Tone-Poem, “Don Juan,” Opus 20
Contemporaneous with Debussy was his complete antithesis, Richard Strauss. He is descended of Berlioz of “the program symphony, Liszt of the symphonic poems, Wagner of the music dramas. He was not so much a revolutionist in his methods and idioms as he was a flaming temperament, a modern intellect, and an astonishing development of his age. He is a symphonist, a realist and dramatist in one. He was late in turning to the stage, but was expressing drama and psychology before that time in a series of symphonic poems that shook the world.
After years which have made the music thrice familiar and exposed certain banalities, I am taken aback, whenever I hear it properly performed, by the fierce onslaught of the opening measures of his “Don Juan,” the first of the tone-poems in which Strauss unmistakably revealed his genius. Before . this there was no such intrepid and sensual music, or music of such torrid, and lush, and violent orchestration. “Don Juan” was composed in 1889. It will soon have its fiftieth anniversary, which is a long time in the mod-ern tonal art. In that time purists and pundits have been telling us that the works of the vulgar and sensational Strauss could not live. Every decade they have been critically buried. But while critics were advancing excellent reasons for Strauss’s artistic demise, and declaring the esthetic unsoundness of his program music, Strauss was creating an art of an astonishing and irresistible power. Before “Don Juan” he had composed copiously in various traditional styles, and learned the technics of his business. He had produced one tone-poem on the subject of “Macbeth,”’ a combination of Brahms and certain fragmentary prophecies of the Strauss to come. But the real release occurred when Strauss’s nature had ripened, when contact with literature quickened his creative consciousness, and he had found the courage uncompromisingly to take his own path. The subject of Lenau’s “Don Juan” seems to have made a powerful appeal to his imagination. With this symphonic poem a long pent-up force broke loose—erupted like Vesuvius. What came out was not all pure flame: there were rocks and mud. But Don Juan himself did not set out on his adventures with more defiance and lust of conquest than the youthful Strauss who portrayed him. ‘
To gain all that can be gained from this music it is necessary to take into account Strauss’s conception. This Don Juan is not the mere rakehell sensualist of the Spanish fable. He is, after all, an intellectual hero. He is the dreamer as well as the voluptuary, the ad-venturer who seeks in all women the ideal.. The quest is fruitless; disgust and contempt for life grow upon him until existence is intolerable, and in despair he allows himself to be stabbed in a duel. This is the , character projected by the Austrian poet, Nicolaus Lenau, and it is this conception which provoked the proud, delirious and bitter music of Strauss.
In the opening passage the knight is before us, imperious, defiant, aflame with the lusts of life. There are two episodes of love music. Officious commentators, whom Strauss has not taken the trouble to contradict, find in these episodes the figures of legendary ladiesDonna Anna, Donna Elvira. Or what would you? No matter. The headlong music changes its course. With sweeps of the harp, some bell-like tones of the celesta and a phrase of the solo violin, the music becomes nocturnal; the Don woos impetuously. His passion smolders and flames. The amorous song mounts to a palpitating climax, but the mood soon passes. “I flee from surfeit and from rapture’s cloy.” New fires begin to flare in the music; and now, over a deep murmuring accompaniment of strings and, horns the oboe sings a song of the world well lost. An effect of suspended harmonies holds the spell to the last possible moment, when it is dispersed by Don Juan’s second theme, a lordly phrase, one of the most magnificent Strauss ever conceived, given to six horns in unison. To this motive of the horns other instruments make agitated rejoinder. But the re-doubtable theme rings out again with knightly scorn. Now Strauss flings his colors like a pot of paint on the orchestral canvas. In one place the Don’s horn theme is caricatured in silly fashion by the glockenspiel. This is the place, according to self-appointed elucidators, where, after riotous misbehavior, Don Juan falls intoxicated to the ground, and there pass in his confused brain vague images of earlier experiences and the fleshly phantoms he pursued. The moment when the commentators fancy the knight unconscious is the passage in the orchestra when fragments of the love themes are heard over long-sustained tones of the low instruments. This is the moment that precedes the true climax of the tone-poem. Once more the orcbestra lashes itself to a frenzy, when suddenly, just as it seems that the tidal wave of tone must crash and overwhelm us, it is transfixed and frozen into silence. There is a catastrophic pause. A veil seems to fall over the instruments. Through this veil of tone cuts a dissonant trumpet notethe mortal thrust, the death of the dream, the end of every man’s desire. Perhaps this is the most remarkable page of the whole tone-poem. The conclusion is laconic, tight-lipped. There is no wild complaint, no hysterical wailing. Only abandonment of life.
It is strange music from a young man of twenty-four. The energy and color of the score could be explained by the fire of the youthful revolutionist Strauss was when he composed this work. But the ending, with its striking negation of feeling, was a new note in music of the modern German school, and perhaps harbinger of the negativity that has characterized the later period.