Don Juan: who was he and why did Strauss write a tone poem about him?

The legend of Don Juan – or Don Giovanni – inspired many an author and composer, but why did Strauss decide to take it on for his very first tone poem?

Don Juan: who was he and why did Strauss write a tone poem about him?

Don Juan is a tone poem for large orchestra written by Richard Strauss in 1888, based on the legend of Don Juan, which has inspired many musical and literary adaptations. Strauss based his tone poem predominantly on Don Juans Ende, a play derived from a retelling of the tale by poet Nikolaus Lenau. It is one of the very first tone poems.

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Who was Don Juan?

Don Juan is a fictional libertine who spent his life seducing women. He is also known as Don Giovanni, which is the Italian variation on the Spanish ‘Juan’. There are variations on the theme, but it is always based around Don Juan’s womanising ways. The tale originated in Renaissance-era Spain.

When did Strauss write Don Juan?

Richard Strauss penned his tone poem Don Juan in 1888, with the premiere given on 11 November the following year by the orchestra of the Weimar Opera. Strauss was only 25 at the time, and went on to conduct the work in concerts throughout the rest of his career.

It may not be related, but Strauss conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni shortly before he began to compose Don Juan. 

While he was working on Don Juan, Strauss was writing another tone poem: Macbeth. However, he didn’t complete this work until 1891.

What is a tone poem? We explain what a tone poem is and which composers are best known for writing them.

What is Strauss’s Don Juan about?

Strauss based his tone poem Don Juan on Don Juans Ende, a play based on an unfinished 1844 retelling of the legend by poet Nikolaus Lenau. This particular interpretation shows Don Juan at his most promiscuous, trying desperately to find the ideal woman. Not having a huge deal of luck, Don Juan eventually wills his own death.

The score to Don Juan is written for three flutes and a piccolo, two oboes and a cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons and a contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tube, timpani, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp and strings.

Are Don Juan and Don Giovanni the same person?

Yes, Don Juan and Don Giovanni are Spanish and Italian derivatives of the same name, based on the fictional character of Don Juan, known for being a seducer of women.

Why is Don Juan often used in orchestral auditions?

Excerpts from Strauss’s Don Juan are often used in orchestral auditions because of the technical demands on every player in the orchestra.

Which other composers have written music based on Don Juan?

Sibelius based the second movement of his Symphony No. 2 on the story of Don Juan. He depicts Death approaching the house of Don Juan, who pleads with Death to let him live.

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is based on the legend of Don Juan and is regarded as one of Mozart’s greatest operas.

In his 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber showed the protagonist writing an opera based on Don Juan called Don Juan TriumphantWe named The Phantom of the Opera as one of the best fictional composers in literature and film.

The best recordings of Strauss’s Don Juan

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Lawo Classics LWC 1184

‘Breadth supported by intensity of phrasing is also a hallmark of a top-notch Don Juan.

Louise Alder (soprano); Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
Linn CKD640

‘When orchestral sonorities and engineering coincide like this, the result in Strauss is thrilling. You not only hear every line in Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration); there’s also a unique middle-to-upper-range brilliance which gives a special sheen to the lover’s exploits and prevents the thrashings of the dying protagonist of the longer symphonic poem from ever sounding turgid.’

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
09026 68225 2 DDD

‘A hyper-lusty reading where time nonetheless stands still for the oboe’s plaintive second lady.’

Read more reviews of the latest Richard Strauss recordings here

Find out more about Richard Strauss and his works here

Here are the best music streaming services on offer

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Top image credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images