Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was the son of Franz Strauss, the principal horn of the Munich Court Orchestra. He took up piano and violin at a young age, attended rehearsals of his father’s orchestra, joined the orchestra at age 13, and studied music with colleagues instead of attending a conservatory. Many of his early works were performed during his younger days (he began composing at age 6), but it was the Serenade in E-Flat that caught the ear of Hans von Bülow. The venerated conductor programmed it and other Strauss works, including the Second Symphony. He also gave the young man a job as assistant conductor with his Meiningen orchestra and promoted him for a conducting position in Munich. (Their friendship faded later after Strauss criticized von Bülow’s performance of Don Juan.)

Until 1885, Strauss’s music fit classical forms and often showed the influence of Brahms. That changed after he met Alexander Ritter, a violinist in his Meiningen and Munich orchestras who was married to Wagner’s niece and had worked with Liszt. Ritter turned Strauss toward Wagner and introduced the young man to the “basic principle of Liszt’s symphonic works, in which the poetic idea…became…the guiding principle for my [Strauss’s] symphonic work.” The result was Aus Italien and a series of tone poems that followed over the next decade: Macbeth, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarasthustra, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, and Symphonia Domestica.

Don Juan, op. 20

It was Don Juan that thrust the 23-year-old Strauss onto the world’s stage in 1889. He had just come through an affair with Dora Wihan and was passionately courting his wife-to-be, Pauline de Ahna. Ardor from both relationships probably entered the score, helping the composer create one of the most sensuous pieces of music known at the time. The orchestra is huge, and yet Strauss’s masterful scoring is transparent. The music is full of drama and sweeping, soaring melody.

Strauss drew his character from Hungarian poet Nicholas Lenau’s unfinished Don Juan (1851). Lenau’s Don was different from Mozart’s or Byron’s. The poet described him as ”longing…to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood, and to enjoy in this one, all the women on earth, whom he cannot as individuals possess.” Unable to find that woman and disgusted with his unending lust, the Don allows himself to be slain by the son of a man he had killed in one of his adventures.

The only “program” Strauss left consists of three quotations from Lenau’s poem that he included with the score. These provide a psychological framework for Don Juan’s actions. Many commentators have supplemented these by assigning events, characters, and suggestions to the music. Norman del Mar takes the abstract view that “Don Juan is on the one hand a symphonic movement, fully worked out according to the requirements of the thematic material, while on the other hand it portrays the development of a human personality through the impact of events…” The following is the Don’s reply to his brother Diego, who carries their father’s appeal to Juan to return home and give up his reckless pursuits.

Fain would I run the magic circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful women’s manifold charms, in full tempest of enjoyment, to die of a kiss at the mouth of the last one. O my friend, would that I could fly through every place where beauty blossoms, fall on my knees before each one, and, were it but for a moment, conquer…[translations, Del Mar]

Diego responds that if Juan continues on his path, he will end up a beggar. Juan replies:

I shun satiety and the exhaustion of pleasure; I keep myself fresh in the service of beauty; and in offending the individual I rave for my devotion to her kind. The breath of a woman that is as the odor of spring today, may perhaps tomorrow oppress me like the air of a dungeon. When, in my changes, I travel with my love in the wide circle of beautiful women, my love is a different thing for each one; I build no temple out of ruins. Indeed, passion is always and only the new passion; it cannot be carried from this one to that; it must die here and spring anew there; and, when it knows itself, then it knows nothing of repentance. As each beauty stands alone in the world, so stands the love which it prefers. Forth and away, then, to triumphs ever new, so long as youth’s fiery pulses race!

After an opening surge, which is a collection of motifs treated later on, the main Don theme soars in the violins. A more feminine idea follows, complete with “furtive glance” figures in the violins and answering grace notes in the woodwinds. The encounter itself begins with a celestial passage with a sweet violin solo. Passion increases as the lovers unite. Stirrings of the Don theme indicate his growing restlessness, and two-beat triplets end the relationship. The Don motif signals another adventure. This time courtship begins with the wooing lower strings and a hesitant solo flute. What follows is the famous solo oboe passage, whose length and beauty suggest the most serious of the Don’s affairs.

Restless stirring returns, this time leading to one of Strauss’s greatest horn calls (his music is full of them, probably in tribute to his father), sending the Don on a new adventure. The oboe protests, but Don Juan is not deterred.

We now enter a long development section known as the Carnival scene where past themes and ideas are treated, until suddenly everything collapses. The atmosphere turns eerie, concluding with icy descending figures in the woodwinds, perhaps foreshadowing the Don’s ultimate fate. Ghostly images of old conquests pass before him. No matter. Off he goes again, surging upwards until the recapitulation of all his themes in the violins. The big horn call rises to dizzying heights, and the orchestra breaks out for one more surge. One last climax, signifying perhaps the arrival of Don Pedro, is followed by a dramatic pause. The two Dons confront each other, and a single trumpet note signifies the fatal thrust of Don Pedro’s sword. Don Juan accepts it with resignation and dies quietly. A bit of scurrying in the strings, a quiet lamentation in the bassoons, and Don Juan is no more.

It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains. A trance is upon every wish, every hope. Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I condemned, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened. And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, Dudley House Orchestra, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

Read about Mahler

Return to Home Page