The Tone Poem Don Quixote – “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” (orig. Title in German: “Phantastische variationen über ein thema ritterlichen charakters”) for cello, viola and orchestra op. 35, is among the most outstanding and popular works of Richard Strauss. He wrote it over a period of 14 months and shared that the idea came to him in October 1896 and the score was completed on the morning of December 29th 1897. While composing the work, the composer was painfully experiencing his mother’s mental delirium; he knew and understood madness as a disease well and depicted it musically in an astonishing way. With great imagination and professional skill, Richard Strauss constructed the form as a theme with 10 variations, mostly describing the adventures of Don Quixote, which sound after the introduction, and end with a finale (epilogue).
There are many themes in the tone poem. Three of them relate to Don Quixote, who is so consumed with chivalric literature that fantasy clouds his mind. The image of the Hidalgo is represented by the cello, which has a leading solo role in the work (similar to a concerto for cello and orchestra). The first theme of the servant Sancho Panza is in unison by bass clarinet and tenor tuba, and the second by the viola, which impersonates the hero. Dulcinea’s theme in Don Quixote’s imagination is introduced in oboe, etc. In the score, each section of the work is titled and the plot can be traced throughout the extraordinary imagery of the music, achieved through various instrumental combinations and technical techniques in sound production:
Introduction: Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knighterrant (Don Quixote meets Dulcinea).
Don Quixote’s theme – Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance.
Sancho Panza’s theme.
Variation I: Adventure at the Windmills.
Variation II: The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron.
Variation III: Dialogue between Knight and Squire.
Variation IV: Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims.
Variation V: The knight’s vigil.
Variation VI: The Meeting with Dulcinea.
Variation VII: The Ride through the Air.
Variation VIII: The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat.
Variation IX: Battle with the magicians.
Variation X: Duel with the knight of the bright moon.
Finale (epilogue): Coming to his senses again – Death of Don Quixote.
The first performance of Don Quixote was in March 1898 by the Cologne Symphony Orchestra Gürzenich with Franz Wüllner conducting and Friedrich Grützmacher as solo cello.