Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strauss's Don Juan

The first time I heard Don Juan live was at Tanglewood in the Berkshires a few summers ago.   (For anyone out there who is in love with music knows that Tanglewood - summer home to the Boston Pops - is the place to be in the summer.)  This video is from the first performance Alan Gilbert, the current music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted the Philharmonic.  Quite unbelievable.

This masterpiece by the great German composer Richard Strauss, written in 1888 and first performed in 1889, is known to be one of the classics of the late romantic period and the magnum opus of Strauss.  The piece is a tone poem based off the poem "Don Juan" written by the Austrian writer Nikolaus Lenau just decades earlier in 1844.  Don Juan, a character used by numerous composers in their works is known for his seducing women and "“to enjoy in one woman, all women, since he cannot possess them as individuals.”  
My favorite part about this opus is the great and brilliant use of music color - the way he uses different instruments and sounds.  While the piece starts off with a grand opening of the strings, the woodwinds soon come in with a beautiful melody and their use I think is very important to the beauty of the piece.  Woodwinds can either ruin a piece or make a piece.  They have that element of fantasy and charm while if used correctly can completely elevate the piece or, if not, destroy it.  Besides the woodwinds he uses bells a lot throughout the piece which really add to the fantastical element of it.  I don't know of that many compositions which use bells so regularly and untamed throughout an entire piece.  Finally, he also uses the horns at the appropriate times which really add to the effect of the louder moments such as about ten minutes into the piece he begins a nice (and famous) melody with the horns and its effect I do not think could be captured with other instruments.  
The two central melodies to the piece, the daring one started by the strings in the opening and the soft beautiful one played by the flutes, are a really terrific contrast to the beauty (of the women supposedly) and to the daringness of Don Juan.  (This is almost reminiscent of the contrast Schumann uses in his piano opus "Kreisleriana" between the monster and the little boy.) 
Already from the start of the piece one can hear Wagner shouting out of the orchestra (perhaps a bit tamed, although).  One of the reasons I am such a big fan of Strauss is particularly because he really takes advantage of the modern and grand Wagnerian style, while at the same time not straying off the path of his earlier romantic predecessors.  He does not come all-out like Wagner but he is definitely closer to Wagner than any of his contemporaries.  If you are not "literate" in Strauss do not be fooled by this piece.  Other pieces of his such as "Also Spake Zarathusra" are much more Wagnerian than this, but I would still say that this piece well represents Strauss.  

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