Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bells, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle), timpani, harp, and strings
The published score of Don Juan was prefaced by Strauss with a lengthy extract from the poem of the same name by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), which includes such lines as, “The charmed circle of many kinds of beautiful, stimulating femininity… I should like to traverse them in a storm of pleasure.” The composer does not assign musical values to such expressions: Lenau’s poem is, under any circumstances, a series of philosophical reflections on the pursuit of love rather than a recitation of the titular womanizer’s romantic exploits.
Program music, that is, purely instrumental music descriptive of or inspired by a literary text, was a notion both popular and highly controversial in the late-19th century. The polemics were fueled most energetically by the waspish critic Eduard Hanslick, champion of absolute music. Herewith, a portion of Hanslick’s review of Don Juan from a Vienna performance presented in 1890, a few months after the work’s completion:
“The younger generation has developed a virtuosity in the creation of sound effects beyond which it is hardly possible to go. Color is everything, musical thought nothing… Virtuosity in orchestration has become a vampire sapping the creative power of our composers… These outwardly brilliant compositions are nothing if not successful. I have seen Wagner disciples exalting the Strauss Don Juan with such enthusiasm that it seemed as though shivers of delight were running up and down their spines. Others have found the thing repulsive… This is no ‘tone painting’ but rather a tumult of brilliant daubs, a flailing tonal orgy, half bacchanal, half witches’ sabbath… The tragedy is that so many of our younger composers think in foreign languages – philosophy, poetry, painting – and then translate their thoughts into the mother tongue, music…” How difficult for Hanslick to resist the seductiveness of that which he condemns. “Get thee behind me, Strauss!,” he seems to be saying.
Don Juan embraces two principal themes, the grand opening flourish – corresponding possibly to Lenau’s “Out and away to new conquests, as long as the pulse of youth continues to beat” – and what is usually referred to as the Don’s principal theme, the upward sweeping roar of the four horns in unison, marked sehr energisch (very energetic). These vigorous motifs are contrasted by several tender “love” themes, the most extended of which is announced by the solo oboe, subsequently taken over by clarinet, then bassoon, and finally horn. This theme, and others along the way, dissolve into mocking phrases, indicating that damnation – or worse, satiety – will mark the Don’s end. And this most ebullient score does end quietly, quizzically, dejectedly.
The first performance of Don Juan was given by the Weimar Court Orchestra under the composer’s direction in November of 1889. It was rapturously received, inspiring performances throughout Europe during the following year and setting Strauss solidly on his path as one of the leading composers of the younger generation as well as a conductor of formidable gifts.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.