With children returning to school or university, I thought I might tempt you away with a slightly longer piece this week.
I hope you can set aside the time one evening to listen to this account of joy, passion and excitement, as told in Richard Strauss’s tone poem, ‘Don Juan‘. It is fabulous music, fully and richly orchestrated, with an addictive theme: if you’ve not heard it before, it may take one or two bites to fully appreciate it, but perseverance will be rewarded. It is the first music by this composer I ever heard, and he has enthralled me ever since, especially with his writing for the soprano voice, of which more on a future post.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949), no relation whatsoever to the waltz-famous family, was a German composer who attracted a great deal of controversy and opprobrium because of his links with Nazism. Born into a wealthy brewing family, there was always plenty of music in the household and composition apparently came easily to him, as did conducting, a talent which secured him a number of high profiled positions, as well as some major recordings.
When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Strauss was nearly 70 and in a fairly awkward position: he was a prominent and well known individual, whose support for the success of the new regime was vital – and he had a Jewish daughter-in-law, as well as many Jewish friends; so while he never joined the party, he felt that Hitler’s love of music would be the best safeguard. So I can find no cast-iron evidence of him being a sympathizer. Indeed he would write quite scathingly about the regime, but cooperated out of self-preservation interests. But it was a stance of which many disapproved: the great conductor, Toscanini, once said “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.” A bit harsh.
The term ‘tone poem’ is simply applied to a piece of music which involves description or reference to someone or something in literature. Strauss wrote this one at the tender age of 25, but it already contains elaborate and mature orchestration. The Don was set to music by many, perhaps most famously by Mozart in his opera ‘Don Giovanni‘, but unlike Mozart’s Don, who is defiant to the last, Strauss bases this on Lenau’s account, where the Don dies in a duel. Listen out for a cocktail of passion, conquests and affairs, portrayed by big brass moments on the horns (Strauss was the son of a horn player) as well as a tender love scene (introduced by an oboe): it is all there, including the single stab by a trumpet which fells the Don to his death. There is an underlying tension throughout: even in its quieter moments, you can sense an energy bursting to escape.
Here is Georg Solti with a really energetic account. I think I recall Andre Previn (known to many as the long-suffering conductor in that most famous of Morecambe and Wise sketches) joking that this was always an excellent piece to open a concert – because the opening was so difficult, his view was that the safest approach was to get the piece underway before the welcoming applause had finished, in order to disguise any detection of the orchestra not being completely together.
In 1924, Strauss said “Haven’t I the right, after all, to write what music I please? I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy. I need it.” Here it is in spades – turn up the volume and lap it up.