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Don Quixote, Op 35
completed on 29 December 1897; Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character; first performed by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln on 8 March 1898, conducted by Franz Wüllner

'Strauss: Don Quixote & Till Eulenspiegel' (CDA67960)
Strauss: Don Quixote & Till Eulenspiegel
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Section 01. Introduction: Mäßiges Zeitmaß
Section 02. Don Quixote, the knight of the sorrowful countenance: Mäßig
Section 03. Sancho Panza: Maggiore
Section 04. Variation 1: The adventures of the windmills: Gemächlich
Section 05. Variation 2: The battle with the sheep: Kriegerisch
Section 06. Variation 3: Dialogue between knight and servant: Mäßiges Zeitmaß
Section 07. Variation 4: Unfortunate adventure with a procession of penitents: Etwas breiter
Section 08. Variation 5: Don Quixote's vigil: Sehr langsam
Section 09. Variation 6: Dulcinea's enchantment: Schnell
Section 10. Variation 7: Ride through the air: Ein wenig ruhiger als vorher
Section 11. Variation 8: Ill-starred voyage on the enchanted boat (Barcarolle): Gemächlich
Section 12. Variation 9: Battle against the supposed enchanters: Schnell und stürmisch
Section 13. Variation 10: Duel with the knight of the shining moon: Viel breiter
Section 14. Finale: The death of Don Quixote: Sehr ruhig

Don Quixote, Op 35
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.

from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2013

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Details for CDA67960 track 12
Section 12 Variation 9, Battle against the supposed enchanters: Schnell und stürmisch
Recording date
9 February 2012
Recording venue
Probensaal des Gürzenich-Orchesters, Cologne, Germany
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Jens Schünemann
Hyperion usage
  1. Strauss: Don Quixote & Till Eulenspiegel (CDA67960)
    Disc 1 Track 12
    Release date: April 2013
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