Strauss: Don Juan

Richard Strauss: Don Juan
Text from: Richard Strauss
A Critical Commentary
On His Life and Works
Volume One
By Norman Del Mar
Cornell University Press
Ithaca, New York 1962, 1986


Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

Strauss’s love affairs gave his parents anxiety from the first. Yet it was surely to he expected that an ardent young artist, on his own in the various German townships, would be bound to meet pretty girls to whom he would be attracted and who would surely be attracted to this immensely gifted, incredibly promising and by no means ill-favoured youth. Various letters written both to his parents (by observers who were quick to see what was going on) and by his parents to Strauss, even after he had come of age, indicate that he had quickly become emancipated considerably beyond the point considered respectable by the society of those days. His father wrote to him soon after he went to Meiningen that, nice as it was for him to enjoy himself with good, solid cheerful women (!), where everything was above board, he should be careful not to smear his good name and damage his career now that he


had to conduct a women’s chorus; to remember the gossip there had been about him and Dora W.--- etc., etc. Looking back from these broader-minded times it seems to us that Strauss sowed remarkably few wild oats for so passionate a spirit, and that he found his life-partner remarkably early on.

   In late August 1887, Strauss paid a visit to his Uncle George Pschorr, who lived an hour’s train journey outside Munich in a village called Feldafing. Prominent in the village was a certain General de Ahna, who lived with his two daughters. He was an amateur baritone of some quality who gave local recitals, chiefly of Wagnerian extracts, and who was therefore gratified to make the acquaintance of the latest star on the musical horizon. The elder daughter, Pauline, was also possessed of a good voice and had actually finished her studies as a soprano in the Munich Conservatoire, without making any headway in the profession. Strauss was entirely captivated by the girl and, like many other musicians, made use of his art to further his courtship by undertaking the instruction of his beloved. This he did to such effect that when two years later he took over the opera in Weimar he was able to introduce her as one of the leading sopranos. In the meantime the effect of this new love affair upon his work was electrifying, for he quickly translated the experience into musical terms, composing his first love music, which proved to be amongst the finest he was ever to write.

   As a vehicle for the expression of sexual desire, he chose the greatest erotic subject of all time, the Don Juan legend.8 He found amongst the mid-nineteenth-century German poets a verse play by Nikolaus Lenau which served his purpose particularly well, not so much because of Lenau’s dramatic treatment of the legend, as because of his psychological study of the notorious woman-hunter. Published posthumously in 1851 (the poet had died insane a year before), Don Juan was Lenau’s last work and remained a fragment, a series of short scenes barely forming a coherent plot. It is complete enough, nevertheless, to trace the main outlines of Don Juan’s career from the scene where his father vainly sends Don Diego, his brother, to fetch him home from his worthless life of

8 There is some confusion as to when Strauss actually began work on Don Juan. Every biographer has accepted the autumn of 1887 as being the approximate time when the first drafts were sketched. Yet Strauss himself wrote that ‘during a later Italian journey to Venice (in May 1888) I invented the first themes of Don Juan in the courtyard of the monastery of S. Antonio in Padua.’ Since the work was undoubtedly completed the same summer, this seems to allow very little time for the composition of so elaborate and complex a score.

sensuality, to the final duel in which he dies not because he is defeated but because he finds victory ‘as boring as the whole of life’. During the intermediary stages there is scarcely a form of depravity or dishonour in which he does not indulge or of which he does not show himself capable in what is, in fact, his idealistic search for the perfect woman. But in every successful exploit it subsequently turns out that some great harm has been done, or someone has been desperately hurt. This leaves ineradicable marks on his character, since he is profoundly disturbed to find that his life’s philosophy-the glorification of the experience of the single moment above all else-is so utterly unendurable to those on whom he seeks to impose it that they destroy themselves, leaving him completely baffled and demoralized.

   All his ever wilder and more assertive exploits are explainable in the light of this deep-rooted discontent which, far from causing him to abandon his mode of life, spurs him on to indulge in further adventures with less and less care for personal safety and honour. As the end approaches he gloomily desires nothing better than the arrival of a mortal enemy who may relieve him of the supreme boredom of living.

