Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Opus 35, Richard Strauss
The great Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) has sometimes been credited with writing the first modern novel when he wrote Don Quixote, Knight of the Rueful Countenance, which was published in Madrid in January 1605.
The story of an old gentleman considering himself a “knight errant” leaving his home, in La Mancha, to correct the wrongs of the world captured the imagination not only of Spain but the Western world. The episodes are dramatic, fantastic, sometimes comical, and deeply symbolic. Although early readers considered the story purely comic, later readings revealed a much deeper substance in its description of sanity and insanity and the powerful role of nature in human experience. The question of what is real and what is not is a fundamental issue with humanity, and Cervantes’ work became a powerful and timeless consideration of those issues. Francis Carr suggests that Don Quixote was authored by Francis Bacon; others believe it was Cid Hamet Benengeli (an Arab historian), or Thomas Shelton, the first English translator. However, such curious theories have not withstood the litmus test of serious historical research. The genre of magical realism, seen in the works of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, are examples of this concept. Most simply put; “what is real is magical, and what seems magical is real.” The tracing of realism woven with fantastic and dreamlike elements come from this tradition.
In 1897, Richard Strauss was drawn to the literary masterpiece and wrote a tone poem, which chronicled selected experiences of the chivalric knight in a stunning single-movement tone poem. At first, Strauss insisted that no explanatory notes were needed. When asked to provide a guide, the composer snapped, “Get out! You don’t need any.” Later he relented and in conjunction with Herwearth Walden wrote an analysis of Don Quixote citing no less than 53 operative motifs (themes).
This tone poem remained dear to his heart. When the composer visited New York in October of 1921 he was asked, “What is your favorite symphonic poem?” He answered “These that show me and my opinions most clearly: Zarathustra, Quixote, and Domestica.” Many would second this special place. Ernest Newman notes the exceptional nature of the Quixote, commenting that the tone poem not only described the story but the music illustrated the psychological changes in the mind of the characters by changing the original character of the representative theme to reflect a changed mental condition. (Muted instruments denote mental confusion, for example.) “Nowhere outside the work of glorious old Bach is there such a combination in music of inexhaustible fertility of imagination,” Newman concluded.
However, your enjoyment does not depend on recognizing all these states of mind or the 53 themes. You will do just fine if you are basically acquainted with three themes: Don Quixote, represented thematically by a cello and sometimes solo violin, a clarinet and tenor tuba thematically representing his loyal servant Sancho Panza, and the beautiful but imagined Dulcinea, thematically represented by an oboe. These themes are basically consistent throughout the work, easily recognizable although sometimes transformed to collaborate with the narrative.
Strauss’ Don Quixote, subtitled by the composer, “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” unfolds without pause or separation of the knight’s adventures. An early mention of Quixote’s idea emerges on April 16, 1897, when Strauss wrote in his diary “Symphonic poem, Held und Welt begins to take shape; as a satyr—opera to accompany it Don Quichotte.” Later in 1898 he wrote “Don Quixote and Heldenleben are conceived so much as immediate pendants that in particular Don Quixote is only fully and entirely comprehensible at the side of Heldenleben.” The exact datings from Strauss are that he officially began Don Quixote on October 10, 1896 and completed the score at 11:42 a.m. on December 29, 1897. It was first performed in Cologne on March 8, 1898 under Franz Wüllner.
In its final form, the tone poem consists of an introduction, ten variations (selected from the knights wanderings), and an epilogue. At the time of the composition, Strauss was witnessing his mother’s mental delirium, and this painful experience was deeply significant in his comprehension and depiction of insanity. Strauss was without peer as a musical narrator, a master of orchestration and orchestral/acoustical effects. Don Quixote inspired his highest creativity and testifies both to his genius, his passion, and collaboration of those talents.
The tone poem begins with an Introduction.
The music presents three distinct themes revealing three sides of Don Quixote’s person. The first “in a knightly and gallant manner,” (cello) the second, his courteous style (second violins), and lastly his innocence (solo clarinet).
An oboe enters depicting Dulcinea. The music continues depicting the hero’s daydreams and fantasies. Tuba and bassoon enter depicting Sancho Panza, his faithful servant.
After the Introduction, the variations begin depicting the adventures.
Variation I: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza begin their journeys. The three principal themes are stated. Don Quixote sees a windmill and mistakes it for an evil giant, attacking at full force, and falling in a heap (long run in harp and solo cello).
Variation II: Don Quixote confronts the bleating sheep, which are seen as a hostile army. He attacks amid chattering string tremolos and trills; shrieks from the winds brass with rapid flutter-tonguing, representing the screaming animals. The effect is an acoustic onomatopoetic marvel.
Variation III: A solo viola (the servant) and solo violin converse. Finally Don Quixote prevails and the cello comes forth again as the knight envisions his world of chivalry.
Variation IV: Don Quixote rushes into a religious procession of penitent pilgrims, “rescuing a maiden,” who turns out to be a statue of the Virgin Mary. He is knocked off his horse and lays senseless on the ground (low sustained note in the lower strings) and is revived by his servant.
Variation V: Don Quixote reflects on his journey and his future conquests, and he dreams of a maiden to love and dramatic feats to win her, while the night, depicted by the violins, harp, and woodwinds swirl about him. A solo cello meditates on the Dulcinea theme tenderly.
Variation VI: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off in search of the lady, Dulcinea. The servant tries to convince Don Quixote that a ratty stable girl is really the lovely Dulcinea (jocular oboe theme), but he remains only confused, convinced that an evil magician has cast a spell, and she runs away.
Variation VII: This variation incorporates the now-famous wind machine off-stage as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are convinced that they must ride through the air on a flying horse. Blindfolded, each rides a toy horse for a magical flight depicted by rushing orchestral figuration, soaring with the gusts of the wind machine. A low pedalpoint D (sustained tone)anchors them to the ground.
Variation VIII: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are now on a boat trip, which moves along steadily and quite peacefully in a gentle barcarole until the boat capsizes. Arriving on land they beat their clothes on a rock to dry them (pizzicato chords in the strings) and they say a prayer of thanksgiving (woodwind chorale).
Variation IX: Don Quixote is convinced that two monks in sight are the evil ones who are keeping Dulcinea from him. They try to explain they are doing nothing of the sort, but Don Quixote insists. He roars loudly and scares them away.
Variation X: A fight ensues between a neighbor of Don Quixote disguised as the Knight of the White Moon, who tries to intercede in the madness and bring him back to his home. A fight ensues and Don Quixote is defeated. The neighbor insists that they return to their home and that he stay home for one year. In defeat, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza march slowly homeward (drum beats). On the march, Don Quixote momentarily considers the idea of becoming a shepherd.
Epilogue: Don Quixote arrives home, exhausted from his journey and his theme emerges again from the cello in a pitiful cry. He is weakened and near death. Before his death he recalls his life (re-cap of the initial opening themes depicting the central character) and then dies as the solo cello descends into its lowest register playing a final sigh and gasp at the final cadence.
The music of Don Quixote is realistic in its portrayals but also exists on a higher artistic level as well. “Do you know what absolute music is? I don’t! I want to be able to depict in music a glass of beer so accurately that every listener can tell whether it is a Pilsner or Kulmbacher!” Strauss once declared. But then he continued, “I am a musician first and last, for whom every program is merely the stimulus to the creation of new forms and nothing more. To me the poetic program is no more than the basis of form and the origin of the purely musical development of my feelings…nevertheless, in order that music should not lose itself in pure willfulness and wallow out of its depth, it needs certain formal restrictions, and these are provided by a program.”
Strauss’s Don Quixote is indeed representative of these viewpoints as well as a masterpiece of musical invention and narrative. From the vivid pictorial episodes to the inner mental landscapes, Strauss takes us on an incredible journey unlike any other. There are many who would concur that this was his supreme masterpiece in the tone poem genre.
The last ISO performance of Don Quixote was in September 2008, conducted by Mario Venzago, with cello solos by Arkady Orlovsky.
© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016