At the end of the 19th century, the tone poem, which is programme music par excellence, was at its culmination thanks to Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Between 1888 and 1903, he composed more than five tone poems, including Also sprach Zarathustra, which, with its impressive opening measures, has become one of the best known. But Don Quixote is no less reputed for its rich tone painting and psychological characterization of the protagonists. The flamboyant and ironic struggles of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, as told by the famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), addresses the imagination.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) also found inspiration for his Fourth Symphony during one of his cultural journeys. Between 1830 and 1833, he expressed his many positive impressions during his stay in Italy in a radiant symphony.
Queen Victoria called him “the greatest musical genius since Mozart” and Robert Schumann referred to him as “the Mozart of the 19th century”. The German composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn was indeed a child prodigy. He gave his first recital when he was barely nine years old, and four years later, he published his first composition, a piano quartet. Some of his best-known works date from his teenage years: his String Octet (1825) and the overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) are still a standard part of the repertoire.
In 1829, Mendelssohn began a number of inspiring journeys to countries such as England, Italy and France. He spent some ten months in Italy: from Venice, via Bologna, to Florence and Rome. From there, he went on to Naples and Pompei, and returned to Germany by way of Genoa and Milan. In addition to the lovely landscapes and rich cultural treasures, it was the mentality of the people he encountered that remained with him: “[...] I am enjoying the most wonderful combination of joy and seriousness, such as can be found only in Italy.” He incorporated all these impressions into his Fourth Symphony, known as the “Italian”, which he described as “a blue sky in A Major”.
Mendelssohn had a talent for encompassing the carefree mood of his stay in Italy; the entire work is bathed in a sunny glow. In February 1830, he wrote to his sister that he was “making good progress with the Italian symphony” and that it would be “the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement”.
The bouncy opening theme of the first movement, in a classic sonata form, sets the tone. The second movement recalls the religious processions Mendelssohn had seen in Rome, with a murky melody in the clarinets, oboes and violas. After a quiet minuet, a celebration erupts in the finale, which Mendelssohn based on the saltarello, a popular jumping dance from Naples. Despite the rather unusual minor key, this closing movement swirls to a lavish ending. The symphony had its première on 13 May 1833 in London, but in spite of its success, the composer was unsatisfied with the work, and in particular with the ending. He never allowed the symphony to be performed in Germany, and the work was only published and performed again only in 1851, long after his death.
In an interview in 1921, Strauss said that Don Quixote was one of his favourite tone poems because the work best expressed his ideas about composing music – as described in the above quotation. Strauss developed the tone poem into a genre of its own in the 19th century, which no longer required any external text or explanation. One of the innovative aspects of his approach was the overarching dramatic tension and the organic structure, which unfolds as the story moves forward. For Don Quixote, Op. 35, he drew on the novel of the same name by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. In the story, a nobleman is deluded, after reading too many chivalric romances, into thinking that he must combat injustice throughout the world. He sets off with his warhorse Rocinante and his squire, Sancho Panza and experiences a series of imaginary adventures.
Strauss worked the story of Don Quixote into a 45-minute long composition in three movements. In the introduction, the listener witnesses the gradual decline of Don Quixote’s mental state. There follow ten variations that coincide with ten episodes of the novel, an epilogue in which Don Quixote returns to his senses and in the end, dies. In this work, as well, Strauss displays his talent in giving musical expression to events, characters and their inner mood. He does so by means of an exceptionally rich and inventive instrumentation. Don Quixote is sometimes represented by a solo cello, and at others by a violin, while the clarinet and tenor tuba play the melodies of his faithful servant Sancho Panza, and the oboe represents his imaginary love, Dulcinea. A few examples of Strauss’ expressive orchestration are the bleating sheep in the second variation, followed by a conversation between Don Quixote and his squire, and his flight through the air in the seventh variation (here Strauss adds a wind machine to the already impressive orchestra). The work ends with a gripping death scene in which Don Quixote breathes his last in a deep, drawn out cello solo.
In October 1896, Strauss noted down his first ideas for Don Quixote, and roughly a year later, the composition was finished. During the same period, he also wrote his first sketches for another tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), considering the two as counterparts that can only be understood if placed alongside each other. While the heroic bravery of Don Quixote is purely fictitious, in Ein Heldenleben it is human and earthly. They reflect the eternal inner and outer struggle of the individual, who seeks consolation in love. Strauss himself explained: “I am not a hero. I haven’t got the necessary strength. I am not cut out for battle. I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace.”