   Lenau conjures up the images of five of Don Juan’s mistresses; Maria who, faced with a stern father and a hateful marriage, abandons all to follow Juan, only to be herself abandoned when the time comes; Clara, whom we only see at the moment of her rejection of Juan, accomplished just in time before his ardour has cooled; Isabella, whom Juan seduces by impersonating her betrothed in total darkness; Anna, who never actually appears, but whom Juan passionately apostrophizes in a Monologue (possibly Lenau would have made more of this episode had he completed the poem); and lastly and most pathetic, an unnamed woman who has just died of a broken heart, the news being brought to Juan at a masked ball, tragedy being dramatically planted into the midst of a carnival in accordance with an age-old and never failing theatrical tradition. Don Juan’s attitude in the aftermath of catastrophe is summarized when, after he has desecrated a monastery, the Abbot destroys the entire building in his despair. Don Juan turns to his comrade with the words:

Das ging zu weit, so hab’ ich’s nicht gemeint,
Wer Boses thut, thut mehr stets als er will. 9

9 That went too far, that I never meant; He who does evil ever does more than he intends.


Strauss’s treatment of the subject is to some extent reflected by the quotations from the poem with which he heads the score. These consist of three passages, all spoken by Don Juan himself; two come from the opening scene and the third from the last, though they are by no means the closing lines, The first two excerpts thus come fairly close together and form the kernel of Don Juan’s arguments for rejecting his brother’s pleas. Don Diego has come expressly with messages from their father, whose favourite Juan has always been, begging him to return home without delay. Don Juan refuses in a series of replies in which, at considerable length, he expounds his life’s philosophy. In the first excerpt, the essence of his worship of the Isolated Moment is immediately manifest:

Den Zauberkreis, den- unermesslich weiten,
Von vielfach reizend schonen Weiblichkeiten
Mocht’ ich durchziehn in Sturme des Genusses,
Am Mund der Letzten sterben eines Kusses.
O Freund, durch alle Raume mocht’ ich fliegen,
Wo eine Schonheit bluht, hinknien vor Jede
Und, war’s auch nur fur Augenblicke, siegen. 10

   Diego finds all this senseless and warns Juan of his inevitable end as a beggar. ‘The God of joy is a God of limits as the bonds of the embrace teach you’ (a very German form of philosophical analogy). If it were not for his father’s commands, Juan could go to the devil. To this remark Juan answers with Strauss’s second quotation:

Ich fliehe Uberdruss und Lustermattung,
Erhalte frisch in Dienste mich des Schonen,
Die Einzle krankend schwarm’ ich fur die Gattung.
Der Odem einer Frau, heut’ Fruhhlingsduft,
Druckt morgen mich vielleicht wie Kerkerluft.
Wenn wechselnd ich mit meiner Liebe wandre
Im weiten Kreis der schonen Frauen,
Ist meine Lieb’ an jeder eine andre;
Nicht aus Ruinen will ich Tempel bauen.
Ja! Leidenschaft ist immer nur die neue;

10 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...


Sie lasst sich nicht von der zu jener bringen,
Sie kann nur sterben hier, dort neu entspringen,
Und kennt sie sich, so weiss sie nichts von Reue.
Wie jede Schonheit einzig in der Welt,
So ist es auch die Lieb’, der sic gefallt.
Hinaus und fort nach immer neuen Siegen,
So lang der Jugend Fcuerpulse fliegen!

   Diego’s reply to this outburst deals with the Day of Reckoning in terms of broken hearts, a consideration which weighs more heavily with Juan than he is prepared to admit. Its validity becomes increasingly apparent until the appearance of the third passage, when in the Supper Scene, unlike Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, he sits gloomily, enveloped in bitter disillusionment. Surrounded by hangers-on of both sexes, Don Juan awaits the enemy (Don Pedro as it turns out) who he hopes will spare him the necessity of continuing the futility of life. Despite Marcello’s cheerful assurances that in a few hours he will once more be at the height of his powers, Juan utterly rejects the idea that he is merely a victim of depression. He has no regrets and cannot tolerate in man the weeping and wailing of remorse.

