Don Juan is the first of Richard Strauss’s tone poems to be considered one of his masterworks, coming after the promising but not quite great Aus Italien. In Don Juan, Strauss’s inspiration is clear, though it’s a bit convoluted. Strauss derived his work from a stage play based in turn on an unfinished poem from 1844, which was itself based on a Renaissance-era legend about a serial womanizer. This same legend inspired Mozart a hundred years earlier, an inspiration which resulted in the great opera Don Giovanni.
Strauss’s work opens with bustling swashbuckler music that sounds like nothing so much as an anticipation of the kind of music Erich Wolfgang Korngold would later write for Errol Flynn movies, with adventurous derring-do alternating with lush music of our hero’s romantic interludes; but Don Juan gradually becomes more and more profound over the course of its roughly eighteen minutes, and it does not end on a heroic note but rather a sad and introspective one befitting a legend that ends with the hero’s death. It’s as if Strauss is depicting the way that all lives end in the same place, in the same way, regardless of how vigorously one has pursued one’s passions throughout.