Program music, purely instrumental music describing or “inspired by” a literary text, was a notion both popular and highly controversial in the late-19th century. The polemics were fueled by the waspish critic Eduard Hanslick, champion of absolute music; to wit, a portion of his review of an early Viennese performance of the Strauss tone poem Don Juan:
“These outwardly brilliant compositions are nothing if not successful. I have seen Wagner disciples exalting [it] 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... The tragedy is that so many of our younger composers think in foreign languages – poetry, philosophy, painting – and then translate their thoughts into the mother tongue, music.”
Strauss confessed that he needed a story to stimulate his musical imagination, whether for an opera, which is obvious, or for an orchestral work, a concept that did not make its presence fully felt until the mid-19th century and the arrival of Franz Liszt. That composer’s symphonic poems were based on literary texts and intended to evoke specific feelings and ideas, without ever going so far as to create musical theater without singing, speaking, or scenery, e.g., a Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben – or the present work.
Don Quixote was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ ageless 17th-century novel. Let Cervantes tell us briefly about his character and how he became who he was: “Through too little sleep and too much reading of books on knighthood, he dried up his brains in such a way that he wholly lost his judgement. His fantasy was filled with those things that he read, of enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wooings, loves, storms… “
In the Strauss score, the knight himself, Don Quixote de la Mancha, is “played” by the solo cello, the character’s theme a thing of nobility and rueful grace. Sancho Panza’s theme is a more proletarian affair, introduced by bass clarinet and tenor tuba before the solo viola becomes the voice of the Don’s servant.
In the introduction, the knight’s beclouded brain is suggested by the momentary use of mutes in all the instruments and strange harmonies, bordering on the atonal. In the first variation, we are introduced (via woodwinds and strings) to the Don’s unattainable love, Dulcinea, and there ensues the fight with evil giants, in fact windmills, ending with the Don’s graphic fall from his horse (harp glissando). Variation II is the infamous contest with the army of the “Great Emperor Alifanfaron,” in actuality a flock of sheep (you can’t miss them). Critics of Strauss’ time were particularly outraged by this all-too-realistic cacophony.
Variation III is a quiet dialog in which the Don reproves Sancho for his lack of ideals. IV is another battle scene, this time a losing battle against a procession of penitents, whom the Don mistakes for a band of robbers, bent on abducting a statue of the Virgin Mary. Variation V: The Don has been solidly trounced, but hardly defeated. He conjures up a vision of Dulcinea to give him courage (horn, harp, violins).
Variation VI “relates” a trick played on the Don by Sancho, who leads his master to believe that the first hip-swinging, tambourine-slapping señorita they encounter in the street is Dulcinea. The Don fulminates against the wizards who have turned his goddess into this floozy. Variation VII finds the Don and Sancho Panza seated on hobby-horses, imagining themselves flying through the air, the atmosphere created by a relative newcomer to the orchestra’s battery in 1897, the wind machine. VIII: In this wacky F-major barcarolle, the Don and Sancho are floating in an oarless boat toward a threatening water-mill (oboe and violin). The boat capsizes but the two manage to save themselves; they thank God in a passage marked religioso. Religion – a most confusing subject for the Don – is likewise a part of IX, where he encounters a pair of monks, conversing in the strict counterpoint of a pair of bassoons, who he thinks are evil wizards. He puts them to rout in his routing key, D minor.
In Variation X a townsman of the Don’s, Sanson Carasco, disguised as “The Knight of the White Moon,” challenges the Don to combat and emerges victorious. Sanson has in fact devised this as a way of leading Don Quixote back into sanity. In the Finale, the veil indeed lifts and the Don, sadly perhaps, is again in possession of his cognitive faculties. He is ready for death, and, as Cervantes writes, quoting the notary in attendance, “Never has a mind died so mildly, so peacefully, so Christianly.” Strauss reflects the scene in six brief, gentle measures, which convey a mood touchingly similar to that of the final passages of Brahms’ Third Symphony.
The first performance of Don Quixote was given in March of 1898 by Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra under Franz Wüllner, with cello soloist Friedrich Grützmacher.