.

The time indicators I have provided refer to the video embedded on this blog. As you listen, you will first need first to identify two main themes — one representing the Lover’s Quest and the other representing Don Juan's Idealism.

The Lover’s Quest (first heard at 0:48) is a theme used by Strauss to begin three separate episodes of Don Juan looking for the ideal woman. (Strauss once told an orchestra to play the theme as if they had just gotten engaged.) Strauss uses each statement of the theme to begin a section of music describing the character of the various women Don Juan meets on his journeys, as well as the angry fathers, boyfriends, and husbands that he must confront. Note that during each episode, Don Juan’s idealism seems to diminish.
The theme representing
Don Juan's Idealism (first heard at 10:37) portrays the nobility of his quest. The magnificence of the theme, introduced by French horns, makes clear that Don Juan is not just a philanderer. He is, instead, a romantic young man looking for the ideal woman.
The key to enjoying the piece? Think about the loss of youthful idealism and a type of disillusionment that might break anyone's spirit. It's a universal theme, and the way Richard Strauss develops it in his version of Don Juan can, at times, break your heart.
Herbert von Karajan conducting the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra

0:36 — Introduction

0:48 — The Lover’s Quest: Episode One

After the main theme concludes, you will hear a section of music portraying several of Don Juan’s conquests. Listen for the solo violin as it introduces a beautiful passage portraying Don Juan’s love for a woman that he thinks might be the ideal woman. He soon becomes disillusioned and realizes he must resume his quest.

5:30 — The Lover’s Quest – Episode Two

After the conclusion of the main theme, you will hear music portraying more of Don Juan’s various conquests. Listen as Don Juan's disillusionment sets in. Listen also for the oboe solo and the long love song representing another lover who might be Don Juan’s ideal woman. Again, Don Juan becomes disillusioned.

10:37 — Don Juan’s Idealism: Interlude

Don Juan’s nobility and idealism is clearly evident in this theme. However, the music following the theme almost seems to mock Don Juan’s quest. The world seems to be laughing at him. The music grows increasingly chaotic as Don Juan is forced to confront his failures.

14:35 — The Lover’s Quest: Episode Three
During this episode, the idealism of Don Juan’s quest gives way to an awareness of the futility of his search. He is forced to defend himself in a duel, and as the duel progresses the music builds toward ...

17:21 — Silence!

17:27 — Don Juan surrenders to his disillusionment. He drops his weapon and accepts his opponent's fatal thrust of the sword. After he is stabbed, he speaks his final words before dying: “My deadly foe is in my power, and this too bores me, as does life itself.”

Separating the Composer from the Music

I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.

And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran away from his debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Beethoven, Berlioz, or Saint-Saëns in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any, music to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.

Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducing the New York Philharmonic)

Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Daniel Barenboim conducting Waltraud Meier at Scala Milan)

Strauss, Don Quixote, Finale (1898)

Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.

Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)