Es war em schoner Sturm, der mich getrieben,
Er hat vertobt und Stille ist geblieben.
Scheintot ist alles Wunschen, alles Hoffen;
Vielleicht ein Blitz aus Hoh’n, die ich verachtet,
Hat todlich meine Liebeskraft getroffen,
Und plotzlich ward die Welt mir wilst, umnachtet;
Vielleicht auch nicht;--der Brennstoff ist verzehrt,
Und kalt und dunkel ward es auf dem Herd.

   These three quotations carry with them none of the action of the

11 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 odour 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!

12 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 contemned, 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.


play. They are purely psychological and illustrate an attempt on Strauss’s part to depict the character of Juan through his own dicta. Yet they are only a partial guide to the music, for the tone poem indulges to some extent in the direct portrayal of dramatic episodes. There are two full-blown love scenes, a carnival, and a clearly defined section in which, at the height of the duel, the victorious Don Juan throws his rapier away and receives the death thrust at the hands of Don Pedro. Nothing of all this is indicated in Strauss’s avowed programme. Yet to understand the seeming disparity is to understand Strauss’s whole attitude to his task. 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 much as Strauss had just done in Macbeth.

   Even the form of the work is fundamentally the same as that of Macbeth: i.e. a sonata first movement with two major independent episodes inserted into the development. The principal subject is a composite theme, all the major features of which are later isolated and extensively developed.

Play ex8.mp3

Ex. 8

Play /static/strauss/delmar/don_juan/ex9.mp3

Ex. 9

This profusion of ideas together presents the figure of Don Juan himself in all his passionate glory and lust for life. Many things strike one simultaneously on being confronted with this astonishing opening of what was still only Strauss’s second venture in a new field; the brilliant inventive powers, virtuosity of orchestral technique, and above all the

stylistic originality. Here suddenly for the first time Strauss has found himself with masterly self-assurance.

   The collection of motivic figures which make up Ex. 8 form a natural introduction to the principal theme of the first subject Ex. 9, which is fully worked out in a self-contained section with a clearly defined final cadence. During the course of this section the figures of Ex. 8 are constantly incorporated into the texture, this being a simple matter since they are all easily reducible in terms of the common chord, that is to say, apart from inessential passing notes, they are all Naturtheme. A further theme is also gradually introduced which, although scarcely noticeable at its first appearance since it occurs in the bass of an elaborate polyphonic structure, later becomes extremely important:

Play /static/strauss/delmar/don_juan/ex10.mp3

Ex. 10

Ex. 10 carries the music impetuously forward after a full cadence supplied by Ex. 8(a), which both opens and closes the exposition of Don Juan’s thematic material and leads to the hero’s first flirtatious exploit. This episode has little substance and might even be thought too transitory to qualify as a love affair at all if it did not later take its place with all the others in Juan’s disillusionment scene. The theme of its heroine is purely capricious and not evcn the indication flebile (plaintive) scattered about the score can suggest that her heart has been touched.

Play ex11.mp3

Ex. 11

Yet the chromatically descending figure with which she parts from Juan is said to have been intended by Strauss to represent ‘a feeling of satiety in Juan’s heart’, indicating that an emotional attachment has existed between them. This is represented by Strauss in a single phrase which gives out fortissirno the initial bars of the melody which will later dominate Juan’s first true love scene:

Play ex12.mp3

Ex. 12


With an impatient flourish of Ex. 8(a) Don Juan tears himself from this unsatisfactory mistress, turns round, and is immediately spellbound at the appearance of a new beauty. Her arrival is indicated by a radiant wind chord, and the descending phrases of Ex. 12 in the sweet tones of the soio violin, interspersed by continual soft imitative groups of Ex. 10, show that Don Juan is deeply stirred. Their love scene follows, a tremendous extended section in which Ex. 12 is elaborated in song-like style and with a passion that compares only with such sensual exultation as is experienced in the second act of Tristan.

