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Richard Strauss - Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Opus 35

( Originally Published 1935 )



It was said that after the transcendentalism of Zarathustra, Strauss, composing "Don Quixote," was mocking himself. Certainly he caught and has nobly conveyed, not merely the humor, but the humanity and pity of Cervantes's tale. Like the author, the composer has pictured for us two kinds of men, and op-posed interpretations of existence , Don Quixote, the impractical idealist, and Sancho Panza, the realist—he who of all men may be the most blind!

It may be admitted that this is the limit of program music. Whether, if the score were not provided with explanations endorsed by-the composer, we would all give it the same interpretation is much of a question. But that would also be the case with much other mu-sic of a dramatic kind. Strauss's progress from a composer of symphonic program music to a composer of music-dramas is apparent in every score that came from his pen. "Don Quixote" is, from one point of view, such literal music as to be almost visual—"moving pictures for the ear," as a German musician once remarked. But it is also music of astonishing delineation, an epitome of thematic development, modern tone painting and psychological commentary combined."

The structure of the score is that of a theme, or rather themes, and variations. The two principal themes are those of the Don and Sancho Panza. Other themes which fill out the canvas and complete the characterization are manipulated with dazzling imagination and technic.

Strauss's introduction pictures Don Quixote reading his books of chivalry, waving his sword, fighting imaginary foes, going mad, and preparing for his ad-venturous quest. You hear also the cheerful and innocuous voice of Sancho Panza. The ten variations suggest adventures of the pair. The final pages speak of the noble renunciation and humility with which the Don, his illusions gone, his pride shattered, his dreams turned into vain and empty things, faces at last the truth, and gives up the ghost, with the last failing note —a slide downward—of the solo violoncello.

The introduction, announcing all the thematic material and transforming it as the Don broods on chivalry, is long, ending with trumpet-calls, and a pause which leads to the first variation. The second variation is a famous passage, for which Strauss has been much censured on the ground of realism where the orchestra imitates the baa-ing of sheep. The Don sees the flock of sheep as the hosts of great Emperor Alf an-f anon, and, charging, puts them to flight. The commotion, the baa-ing of, the sheep are clearly audible. Considerably later on is' another device of realism which will serve as a landmark—a screamingly extravagant page. This is the seventh variation—the ride through the air. The Don and Sancho are supposed to be seated, after the episode of the novel, on wooden horses, blindfolded, -and are given to believe that they are riding through the air. Strauss here uses a wind machine, which whizzes and whirrs, in combination with vaulting scale passages for flutes and other instruments, and a persistent drum-roll. The themes of the Don and Sancho Panza are heard, whirling heavenward in the blast. But they never leave the earth, as we are reminded by a low D, to which certain of the orchestral instruments stick right through the variation. These places are mentioned as landmarks.

The variations in order are as follows:

I. Knight and squire set out on their quest, talking of chivalry. The Don attacks the windmills. A slide of the woodwinds, a whack of the drum, and he falls.

II. The victorious battle with the sheep.

III. One of the noblest places in the score when, after some supposedly skeptical remark of Sancho Panza, the Don waxes eloquent on the subject of chivalry. 'fhe orchestra shimmers color, the strings sing a transformation of the knight's theme and a phrase of the ideal with a nobility that makes my throat tighten every time I hear it. The passage, which follows the sheep cries, may be recognized as a long variation that mounts to the climax with the violins rapturously repeating a high A-sharp at the climax.

IV. The adventure with the penitents. A whining choral is played by wind-instruments. The knight, believing these are villains and robbers, attacks them. They knock him down, then proceed prayerfully on their way.

V. Sancho, having helped his master to rise, sleeps. The Don holds armed vigil, and his supplications are rewarded by the vision of Dulcinea. She appears to him as a vision accompanied by crazy cadenzas of the harp. Few pages of the tone-poem mingle more touchingly the sublime and ridiculous, while the 'cello rhapsodizes over somnolent harmonies of wind-instruments—the sleeping Panza. ,

VI. The meeting with the country wench whom the Don believes to be Dulcinea. She comes along the road with a tamborine, present in the orchestra, and a ridiculous tune. Sancho guys his master, telling him that this really is Dulcinea. The Don concludes that she has been victimized by an enchanter.

VII. The ride through the air.

VIII. The journey in the enchanted bark. Knight and squire jump into an empty boat, ride tipsily downstream, and are upset. I am sure that I hear, at the end of this variation, with the pizzicato notes of stringed instruments, the drops of water falling from them, as well as the little prayer that Strauss has penned=thanksgiving of the travelers for their safety.

IX. The combat with the two magicians; they are two harmless monks, whom the knight puts to flight to a contrapuntal passage given the bassoons.

X. This variation is brilliant and warlike. It is the fight with the knight of the White Moon. He is none other than Quixote's neighbor of the home town, Senor Carasco. The conditions of the conflict are that if the Don is defeated he must do the bidding of the conqueror. He is unhorsed and sent home. A shepherd's horn is heard as the Don and Sancho ride slowly homeward, and the orchestra wails over the doleful drums. And then the farewell and benediction! The solo 'cello is the knight's voice, his farewell to life, and commendation of his soul to God.

Does this fulfill its purpose as music, or merely by the power of partly realistic suggestion? This is surely true: that while, if uninformed, we might not find in the variations the exact incidents they are supposed to depict, we can hardly fail, if our ears and minds are open, to feel tenderness, humor, ironical caricature and P.Lthos in the music. Nor is anything more impressive than the progress of this music: as it evolves from the astonishing fantasy and complexity with which Strauss pictures the glowing disorder in the Don's mind, and the wealth of imagery and expressive device in the variations which follow, to the utter simplicity and humility of the last pages, when every-thing but the truth and the wistfulness of the truth has dropped away from him—the dauntless quest ended, the weary traveler home. For this page alone we would owe Strauss much. And who are we, after all, to question the sources of his inspiration? A novel by Cervantes, a folk-tale or poem by Nietzsche—what matter? Strauss, whether or not his esthetic is faulty, has given us prodigiously of music.



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