Program Notes: Strauss' Don Juan

Program Notes: Strauss' Don Juan

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Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Don Juan, Opus 20

The summer of 1888 found the 24-year-old Strauss at something of an impasse. Already he had composed some magnificent songs, and his First Symphony, completed when he was 20, had been premiered in New York City. But as a composer, he was still searching for an authentic voice. His career as a conductor was also stalled. He had succeeded Hans von Bülow as conductor of the superb Meiningen Orchestra just when that orchestra was being downsized, and he ended up as third conductor of the Munich Court Opera.

imagination catching fire

In these years Strauss found himself drawn toward descriptive music, particularly to the conception of the “symphonic poem” as that had been shaped by Franz Liszt. Strauss moved tentatively in the direction of representational music with Aus Italien, which was more travelogue than drama, and the symphonic poem Macbeth. But his imagination—and his art—caught fire when he took up the Don Juan story. He chose not the legendary figure of Molina, Molière, Gluck and Mozart, but one created by the German poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850).

Lenau’s is a much darker character, a philosopher who seeks the Ideal Woman through his conquest of individual women, and his fate is to find not the ideal but disillusion, destruction and self-disgust. Finally confronted by Don Pedro, a relative of one of his conquests, this Don Juan recognizes the emptiness of his life, purposely lowers his sword during their duel and takes a fatal thrust through his heart.

While Liszt’s symphonic poems had been loosely inspired by legends, paintings and plays, Strauss aimed for a much more exact musical representation (he once bragged that he could set a glass of beer to music). His Don Juan is striking in its instant creation of character, the sheer sweep of its writing and the detail of its incidents.

He worked on the score across the summer of 1888 and took it with him that fall when he became the assistant conductor of the Weimar Opera. The management there insisted that he give the premiere with the local orchestra, which, however, was modestly talented and required many, many rehearsals. But their work paid off. The premiere on November 11, 1889, was a sensation, Strauss’ name swept across Europe, and Don Juan may be said to have launched its young creator’s career. Strauss biographer Michael Kennedy has called this music “the appearance of the real Strauss,” and a succession of increasingly detailed and brilliant tone poems followed over the next decade.

the music: fiery and voluptuous

Don Juan has one of the most famous beginnings in music. That volcanic opening rush (Strauss insists that it must be Allegro molto con brio) begins off the beat, and it streaks upward across three octaves in the first moments. This fiery flourish leads immediately to Don Juan’s own music, which seems always to be in frantic motion, surging and striving ever higher. In fact, one of the most impressive things about Don Juan is its energy: this music boils over, presses forward, erupts—it seems to be in motion even when it is still.

Quick figures from violins and solo oboe suggest an early flirtation, but soon a lush chord for full orchestra (marked tranquillo) introduces the sweeping violin solo that signals the Don’s first real passion. Strauss was particularly adept at writing voluptuous love music, and this interlude goes on for some time before the Don tries to escape. On the surging music from the very beginning he breaks free and sets off on new adventures. His second passion brings another notable love scene, this one built on a gorgeous cantilena for solo oboe, but, his conquest made, the Don rushes off on a mighty horn call.

An animated scene follows, perhaps a depiction of Lenau’s carnival sequence, but suddenly matters plunge into gloomy near-silence. Fragmentary reminiscences of earlier love themes reappear as the Don confronts the meaning of his life, and the music rushes into the final confrontation with Don Pedro. Their sword fight is suitably violent, but its climax breaks off in silence as Don Juan abandons the struggle and lowers his sword. Out of the eerie chord that follows, dissonant trumpets mark the thrust of Don Pedro’s blade through Don Juan’s heart, and descending trills lead to the close on grim pizzicato strokes. Don Juan’s quest, once so full of fire, has ended in complete spiritual darkness.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bells, suspended cymbal, triangle, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski
Born: October 3, 1882, Tymoszówka, Ukraine
Died: March 29, 1937, Lausanne, Switzerland

Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35

If Elgar’s Violin Concerto is in spirit the last of the great 19th-century examples of the genre (its actual calendar date is 1910), Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, written in 1915-16, is the first in an amazing series of truly 20th-century violin concertos that would, over the next 25 years, come to include masterpieces by Stravinsky, Berg, Prokofiev, Sessions, Schoenberg, Bartók, Bloch, Barber, Britten, Hindemith, Piston, Walton and Hartmann among others—not to forget Szymanowski’s own Second Concerto of 1932.

The voice behind Szymanowski’s two concertos is that of Paweł Kochański, fiery and sweet-toned virtuoso, and one of the most admired violinists in a brilliant time. The plan was for Kochański, who wrote the cadenza for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto and to whom the work is dedicated, to give the first performance in St. Petersburg at the end of 1917, but the Russian Revolution got in the way. The premiere finally took place in Warsaw on November 1, 1922, with Jósef Ozimiński as soloist and Grzegorz Fitelberg conducting.

