Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Don's Deeds, Part 3: Meet Don Quixote!

Fiona Thompson
This month’s Masterworks Concert is called “The Don’s Deeds” and the Don in question is one of the most beloved literary characters ever created, Don Quixote. The musical setting is by Richard Strauss, a work that is often considered a cello concerto – well, it has a prominent and demanding solo part for the cello – and a tone poem, which means “music inspired by a story” or “telling a story in music.”

The Harrisburg Symphony’s principal cellist, Fiona Thompson, is the soloist in performances you can hear at the Forum on Saturday, April 14th at 8pm and Sunday, April 15th at 3pm.

The other day, conductor Stuart Malina and I had a chance to sit down and talk about this amazing – and challenging – work. 

You can hear our podcast about Don Quixote here.

You can hear our podcasts about the other two works on the program on earlier posts: for Khachaturian's Spartacus and for Copland's Billy the Kid.

Picasso's Don Quixote & Sancho Panza
Strauss completed it in 1898 and called it neither tone poem nor concerto but “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character – for Large Orchestra.” He doesn’t even mention “For Cello and Large Orchestra” because the idea, as Stuart points out in our conversation, is that the cello part was intended for the orchestra’s principal cellist, not a guest soloist as you’d usually have for a standard concerto. There are also prominent solo parts for the principal violist and the concertmaster.

This performance of the complete work – with guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma in a “standard concerto location” rather than the principal cellist sitting with the cello section; the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, performing at Carnegie Hall – is part of a PBS “Great Performance” presentation recorded live-in-concert and includes a prefatory interview with Yo-Yo Ma plus the backstage host Peter Jennings. The principal violist is Roberto Diáz. The music begins at 5:00 into the first clip.

Throughout the piece, the composer indicated certain “plot-elements” which are used here as “subtitles” for the broadcast. In our performance at the Forum, these will be projected as “supertitles” on a screen over the orchestra.

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Clip #1:

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In telling the story of Miguel de Cervantes’ knight, Strauss presents various musical ideas that help set the scene: “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant."

How do you describe this in music? Though the composer doesn’t specify what every musical phrase means – if it means anything at all – the opening phrase is so much like an invitation to listen to this musical tale, how can one resist?

Or, as it occurred to me at other times, the equivalent of “once upon a time” or even the gentleman Don Alonso Quijano settling down in his library to read some of his beloved books?”

Actually, considering the opening few notes becomes the Don’s Theme later on, I’m tempted to view this as the Don’s normal state: by the time we hear the solo cello playing a more aggressive version of this simple rhythmic motive, it is the mind of our gentleman, now unhinged!

Certainly, different musical ideas present themselves like some of the quotes from his favorite novels which Don Alonso likes to throw around.

These are novels about the great knights of chivalry, a golden age long past but which lives in these popular chivalric novels he loves to read. Is the long viola section’s melody at 6:10 one of those knight’s he’s reading about and the following oboe solo at 6:30 an image of that knight’s lady? And what about the sudden interruption of the brass at 7:09? Some danger? The knight prepares to rescue the damsel-in-distress and, judging from a courtly fanfare in the brass at 7:46, succeeding. This is interspersed with a violin solo – a character? the narrator? the idea of chivalry itself? Or is it the Don’s imagination taking fire as he sits back and lets all these thoughts take hold of him?

It doesn’t really matter – and is that only my interpretation, what the music “says” to me? – but you’ll notice, starting around 8:37, how these musical ideas (not really yet themes) start to tumble over one another, just as the Don’s mind switches freely from memories of this favorite novel to that one, as Cervantes describes the scene in the opening pages of his tale.

