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Composed: 1888–1889

About this Piece

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 in 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… 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. 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 it seems to be for Hanslick to resist the seductiveness of that which he condemns! 

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. —Herbert Glass