Karol Maciezj Szymanowski was a member of an interestingly lively and talent-filled family. He studied first with his father, who played cello and piano, and with another musical relative, Gustav Neuhaus, but it was really in the course of travel, independent study and quite simply experience that his true education began. He had been brought up on the three B’s plus Chopin and, surprisingly for so conservative an environment, Scriabin. Now his horizons expanded to embrace Wagner, Strauss and Reger, then Debussy and Ravel, eventually and crucially Stravinsky, whose Firebird and Petrushka he saw in their original productions by Diaghilev, about whom he wrote the first serious articles in Polish, and who became a friend as well.

a language all his own

Szymanowski’s music moved away from German Romanticism to become—what? To say “more French” would be both true but also too limiting, for what he wrote, in words as well as music, more and more reflected his contacts with cultures removed in time and place from 20th-century Europe. He had made long journeys through Sicily, with its evocative remnants of the Greek and Byzantine worlds, and through North Africa. He read the Greek classics, Plato and histories of the Byzantine, Islamic, Roman and early Christian worlds. Admiring Bartók and what he was doing for and with Hungarian music, Szymanowski began to study and imaginatively to utilize Polish folk music.

In sum, Szymanowski drew on many sources, but fused them into a colorful, malleable language all his own. The Myths, Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, The Song of the Night (Symphony No. 3), the Violin Concerto No. 1, the opera King Roger and the Stabat Mater, to name just a handful of the most important scores, amount to a legacy of unusual diversity, imposing originality and expressive strength.

the concerto: a poem

Szymanowski cast his First Violin Concerto as a single movement of about 23 minutes’ duration. The analytical ear and eye readily enough distinguish different sections and the recurrences of certain ideas, but what the spontaneous listening ear responds to is the seamless, self-generating flow. (In what might seem paradoxical, violinist and conductor must be fully aware of the former in order to create the impression of the latter.) The dominant impression is that of an intensely lyric, enchantingly colorful music that is in constant flux. The work is as much a poem as it is a concerto, being in fact based on a rhapsody, Summer Night, by one of the composer’s literary contemporaries, Tadeusz Miciński. Summer Night is a feast of fantastical images—donkeys in crowns settled majestically on the grass, fireflies kissing the wild rose, and many birds—and it is not surprising that the sounds often come close to those in Bartók’s haunting “night musics,” such as we find in works from the piano suite Out of Doors to the Third Piano Concerto.

Christopher Palmer has vividly described the opening in his Szymanowski monograph for the BBC Music Guides: “Its fantastic little dashes and flashes of sound, bitonally propelled, fluttering and dancing like a thousand tiny fires, suggest endless parallels, musical and otherwise: a distant fireworks display; a pointillist canvas; an imperial Fabergé jewel aglitter with sequins; César Franck’s wonderful definition of the nervous appeal of Debussy’s music as ‘de la musique sur la pointe des aiguilles,’ music on needlepoints.”

When Szymanowski first actually heard this music in rehearsal in Warsaw he was thrilled and wrote to Kochański: “The sound is so magical that people here were completely transfixed. And just imagine, Paweleczka, the violin is continually on top.” With the magic of the fireflies goes the ecstasy of lyric song. The concerto is a work of white-hot passion, set in a magical landscape inhabited by, among others, the figure of Pan, part humorous, part threatening, whom Szymanowski invokes so wonderfully in the third of the Myths. Szymanowski said that the true national music of his country was not “the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka, nor a fugue on the Chmielu wedding song … but the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant night in Poland.” In this concerto, he set that ecstatic song down for us to share.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, celesta, piano, two harps and strings

Excerpted from a program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.


Bela Bartok

Béla Bartók
Born: March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died: September 26, 1945, New York City

Concerto for Orchestra

Bartók and his wife fled to the United States in October 1940 to escape World War II and the Nazi domination of Hungary, but their hopes for a new life in America were quickly shattered. Wartime America had little interest in Bartók or his music, and the couple soon found themselves living in near poverty. Then came the catastrophe: in the spring of 1942 Bartók’s health failed. By the following spring his weight had dropped to 87 pounds (a ghastly photo from these months shows an emaciated figure, his bones pressing through his skin), and he had to be hospitalized. Bartók fell into a deep depression, convinced that he would neither recover nor compose again. To his publisher he wrote, “Artistic creative work generally is the result of an outflow of strength, high-spiritedness, joy of life, etc.—All these conditions are sadly missing with me at present.”

transformed by a commission

At this point, Bartók’s friends rallied around him—and very discreetly too, since the fiercely proud composer would never accept anything that savored of charity. Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti convinced Serge Koussevitzky to ask for a new work from the ailing composer, and the conductor visited Bartók’s hospital room in New York City to tell him that the Koussevitzky Foundation had commissioned an orchestral work for which it would pay $1,000. Bartók refused. He believed that he could never complete such a work, but Koussevitzky gave Bartók a check for $500 and insisted that the money was his whether he finished it or not. The visit had a transforming effect: soon Bartók was well enough to travel to Saranac Lake in upstate New York, where he spent the summer. First he rested.

