Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Season Begins: Open with Strauss's 'Don Juan'

A couple weeks ago, Stuart Malina gave a “pre-season preview” for the new 2012-2013 Harrisburg Symphony Season at the Midtown Scholar at 3rd & Broad (a.k.a. Verbeke – basically, across from the old Broad Street Market). Here’s a clip with Stuart talking about the 1st Concert coming up the first weekend in October, at 8pm on Saturday the 6th and at 3pm on Sunday the 7th at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

The program opens with Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Don Juan and concludes with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish.” In between, Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein performs one of those enduring classics, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a set of variations for piano and orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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Stuart plays an excerpt from the opening of Don Juan from 2:36 to 3:18. (It’s always fun to watch someone listen to music, to catch their reactions: how does a conductor look when he’s listening to something he’s going to be conducting soon?)

Here’s the complete tone poem in the performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle.

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As Stuart mentions, Strauss wrote this when he was 24 (which is pretty amazing in itself) and while it was his first “big success,” it wasn’t his first work – he’d composed a 33-page overture for full orchestra (which he orchestrated himself) when he was 9 (after a bunch of piano pieces and songs he’d written since he was 6). His first horn concerto, begun when he was 18 and written for his famous horn-playing father, is one of the major works in the horn repertoire today.

R. Strauss at 22
If you attended this past summer’s “Summermusic” series with Market Square Concerts, you heard an early work by Richard Strauss that is not in the repertoire and rarely performed – his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. You can hear a performance of it at this post in my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, and follow (at the end) the path that led from Richard Strauss child prodigy to Richard Strauss mature artist at 24 with Don Juan.

The work is a “tone poem” (a ‘form’ popularized if not ‘invented’ by Franz Liszt) – a musical composition that tells a story in sound, which can also be called “symphonic poem” or, more generically, “program music” (music that tells a story) – as opposed to a symphony which, normally, is abstract and concerned more with form and development of thematic materials. It depends on the composer or even the specific piece whether it’s an interpretation of the story or a cinematic depiction of it. One of the most famous tone poems, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet has different themes associated with characters or moods found in Shakespeare’s tragedy but it does not tell the story in a continuous, dramatic way, though we can hear “love music,” “struggles” and the death of the lovers at the end.

Strauss’ Don Juan is based on the legendary lover (who predated the more-or-less real Cassanova) that also inspired Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni and numerous other works, both musical and literary.

Lenau in 1844
Nikolas Lenau’s version of Don Juan was written in 1844 and is a very different approach to anyone familiar with Mozart’s opera. One can hear heroic music, “love music” as well as dramatic conflict and a tragic conclusion. In this case, Don Juan isn’t dragged off to hell by a chorus of screaming demons. In Lenau’s work, he has been searching for a “feminine ideal” (familiar also to readers of Goethe’s Faust) which he can never find and so goes to his death willingly rather than live an unfulfilling life.

It’s interesting that Lenau also wrote his own version of Faust, very bold for a German-speaking writer considering Goethe, the greatest writer in the German language whose Faust is considered the greatest work in German literature, had died only four years earlier in Weimar. While Lenau had spent a year in America living in a frontier settlement in Ohio in 1832, he tired of Americans and their wilderness and returned to Austria. He wrote many poems and lyrical epics but was dissatisfied with life himself. Shortly after completing Don Juan, he experienced an “episode” where he jumped out a window and ran down the streets (I believe of Vienna) shouting about revolution and fire. He was kept “in restraint” and confined to an asylum near Vienna where he died in 1850. This also has an eerie parallel with Robert Schumann who experienced a similar unfortunate end a few years later.

Richard Strauss at 26
Richard Strauss conducted the world premiere of his Don Juan in November of 1888 and wrote home two days after its first performance and said, "Well then – Don Juan had a great success, it sounded wonderful and went very well. It unleashed a storm of applause rather unusual for Weimar" (a much-revered cultural center in Germany that had been the homes of Goethe and Liszt). It went on to turn him into a sensation, the start of a successful career as both composer and conductor.

Interestingly, the year also saw Gustav Mahler conduct the premiere of his 1st Symphony – a banner year for new music and the beginning of the careers of two of the most influential composers at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. Brahms, fresh off the disappointment given to his recent Double Concerto (he destroyed at least one more symphony and another violin concerto as a result) wrote that he was “repulsed” by Strauss’ new tone poems and told the young Mahler (whose conducting he admired, if not his music) that he considered himself the end of the long line of great composers (“after me, the dungheap!”). Well, yeah... the Generation Gap was real long before the '60s.

Anyway, I’ll write about the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody and the Schumann “Rhenish” in later posts, so check back.

- Dick Strawser

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