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Clip #2:

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It isn’t until the second clip that we actually get to hear the solo cello. But first, there’s a very important version of Quixote’s motive – at 0:34 in the brass – which will figure very prominently throughout the piece – already changing at 1:19 to a new major-chord resolution at 1:30; then, after another wild and complex tumult, once more at 1:45 increasing into a long tense dissonance that – at 2:17 – is left hanging, opening the way for the solo cello’s entrance. Perhaps this use of the Don’s Theme might be specifically attached to his idea of chivalry? Certainly, when it appears this way, it always seems to be a significant “idea.”

Don Quixote has arrived, playing his “theme of knightly character.”

Notice that it sounds militant and determined. Yet this is the same motive that so graciously opened the first measure of the music (clip #1, 5:00)

Cervantes (1547-1616)
In Cervantes’ story, the gentleman (whose real identity is only hinted at) loses his mind from reading all these fanciful tales of knights-in-shining-armor rescuing damsels-in-distress while fighting against evil (usually in the form of enchanters) that he determines this is the life for him: he will become a knight-errant (that is, a wandering knight) with its complete code of ethics and conduct. He will become, in fact, Don Quixote of La Mancha. For lack of a better steed, he will take his old nag Rocinante and ride forth with a largely improvised suit of armor (the first helmet is so flimsy it breaks; the second one was “taped” together in such a way, he couldn’t take it off, even to eat). And every knight has a lady, one he dedicates himself and all his quests to. He remembers a beautiful girl in neighboring Toboso and he will call her Dulcinea (from the word “dulce” or sweet).

Incidentally, we think of Don Quixote as a crazy old man – tall, skinny (scrawny, even), a long thin beard as Cervantes describes him – but I hesitate to point out Cervantes also says on page 1, “our gentleman is approaching 50 years of age.” (Uhm, well… okay, then…)

So, does that mean this whole story is what we’d call a Mid-Life Crisis?

Now, there’s a problem because he hasn’t been officially knighted. In his first foray into the world, he finds a castle (actually, a decrepit country inn) where the lord of the castle (actually, the inn-keeper) and two beauteous ladies of the court (more like “of ill repute”) whom he asks to hold the ceremony that will make him officially a knight. The inn-keeper/lord dubs him “Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”

by Gustav Doré

 Officially, he didn’t meet Sancho Panza until his second outing. Sancho is a neighbor of his, a poor man as squat and round as Quixote is tall and gaunt (in fact, Panza means ‘paunch’). He is portrayed by the principal violist and there’s a rather jaunty, comical (even cartoon-like) melody associated with him that is usually heard in the tenor-tuba and/or bass clarinet (at 3:29) which serves to introduce the Sancho himself (perhaps the tuba tune epresents his equally faithful but unlikely donkey? Certainly, Don Quixote had misgiving about accepting Sancho as a squire because he could recall no knight in the literature who had a squire who rode a donkey). Anyway, one thing about Sancho, asides from his unending faith in his master, he loves to chatter away.

At 4:37, the first variation begins: Don Quixote and Sancho ride off in search of adventure. At 5:00, we hear a theme in the violins that could be his image of the beautiful and mysterious lady to whom he dedicates his quest, Dulcinea.

Their first encounter with evil involves giants (by 5:00, the cello has been whipping that militant-sounding motive into an increasing frenzy) though Sancho, ever the realist, sees only a bunch of windmills on the hillside.

by Gustav Doré
Just then, a gust of wind set the windmill’s arms in motion and Quixote, “commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, asking that she come to his aid at this critical moment, and well protected by his shield, with his lance in its socket, charged at Rocinante’s full gallop and attacked the first mill he came to; and as he thrust his lance into the sail, the win moved it with so much force that it broke the lance into pieces and picked up the horse and the knight, who then dropped to the ground and were very badly battered.”

Strauss depicts this (5:54-6:02) in an upward rush in the cello, a quick downward glissando in the harps and a thud in the bass drum, all the while slow moving woodwinds reflect the slow, stately inevitability of the windmills’ turning arms. Notice how, in the subsequent moments, the solo cello slowly pulls himself back together.