Then once he started on his new commission, he worked fast. He began on August 15, 1943, and completed the score eight weeks later, on October 8. Koussevitsky conducted the Concerto for Orchestra in its first performance, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on December 1, 1944. It was an instant success, and Bartók reported that Koussevitzky called it “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years.” For that premiere, Bartók prepared a detailed program note that addressed not only the title and structure, but—unusual for this composer—also the content of the music.

music of strength and beauty

“The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner,” he wrote. “The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato section of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum-mobile-like passage of the principal theme of the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.”

This is music of strength, humanity, beauty and, not least, humor. Bartók’s own description may touch the secret of its emotional appeal: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.”

The five movements of the Concerto for Orchestra are in the beautifully symmetric arch form that Bartók sometimes employed. The outer movements, both in modified sonata form, anchor this arch, framing the two even-numbered movements, both of which have the character of scherzos (each is marked Allegretto). The central slow movement, which itself is in a symmetric ternary form, becomes the capstone to the arch.

introduzione. The music comes to life with a brooding introduction, and flutes and trumpets hint at theme-shapes that will return later. The movement takes wing at the Allegro vivace with a leaping subject (immediately inverted) for both violin sections, and further themes quickly follow: a second subject for solo trombone and a more intimate figure for solo oboe. As part of the development comes a resounding fugato for the concerto’s 11 brass players.

giuoco delle coppie (game of pairs). This charming movement should be understood as a scherzo in the literal meaning of the word: a “joke”—music for fun. A side drum sets the rhythm, and then pairs of woodwinds enter in turn to play a variation on the good-natured opening tune, first heard in the bassoons. Bartók varies the sound by having each “couple” play in different intervals: the bassoons are a sixth apart, the oboes a third, the clarinets a seventh, the flutes a fifth and, finally, the trumpets are a second apart. A noble brass chorale interrupts the fun, after which the woodwinds pick up the opening theme and resume their game.

elegia. At the center of the concerto lies this dark Andante, which Bartók called a “lugubrious death-song” and which is based in part on material first heard during the introduction to the first movement. It opens with an inversion of the concerto’s very beginning, which gives way to one of the finest examples of Bartók’s “night-music,” with a keening oboe accompanied by spooky swirls of sound. A great outburst from the violins, also derived from the very beginning, leads to the violas’ parlando declarations. The music winds its way back to the eerie night-sounds of the opening before vanishing with only two instruments playing—piccolo and timpani.

intermezzo interrotto (interrupted intermezzo). A sharper sense of humor emerges here. Bartók begins with a woodwind tune whose shape and asymmetric meters suggest an Eastern European origin and continues with a glowing viola melody that must have had specific appeal for him: it is derived from an operetta tune by Zsigmond Vincze that originally set the words “You are lovely, you are beautiful, Hungary.” At the center of the movement comes the interruption.

During the war, Bartók had been dismayed by the attention paid to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, and he objected particularly to the obsessive ostinato theme Shostakovich associated with the Nazi invaders (which he had taken from Lehár’s The Merry Widow). Bartók quotes that tune in the solo clarinet, then savages it: he makes the orchestra “laugh” at the theme, which he treats to a series of sneering variations and finally lampoons with rude smears of sound. This has long been considered Bartók’s attack on Shostakovich, but is it possible that Lehár’s tune functions in exactly the same way for both Shostakovich and Bartók? For each, it is a symbol of the hated Nazis, it invades their own music, and it is thrown aside in an act of defiant nationalism. Once it is gone, Bartók returns—in one of the most beautiful moments in the concerto—to his “Hungarian” tune, now sung hauntingly by muted violins.

finale. The Finale begins with a fanfare for horns, and then the strings take off and fly: this is the perpetual motion Bartók mentioned in his note for the premiere. Beginning very quietly with the inside second violins, he soon invests this rush of energy with a slashing strength.

This movement is of a type Bartók had developed over the previous decade, the dance-finale, music of celebration driven by a wild energy. Yet it is a most disciplined energy, as much of the development is built on a series of fugues. Bartók is scrupulous in this score about giving every single section and player a moment of glory. Matters subside into a mysterious quiet, and from this misty murk the fugue theme suddenly blazes out in the brass. The Concerto for Orchestra ends with one of the most dazzling conclusions to any piece of music: the entire orchestra rips straight upward in a dizzying three-octave rush of sound.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum without snares, tam-tam, triangle, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff