Strauss’s ‘Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’, as Don Quixote is subtitled, is one of the composer’s most popular tone poems, principally because of the beautifully drawn central characters of the Don (performed by a solo cellist) and Sancho Panza (viola). These roles are luxuriously cast in this new recording, being taken by Hyperion artists Alban Gerhardt and Lawrence Power. The merry tale of Till Eulenspiegel completes this release.
The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, the very orchestra which gave the premieres of both works in the 1890s, is conducted by Markus Stenz, who has held the position of Principal Conductor since 2003. He visited China with the orchestra in early 2008 and conducted their first ever BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in August 2008. In September 2010 he returned to China with the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Opera of Cologne to conduct the first ever production of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ in Shanghai. Among other posts he is Chief Guest Conductor of the Hallé.
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On 10 October 1896 Strauss noted in his diary while on holiday in Florence: ‘First idea for an orchestral piece: Don Quichote [his spelling]. A mad set of free variations on a knightly theme.’ Over the next few months he was conducting operas in Munich, preparing the first performance of Also sprach Zarathustra, conducting concerts of his own works in Germany, Spain, Holland, France, Belgium and England and composing the melodrama Enoch Arden. In April 1897 he wrote: ‘Symphonic poem Held und Welt [Hero and World] begins to take shape; as satyr play to accompany it—Don Quichote.’ He was always insistent that Ein Heldenleben (as Held und Welt became) and Don Quixote were complementary. The two works illustrate different aspects of ‘heroism’, one fantastic, the other ironic.
Strauss wrote the ending of Don Quixote (in his words: ‘Don Q. cured from madness. Death and conclusion. Seized by trembling, death approaches, last swift battle, ends on pedal point’) before he had composed some of the preceding variations. He told his wife Pauline that his ‘Quixoticisms’ had become ‘a rather sticky business’ and were causing him ‘to heave many a sigh … though not as many as the critics will heave later when they have to listen to the piece’. He noted very precisely when he completed the whole work—11:42am, 29 December 1897. The first performance was given by the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on 8 March 1898 conducted by Franz Wüllner. Strauss’s choice of variation form was an inspired way of giving symphonic unity to the adventures of Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza. ‘The battle of one theme against a nullity’, was how Strauss described it, adding that he had ‘taken variation form ad absurdum and showered tragi-comic persiflage upon it’. This is as may be; for inventiveness and aptness of orchestration, quality of melodic invention, and sheer poetic vision he was scarcely ever to surpass it. The work is also a kind of sinfonia concertante for cello, viola and orchestra. Strauss intended that the solo parts should be played by orchestral principals but, in the case of the cello part, international virtuosos soon took it into their repertoire. The cello (and cellos) represents Don Quixote and the viola Sancho Panza; nevertheless, the solo violin occasionally shares the cello’s role and the tenor tuba and bass clarinet the viola’s.
Introduction and Theme: Don Quixote is scored for a large orchestra including six horns, two tubas and wind machine. The long and elaborate Introduction depicts Don Quixote at home with his books on knight errantry. As he reads and becomes deranged—obsessed with his own ideas of chivalry—the harmonies become dissonant and chromatic. Three themes depict aspects of Quixote, the first (woodwind) is galant, the second (violins) courteous, the third (oboe) a romantic idealization of a woman, eventually to become Dulcinea of Toboso. The solo cello’s entry represents Quixote as ‘knight of the sorrowful countenance’ (D minor) and we meet his talkative squire, Sancho Panza, with themes on bass clarinet and tuba and solo viola (F major). Quixote and Sancho ride off on their adventures with the Dulcinea theme floating above them on the strings like a pennant. In the following brief description of the Variations (their adventures), Strauss’s titles for them are given.
Variation 1: ‘The adventures of the windmills’. They encounter giants (in fact, windmills). Quixote attacks them and falls from his horse.
Variation 2: Strauss’s full descriptive title is ‘Battle with the mighty armies of Alifanfaron (The battle with the sheep)’. Three solo cellos in unison portray Quixote’s determination to vanquish a king’s armies. But the ‘enemy’ is really a flock of sheep. In this famous passage of flutter-tonguing woodwind and brass playing minor seconds, Strauss not only imitates the sheep but reminds us of Quixote’s mental delusion. A shepherd plays a theme familiar from Ein Heldenleben.
Variation 3: ‘Dialogue between knight and servant’. Sancho’s demands, questions and proverbs, Don Quixote’s instructions, appeasings and promises. That says it all. Quixote is here a solo violin, irritated by the viola’s platitudes. The rest of the variation is a marvellous rhapsody in F sharp major on the Dulcinea theme—Strauss at his most passionately romantic.
Variation 4: ‘Unfortunate adventure with a procession of penitents’. Thinking that penitents carrying an image of the Virgin Mary are abducting a maiden, Quixote attacks them and is knocked unconscious. Sancho mourns him so loudly he recovers, whereupon Sancho falls asleep and snores.
Variation 5: ‘Don Quixote’s vigil: unbosoming to the beloved Dulcinea’. Quixote, keeping vigil over his armour, meditates about chivalry. Mainly for solo cello, orchestral cellos and harp. A magical variation.
Variation 6: ‘Dulcinea’s enchantment’. Meeting with a peasant girl (bucolic oboe theme in thirds), who Sancho tells his master is Dulcinea under an enchanter’s spell. Quixote and Sancho mistake three peasant girls on donkeys for Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting. Quixote’s elaborate courtesy scares the girl away.
Variation 7: ‘Ride through the air’. Quixote sits blindfolded on a toy horse under the delusion that he is riding to a damsel’s rescue on a flying horse. The flight is illustrated by a fragmented version of Quixote’s galant theme accompanied by wind-machine, harp glissandi and flutter-tonguing flutes. But a sustained pedal D tells us that he is really on the ground.
Variation 8: ‘Ill-starred voyage on the enchanted boat (Barcarolle)’. The two travellers find a boat by a river and sail on an unspecified adventure. But they sink in a weir and are rescued. The water drips off them pizzicato and they offer a prayer of thanks.
Variation 9. ‘Battle against the supposed enchanters, two little priests on their mules’. An animated Quixote hears two little priests (unaccompanied bassoons). He thinks they are kidnappers, shadows them (pizzicato low strings) and drives them away.
Variation 10: ‘Duel with the knight of the shining moon’. Don Quixote is knocked to the ground, decides to give up fighting, contemplates being a shepherd, and goes home. As in Ein Heldenleben, here is a Strauss battle-scene, cello versus woodwind and brass. The duel has been arranged by a kindly neighbour of Quixote in the hope, which is fulfilled, of restoring him to his senses. After one failure, the trick succeeds. Defeated, Quixote returns home to emphatic strokes from timpani. The pastoral theme from Variation 2 returns and Quixote’s delusions disappear as the cloudy harmonies dissolve into a succession of dominant chords.
Finale: ‘The death of Don Quixote’. Once more in his right mind, he passes his last days in contemplation. Quixote’s galant theme now becomes a touching, tender melody. Memories of the past return in a long cello threnody, ending with a slither into eternity. Quixote’s second theme gently lowers the final curtain.
Till Eulenspiegel was born (probably) in Brunswick in the early years of the fourteenth century and died not on the gallows as Strauss has it, but from the plague. He was a rebel against authority and his irreverent exploits, doubtless exaggerated, became part of European folklore. Strauss considered an opera about Till, but while he was still thinking about it he wrote the short orchestral masterpiece which has remained one of his best-loved works. It was composed in 1894–5 and was first played at Cologne in November 1895 by the Gürzenich Orchestra conducted by Franz Wüllner. The masterly use of the orchestra, especially the woodwind, ranks Strauss among the great innovators of orchestral music.
He called the work a Rondo. The form is a free adaptation of the classical A-B-A-C-A rondo form. Two themes, or fragments of theme, represent Till. The first is heard on the strings in the quiet opening under which Strauss in later years wrote the words ‘Once upon a time there was a roguish jester’. This is followed by a phrase on the horn (one of the most famous solo passages in the instrument’s repertoire) which, said Strauss, means ‘whose name was Till Eulenspiegel’. These two motifs unify and dominate the whole work. The second is built to a climax which shows Till in his full colours, cocking a snook on the shrill D clarinet. ‘He was a wicked goblin’, Strauss wrote under this phrase.
After this exposition there is a section portraying no particular incident. Strauss plays about with the themes, displaying a superb lightness of humour and touch, qualities which were not prevalent in German music of this date. The first episode begins with a flourish of clarinets and a cymbal smash. Till rides through the market square, scattering people and produce, and escapes (trombones) in the confusion, ‘off and away in seven-league boots’ (all these quoted descriptions are Strauss’s own). A pause. Till, concealed in a mouse-hole, warily looks to see if he is unobserved and cautiously (minor seconds) escapes into his next adventure.
‘Dressed as a cleric he oozes unction and morality’—this is Strauss’s description of the B section. Violas and bassoons have an appropriately ‘oozing’ theme. ‘The rogue peeps out’ on the D clarinet and there are further hints of the first Till motif. Suddenly (violin and muted brass) he has a fit of conscience about his mockery of religion, but this is overcome and a glissando passage on solo violin opens the third episode, Till in love. Gentle flirting turns into something deeper as ‘he woos her’ with a romantic version of the horn theme. No luck, though. He is jilted, and takes it hard, with the first motif racketing around the orchestra until, on four horns, ‘he vows he will be revenged on all mankind’.
Adventure number four shows Till among the professors, as is evident from the bassoons and bass clarinet. He asks them a few questions (horn motif), they are baffled, and Till yells abuse at them (the snook-cocking theme, ending with an enormous trill on the whole orchestra). This savage mockery magically modulates into a happy-go-lucky tune as Till goes whistling down the street, well pleased with himself.
Now there is an interlude of rest, coming just at the right musical moment. As Till’s whistling fades away the music becomes fleeting and ghostly. This is followed by a lighter episode, in which great play is made with the horn motif and a scherzando fanfare derived from it. Again we hear the ‘sermon’ theme, thundered out on horns and trumpets, and it becomes clear that Till’s escapades are nearing their end—he has been arrested for blasphemy. The side-drum rolls as he steps into the dock. Perhaps he still believes he will escape, for the clarinet recalls his thumb-to-nose gesture. But sentence is pronounced and rapidly executed—Strauss vividly conveys this gallows scene, with the D clarinet rising to A flat, maintaining it and slowly descending while the flute portrays Till’s last convulsions.
This superb work ends with a master-stroke of poetic imagination. A short and poignant epilogue (reminiscent perhaps of Wagner’s 'Siegfried Idyll') recalls the ‘once upon a time’ atmosphere of the opening. It is only a tale, the music says, and this rogue was not such a bad chap.
Michael Kennedy © 2013