After dusting himself off, Quixote continues his adventures as (beginning with the 2nd variation at 7:20) he sees an army approaching. But, Sancho points out, it’s merely a herd of sheep. Nonsense, the Don is convinced: “do you not hear the neighing of horses, the sound of the drums?” The only thing Sancho Panza hears is the bleating of sheep.

“It is your fear,” Quixote tells him, “that keeps you from seeing or hearing properly, because one of the effects of fear is to cloud the senses and make things appear other than they are.”

Then he fixes his lance and rides off down the hill like a flash of lightening. Sancho calls after him, “Your grace, come back – I swear to God you’re charging sheep!”

What do you hear at 7:41? Neighing of horses and the beat of drums? Or… sheep?

In one of the works most cinematographic sequences, Strauss incorporates various “new” techniques for the brass players to represent the bleating of the sheep.

Strauss in 1904
Though many of Strauss’ first listeners found this passage “offensive,” how could they not see the humor in it, especially as the sheep scattered once Don Quixote and his horse (c.8:23) were charging amongst them?

This is like a film score without the film – you can enjoy the music purely as music (though what the heck is all that noise in the brass all about?) or you can imagine the scene Strauss suggests. Is it carrying “realism” too far?

At 9:00, the third variation begins which is one of those conversations between the Don and his squire in which Sancho questions his master about various things and the knight lectures him about the chivalric life and its code of honor. Notice how Sancho’s blustering viola outbursts (9:25, 9:37, 9:49) are answered by the solo violin (not a character, here: perhaps the narrator? Or maybe just a nice violin solo?) and gradually calm down – is he accepting the chivalric argument? Keep in mind, to a poor peasant, chivalry is more than a long dead life-style – even as a romantic concept, it has no relevance to his own experience.

In the 3rd Video Clip, this discussion continues

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Clip #3

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with an eloquent rebuttal by the solo cello and an on-going conversation with all three solo strings – concertmaster, principal violist and the cellist. Sancho certainly becomes more eloquent than we’ve heard him before (c.1:03 through 2:39). Again, notice that chivalric setting of the motive in the brass beginning dramatically at 2:46 before resolving beautifully into the major tonality at 3:04: Quixote rhapsodizing over the ideals of chivalry? And the appearance of the oboe theme (6:37) could be a reminder of his idealized lady, Dulcinea, followed (at 6:50) by the tenor tuba’s version of Sancho Panza’s donkey, a bit of every-day reality. It again ends with that chivalric version of the Don’s Motive.

Obviously, mid-life crisis or not, he’s quite passionate about it, even if we think he’s a bit off his rocker.

In the next variation (No. 4) – preceded by a Sanchian outburst (8:00) started by the bass clarinet – we are back on the road where Don Quixote and Sancho meet a band of penitents (pilgrims) singing a plaintive chant (8:40 – oh, nice pun, Strawser) who are carrying an icon which the Don mistakes for an abducted maiden. Don Quixote de la Mancha to the rescue!

The next variation (at the start of Video Clip #4) is one of the many vigils in Cervantes’ story. Knights are always holding night-time vigils over their armor. In this one, while Sancho the squire sleeps near-by, Don Quixote dreams of his distant Dulcinea, a long meditation for solo cello.

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Clip #4

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At 2:16 & 2:50, the harp glissandos probably represent his vision of Dulcinea (remember those wavy shots used in old movies to initiate flash-backs?). Certainly, it’s one of the most sublime and most human moments in the entire story, so far.

Something happens in Cervantes’ novel around this point in Strauss' music. Aside from the fact that Cervantes published Part One in 1605 and Part Two ten years later, after the first volume had proven such a success (also to avoid losing out to other writers producing their own sequels). While the first is primarily comical – even farcical – the second part is more mature and wiser, in a sense (Cervantes was 57 when he completed the first part; when he published Part Two, he is now 68), dealing more philosophically with, for instance, the importance of deception and an awareness of reality.