   If the earlier flirtation is regarded formally as fulfilling the role of transition passage, this section clearly corresponds with the second subject, even the conventional key of the dominant being used. The music rises to a climax of unbearable intensity, subsiding abruptly as the cellos softly interpose Ex. 8(a) like a question. Don Juan has woken up from the oblivion of love, and although his mistress attempts to make his dreams continue, they have no longer the power to hold him. Once again Ex. 8(a) thrusts upwards in the cellos, the clarinet takes it up, and in a moment Don Juan is out of reach and away in search of further adventure.

   The passage which follows is pure development, though only Don Juan’s themes are exploited. Ex. 10 is now strongly in evidence and towards the end of the section becomes virtually pre-eminent. The music has reached a pitch of frenzy when there is a halt and a new courtship begins. This time the girl’s capitulation is less immediate, though when it comes it is proportionately more complete. Don Juan’s wooing is now depicted by a new theme of yearning intensity:

Play ex13.mp3

Ex. 13

The girl’s resistance is portrayed by a gasping figure on the flute for which Strauss again uses the indication flebile,, the word clearly being on his brain in the same way as authors tend to overuse certain words when they have first been struck by them. Don Juan’s persistence is characterized by the fragments of Ex. 8c which, together with Ex. 13, gradually overcome the girl’s pitiable resistance and she finally succumbs altogether.

   So complete is her devotion, so touching her love, that the question

inevitably arises as to who this crucial figure in the story can be. Yet it is impossible to establish which of Lenau’s heroines Strauss had in mind, as there is no comparable episode in the poem. According to at least one version of the legend it is Donna Anna who is the only serious passion of Don Juan’s life, but in da Ponte his attempts to seduce her are unsuccessful (as in point of fact are all his subsequent exploits; da Ponte’s Don Juan is the most frustrated lover in literature!) and in Lenau she is scarcely mentioned. 13 At all events there is not the slightest doubt that Strauss is now concerned with Juan’s deepest love experience, whoever the heroine may be. The section which follows is one of the great lovesongs in all music. Nothing in Strauss’s previous output could have led one to expect the creation of music so profoundly, so heart-breakingly beautiful as this central episode. Sir Thomas Armstrong expressed its poignance with deep insight when he wrote of its ‘strange and ominous beauty . . . the whole passsage (having) that autumnal richness of regret which is so often felt in Strauss’s loveliest music and is carried to such a height in Rosenkavalier’. Beginning with an oboe solo,

Play ex14.mp3

Ex. 14

the melody passes from one wind instrument to another, coming back again and again to the oboe, who brings it to its end in an atmosphere of utter tranquillity. The background of divided strings is generally static, though soft reiterations of Ex. 13 keep us perpetually aware of Don Juan stirring in the arms of his beloved.

   The end of the song marks the half-way point of the tone poem and must have caused Strauss some anxiety as to how to continue. That he solved the problem satisfactorily was a feat in itself; the way he solved

13 It is curious how many commentators give the names of da Ponte’s heroines to two of the episodes of Strauss’s Don Juan. The origin of this may perhaps be traced to the Fiihrer to the work published by Schlesinger about 1905 as one of a set of such analytical essays. As with the guide to Till Eulenspiegel (see p. 125), the account of Don Juan was written by Willem Mauke, who refers specifically to the three heroines as ‘Zerlinchen’, ‘die blonde Grafin’, and ‘Anna’. Even Ernest Newman took it for granted that Mauke’s interpretations were substantiated by the composer himself; but, unlike Till, there is no evidence for this, and in view of Strauss’s avowed derivation solely from Lenau in whose work only the Grafin appears in person, briefly during the Masked Ball, the identification of these characters seems somewhat fanciful and presumptuous.

it made history. This was through the invention of a new motif for Juan, a motif so striking that it remains to this day the first theme with which the whole tone-poem is immediately associated. The stirrings of Ex. 13 turn to impatience, impatience to impetuosity, and after an upward rush the violins establish a high tremolo pedal-point beneath which the horns make the grand gesture which is Ex. 15. Don Juan is now not merely dashing and impetuous; he is heroic.

