05 Jan 2024


by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949) – Strauss’ marriage to soprano Pauline de Ahna is among the most well-documented in music history, not least because he chose to comment on it himself in his scores. Her presence in works like Sinfonia Domestica and Ein Heldenleben is obvious, but other references are not so clear. Strauss met Pauline in 1887 and, if he did indeed begin work on his tone poem Don Juan that fall, it could be argued that his passion for her was at the root of the endeavor. But things were not no simple at that particular moment for Strauss. The beginning of his relationship with Pauline appears to have overlapped with the end of one with Dora Wihan, the wife of his father’s colleague. We may never know which of them truly inspired Don Juan. Was it, perhaps fittingly, both?            

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss

THE HISTORY – Since as far back as the 1630s, the libertine character known as Don Juan has been part of our literary consciousness. He was first mentioned in a play by Tirso de Molina, who was almost certainly influenced by the Lothario persona in Cervantes’ Don Quixote from a quarter-century before. The throughline then works its way roughly forward with input from Molière, Pushkin, Byron and, of course, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. Mozart had chosen to go all the way back to Molina for his source material, but Strauss, almost exactly one hundred years later, picked a more obscure reference point. Nicholas Lenau was an Austrian poet who, at the time of his death in 1850, left an unfinished Don Juan poem to be published as fragments in 1851. In Lenau’s verse, we see Don Juan at his most rakish. He is a man in constant pursuit of erotic pleasure, but he’s no base predator. This Don believes his conquests to be part of a grand statement of love, not for a woman, but for the “whole species” of women. He’s kidding himself, of course, and his death at the hands of a murdered man’s son is pre-destined. Strauss wrote quotes from Lenau into his score, so there is no doubt about the program in the music. In a keen observation by author Tim Ashley, Lenau’s Don Juan is linked to Strauss most directly in their shared rebuke of patriarchs. Don Juan denies his father (and the fathers of his women) by refusing to cease his ways and Strauss challenges his own by composing in a modern idiom that could only have come from the once-forbidden Wagner. Not to be more on the nose with this connection, but since Franz Strauss, like the Don’s fictional dad, also scolded his son against scandal (with Dora), some things are too good not to mention. The music of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan was a revolution in its time, as colorful and wild as a kicked-over box of toys, and the 1889 premiere made him a superstar.                              

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was erected as part of the World’s Fair in Paris, Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, the Wall Street Journal was founded and Brazil became a Republic.

THE CONNECTION – Don Juan was last performed on a Utah Symphony Masterworks program in September 2017. Thierry Fischer conducted.