In Part Two, Sancho is pressured into finding Dulcinea and (at 4:43) brings back three dirty peasant girls, telling his master they are Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting transformed by some odious enchanter. (It was, after all, the most common explanation Quixote used for his own misconceptions about windmills, sheep and otherwise harmless monks. But this time, the Don sees only peasant girls. Notice the collision at 5:23 of Sancho’s solos with the dance-music and tambourines of the peasant girls (along with other motives).

This leads into the next variation at 6:06, the “Hoax of the Flying Horse.” The Don and Sancho are placed on wooden horses and blindfolded, made to believe they are riding through the air. The music, even including a “wind machine” (usually a cylindrical drum with slats rubbing against a fabric covering when turned by a handle) – it’s that green thing on the right at 6:32 – which gives a realistic description of something so unrealistic, complete with whooshing woodwinds and a soaring version of the theme.

But speaking of deceptions (this is one of many pranks played on the hapless pair), listen to the rumbling basses and long sustained trombone chords which represents the ground they never leave.

At 7:15, the imaginary mode of transportation changes from flying horses to a magic boat. As it gets more tempestuous, they eventually capsize (c.8:05). Are the plucked strings starting at 8:22 drops of water dripping off them as they clamber onto shore? Well, maybe…

But at 8:38, that passage in the flutes and clarinets is a transformation of the chivalric version of the Don’s theme, no?

The next variation (starting c.9:00) is Don Quixote’s encounter with two monks whom he sees as sorcerers. At 9:16, we meet two bassoonists sounding very monk-like but who are rudely interrupted by a bad edit and continued in Video Clip #5,

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Clip #5

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where they are then attacked by the Don. In this case, rather than being a soloist, the cellist is the principal of the cello section (as often happens). /// The last variation begins immediately (0:10). Poor Don Quixote, bruised but never beaten, has now been challenged by the mysterious Knight of the White Moon (who in reality is his neighbor) and in the military fanfares (0:20) that intrude on the Chivalric Motive, Quixote who after one last stand, alone on one note (0:42), is quickly defeated.

In all of these encounters, Quixote always loses – more errant knight than knight-errant, he is constantly knocked off his horse by windmills, by shepherds, even by monks. This time, there are terms to the contest: if he loses, Quixote must return to his home and give up his knightly career.

At 1:00, over the pounding of drums and an intense climax, the dejected Quixote is led away by Sancho Panza (2:12) and returns home.

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Clip #6

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In a miraculous moment – the ending of Clip #5 and the start of the last clip – Don Quixote regains his sanity and (at 3:22) would appear to be back to normal with the return of the very opening’s original “once-upon-a-time” music. However, he is losing his strength and after a beatific passage (beginning at 4:40) quietly loses his last battle (at 6:12).

It is this ending – both in Cervantes’ original and in Strauss musical condensation of it – that raises the character from being a comic figure (in fact, the epitome of "the loser") to being, perhaps, Everyman, anybody who has ever fought against the status quo, fought for a deeply held ideal, wished to create a better world but was always met (and overpowered) by reality. We laugh at the situations he ends up in, shake our heads in disbelief (I mean, he really is a menace to society) not only at each outcome but at the fact he picks himself and keeps on going. But it is this ending where most of us will probably nod in recognition, if not for ourselves for others we might know.

In the story, one last bit of realistic awareness: Don Quixote, now restored to being Don Alonso Quijano, left everything in his will to his niece on one condition: that she never marry a man who reads chivalric romances…

Dick Strawser

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Aside from the illustrations by Gustav Doré (Don Quixote & Sancho Panza; Attacking the Windmill) from 1863, the iconic portrait by Pablo Picasso dates from 1955. The strange and rather evil-looking photograph of composer Richard Strauss was taken in 1904 (seven years after Don Quixote and a year before he shocked everybody with his opera Salome) by Edward Steichen.

It is also interesting to note that Miguel de Cervantes died a day before William Shakespeare.

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