1888: Richard Strauss: Don Juan Overture in E major

MONDAY, September 7, 2020 – 10:27 AM

Richard Strauss: Don Juan Overture in E major

Reiner and Solti: I grew up with the famous Reiner recording, which I may add later, but for me no other conductor brought the same level of pure virtuosity to this piece besides Solti, and both were famous conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As to which version is better, I’d honestly have to flip a coin.

Breaking it up…

  • 0:00 –  beginning: The main theme is set up, which I would call the “swashbuckling theme”
  • 0:53 – very playful music: often with a bit of a tempo change, very capricious, lots of quick modulations.
  • 1:36 – transition: preparing for the first romantic slow section, setting the mood
  • 2: 24 – 1st slow section: lush, very 1930s and 1940s, which shows you where these later film composers were getting their ideas from. It just stretches and stretches until a climax.
  • 4:18 – what eventually happens at the end: this foreshadows a tragic ending, which comes at the very end of the whole piece.
  • 4:46 – 2nd fast section: mood change, back to the same feel as the beginning
  • 5:28 – mood change: this is sort of like the playful music from before, but in minor, so now much more serious, and slower, ominous
  • 6:32 – 2nd slow theme: softer and more introverted, and an oboe solo is front and center – winds are featured, great clarinet and bassoon parts, almost a fairy tale ending
  • 9:50 – building: the music heats up again, gigantic horn theme and there is a mixture of the heroic horn and the more playful idea, quite slow – the horn theme wins
  • 10:53 – very playful section: this is something Strauss seemed to do better than anyone
  • 11:36 – huge dramatic section
  • : the big heroic theme comes back, along, and the first very romantic theme alternates, but now faster and driven – builds to a frenzy.
  • 12:24 – foreboding: something serious and perhaps tragic might happen, so again foreshadowing a tragic ending, later, very mysterious violin solo, mysterious winds
  • 13:24 – restart the whole thing: the strings enter almost shyly, then build
  • 13:48 – recap: it’s like very like a recap in sonata form, but bigger and more developed than the first time
  • 14:35 – heroic horn theme again: this time slowed down and greatly expanded, repeated in the strings with a brass counter-melody – it just builds and builds, the quintessential Romantic sound
  • 15:50 – hero theme once more: one final time, with a big build, even more frantic and manic
  • 16:22 – death: tragedy, and to understand why you would have to read the story, but it is the musical equivalent of “not with a bang but a whimper”


  • Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon
  • Brass: 4 horns in E, 3 trumpets in E, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
  • Percussion: timpani, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel
  • Strings: harp, violins I, II, violas, celli, double basses

Famous for 132 years

Richard Strauss, 1864-1949,  wrote movie music before movies were invented. In other words, his sweeping, Romantic way of composing, complete with so many different, colorful instruments in every way foreshadowed the music of great film composers of the 20th and 21st century. He had a very long life for a composer of that time and actually lived long enough so that he could have written film scores.

Programmatic music…

Don Juan is a musical composition that is “programmatic”, meaning that it suggest a story. You can look up that story, and it’s a bit confusing as to just what it is really about, but it falls into the “swashbuckling” genre in terms of the sound. When John Williams wrote the music to Star Wars, he was so close to Strauss’s orchestration ideas and style that you could easily believe that Strauss was Williams’s teacher. In a way he was, not through direct influence, but rather because he studied Strauss’s music very carefully.


Strauss was only 24 when he wrote this. Horn playing was in his family, so you won’t find anyone who wrote better for horn. His two horn concertos are very famous among horn players, but that same virtuoso horn writing is in everything he wrote, so you will never hear better brass by any symphonic conductor.

International success and famous conductor…

This work, The work, composed when Strauss was only 24 years old, became an world-wide success and helped establish his long and famous career. He conducted this himself until 1947.

A master orchestrator…

Anyone who wants to write sweeping, Romantic music goes right back to this man to study how it’s done. To this moment you wont find a single composer of traditional music or film music who is better at this style than Richard Strauss.



5 thoughts on “1888: Richard Strauss: Don Juan Overture in E major

    1. I have always like the Don Juan Overture, and part of it is because I am also a brass player. Struass wrote very well for brass. But to be honest I’ve never liked the ending, which to me is kind of “meh”.

  1. It was interesting to read “foreshadowed the music of great film composers of the 20th and 21st century” …. because while I was listening I was also picturing those old black and white movies with their passionate scenes, always accompanied by music meant to transport emotions, and usually succeeding.

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