Play ex15.mp3

Ex. 15

It is worth comparing Ex. 15(a) with Ex. 21 from Aus Italien (Chapter 2). Not only are the superficial contours of the two themes markedly similar, but both are the finest ideas of their respective movements although appearing only half-way through. As with the earlier heroine, so this poor girl clings to Juan, her agitation shown in a feverish version of Ex. 14, but she has even less power over him than her predecessors, and in any case Don Juan is by now in full cry. Repeated versions of Ex. 15 alternate with Ex. 8(a) which rises higher and higher until with a dazzling stroke of orchestral colour Don Juan is in the thick of some wild festivities. This second development section is generally known as the Carnival Scene, but the nearest parallel to be found in Lenau is a Masked Ball, and one might justifiably assume that it was this which Strauss had in mind. There is a new glittering theme which is developed together with Ex. 15(a) (on the glockenspiel, of all unlikely instruments), and then Ex. 8 (a), which becomes increasingly prominent until it sweeps the music into a powerful series of majestic statements of Ex. 8 (b) which alternate with the two halves of Ex. 15, each of which is developed separately. In due course Ex. 8(d) joins in each downward sweep, gaining in force and momentum until at the climax it turns into a torrential fall into a terrible pit. This fearful collapse is psychological although, in the dramatic orchestral language used to depict it, it is indistinguishable from the actual events described in the parallel climax towards the end of the work. Don Juan’s morale has suddenly reached rock-bottom. The ghosts of his three former mistresses

flit across his consciousness. In his despondency he has taken to wandering through churchyards, and here, as in da Ponte, Lenau makes him come across the statue of a distinguished nobleman whom he has killed, and Juan invites him to dinner. 14 But Lenau is concerned with reality and not with the metaphysical. The Statue does not come; it is the nobleman’s son, Don Pedro, who intrudes upon the supper scene. Surrounded by Don Juan’s cast-off women (not Maria, Clara, etc., but a new batch with names such as Constanze, Blanka and so on) and their illegitimate children, he challenges the invincible libertine to a death duel. As Ex. 8(a) tentatively puts out feelers in the different string groups over a dominant pedal, Don Juan gathers strength and confidence for the final stage of the drama or, in symphonic terms, the recapitulation. This build-up to a dramatic comma at the end of the development section is contrived in exactly the same way, although naturally on a far more elaborate scale, as the corresponding passage in the Rom’s Ruinen movement from Aus Italien. Strauss is now a master, but he knows how to use the experience of his apprenticeship.

   As in the development sections, the recapitulation deals exclusively with Don Juan’s themes and is, to that extent, incomplete. It does, however, incorporate all the new Don Juan material collected on the way including the majestic version of Ex. 8 (b) (which is accordingly omitted from its original position, Ex. 8(a) leading directly to Ex.9) and culminating in the second and most triumphant declamation of Ex. 15 in its entirety, firstly as before on the four horns (being now a third higher it takes them to their high B, a most exciting sound) and then on the upper strings and wind in a tremendous unison. A surging imitative passage based on Ex. 15(b) leads back to the original matter of the exposition, and the recapitulation closes regularly, only to be carried forward impetuously by Ex. 10 exactly as in the opening section of the work. The logical construction is exemplary, its cumulative power overwhelming. From the opening of the recapitulation the music drives forward without a moment’s hesitation from peak to peak until the terrible hiatus in which, at the height of his regained powers, Don Juan, with Pedro entirely at his mercy, realizes that victory is wholly

14 The invitation by a roue of a dead man to supper, and the horror when the invitation is accepted, was one of the earliest aspects of the Don Juan legend and dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The first appearance of Don Juan in literature is in a play published in Barcelona in 1630 and attributed to Tirso de Molina; but although he accordingly received a Spanish name, Don Juan is generally regarded as being of widely international origin.

worthless and voluntarily delivers himself to the sword of his adversary. There is a pale minor chord into which the trumpets jab out the dissonant note which with horrible clarity represents the mortal thrust, and with a descending scries of shuddering trills Don Juan’s life ebbs away. The work ends on a note of bleakness which is the more appalling for the closeness with which it follows on the heels of a scene of unparalleled splendour and exultation.

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