R. Strauss - Don Juan

Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, written when the composer was only 24 years old, was instrumental in establishing his success.  This brilliant tour de force has become a staple of the symphonic repertoire, as well as being an important piece for string and oboe orchestral auditions.   

Note that there are insufficient rehearsal figures for efficient rehearsing.  I added 31 numbers to the 30 letters that are already in the parts.  To read this article, it will be necessary for the reader to add measure numbers to his or her score.   

The piece opens with a brilliant flourish, which immediately establishes the character of Don Juan, a dashing nobleman.  Half note = 84 enables the performers to play with clarity and verve.  The first seven notes must be well defined and easily absorbed by the listener.  In the many coaching sessions that I have observed, it works best for violins and violas to start down bow, and cellos to start up bow.  In the first measure, winds and brass need not play with an accent, but rather a clean articulation.  In measure 2, a short quarter note adds to the brilliance. 

The two half notes in measure 3 are often played with a separation, with the strings playing two down bows.  I feel that this phrase, which occurs many times, has a lot more continuity with no lift between the two half notes.  This is a subjective call, but the conductor needs to decide what sound he or she prefers, and not do a double down bow, if connecting the half notes is desired.

In measure 4, the triplet in the violins is effective with the first two notes on an up bow, and the last note on a down bow, allowing the half note on the first violins to be on an up bow.  The second violins can then play down bow on the fourth beat, and up bow on the downbeat of measure 5.  Flute 1 and 2 and the clarinets can slur the first two notes and articulate the third note of the triplet. The winds, brass and percussion can start their half note in measure 4 at a softer dynamic to maximize the effect of the crescendo.  Note the wooden sticks for the timpani in measure 7.  Measure 7 should observe a full quarter note and measure 8 a short eighth note; string players should be sure to play as such in audition situations.

Measure 9 requires a very fast staccato for woodwinds and horns; note that while oboes and bassoons can probably effectively double tongue, clarinetists might have more difficulty playing these triplets.  The downbeats of measures 13 and 15 for trumpets and trombones are effective played as a short eighth note.  In measure 13, care must be taken to accurately play the major sixth from the D to the F in the first violin. 

At measure 17, the strings play “more m than f”, in other words, play substantially softer.  They are to play with a spiccato stroke with good ensemble.  The crescendo in measure 20 can be substantial, with a short quarter note and a quick retake to a down bow on beat 4. 

The balance at Letter A can be problematic.  Horns, trombones and especially timpani have to be careful not to overbalance the moving triplets.  At measure 27, the canon in the third trumpet needs to be heard.  In auditions, I’ve heard some string players play single notes, and some double stops.  It’s probably best to decide which technique to employ.  As example of the earlier point discussed occurs in measure 31, namely whether to connect or separate the two half notes.  If the violins and violas play the printed bowing at measure 27, then measure 31 comes out up bow, which makes it easier to connect the two half notes. 

In measure 35, crescendo from a softer dynamic than forte enables the strings to be heard.  The printed bowing allows for the last note to be played on an up bow, adding flair and exuberance.  This measure is one of the real telling points for any string player’s audition – the fiendishly difficult last beat and next downbeat must be in practiced carefully and played in tune.  At measure 38, in performance as well as audition, care must be taken not to rush the tied notes.  At Letter B, second violins and violas can maintain their forte dynamic.  At measure 43, a dramatic pianissimo subito is in order, with a diminuendo in measure 44 to round off the measure.  Having the first violins play measures 44 and 48 on the A string is a little risky but adds a nice color. At measure 46, a warm fortissimo with a tenuto quarter note is a nice gesture, along with a tenuto eighth note in the strings.  The scales in measure 45 can start down bow, with an up bow on the eighth note in measure 46. Careful not to miss the ponticello in the cello and the muted horns in measure 49. 

I have my own story that I add here.  At the subito piano at measure 43, Don Juan spies a young girl in the distance.  He approaches her and bows at measure 46.  When she turns to him, he finds her to be unattractive – hence the ponticello and muted horns.  His displeasure is heard at Letter C, and the rustling of her skirts is heard in the subsequent violin and viola spiccato passages.  At measure 62, he emphatically tears himself away.  Note that the ghosts of Don Juan’s past tryst may be found starting in measure 431, the first one being a variation of measure 44.                                                      

As difficult as these passages are, don’t lose sight of the fact that they are to be played very quietly, and that the melody is in the first clarinet, joined for a portion of it in the violas in measures 57 and 59.  The quarter note at measures 63 is best played short; the quarter note measure 65 needs a decision as to whether it’s to be played short or long.  Either can work. 

At 5 measures before Letter D, Don Juan is struck by the sudden appearance of another beauty.  This 5 measure transition, which includes a light roll on the bells, sets the stage for her entrance, which occurs at Letter D, a ravishing F# dominant 7, with an added 9th and an arpeggio in the harp.  A choice of portamentos in the solo violin, from the D# to the F#, and from the F double # to the G# can add to the sensuous atmosphere.  At 5 and 6 measures after Letter D, the tempo can move a little bit (the rustling of skirts?).  The same can occur 11 and 12 measures after Letter D in the woodwinds.  At measure 85, the tempo can move just a bit, and then be held back slightly with the pickup to measure 90. 

Measure 90 represents the second of Don Juan’s loves, the first one at measure 44 being a very short-lived one.  The dotted quarter note in the clarinet and horn must be expressive and held to full value; the same applies to the canonic answer in the violins 2 measures later.  I ask for the pulse in the flutes, second clarinet and bassoons to be well articulated, as these players supply the only pulse in this passage.  The solo violin in measure 93 is not easily heard until it joins the melody at Letter E.  A slight relaxation into Letter E also works well.  Notice that the dynamic marking for the clarinet (now doubled) and horn at Letter E is mezzo forte, compared to piano at measure 90.  At Letter E, the oboes, English horn, and horns 2, 3, and 4 are also added to the players who are to articulate this accompaniment.  A warm portamento for the pickup in the violins to measure 110 and to measure 114 adds to the opulence of the scene.  A harmonic for the first violins in measure 116 creates a nice color.   

A gradual buildup of emotion and intensity in the magnificent phrases at measure 117 can be slightly interrupted at measure 124 and again a bit more at measures 127 and 128.  At measure 137, the stringendo continues unabated to measure 149.  The passages for trumpet from measure 133 to measure 151 and for bass from measure 137 to measure 152 are effective audition excerpts for these instruments. 

The abrupt and surprising tempo change at measure 149 is best achieved by avoiding the temptation to slow down in measure 148.  Adding a crescendo in measure 152 for the flute and clarinet helps to bring out the descending 16th notes.  The nervous passages in the cellos, in measures 153 and 160 require careful rehearsal.  The first passage is marked without expression, and the second may be also played the same way.  I encourage the cellos to practice these passages by playing the quarter note short in the second measure, and to shift quickly in the then extended quarter rest before actually playing the note.  Note that the passage at Letter G is marked mezzo forte, as opposed to the previous fff.  Be sure that everyone, including the cellos, lift together before Letter G. 

Measure 160 begins Don Juan’s restless quest for further adventure.  Be sure of the following: the woodwinds are heard clearly at 1 measure before Letter H, adding a crescendo to the descending triplets, the violins and violas play the quarter note on the third beat short, starting the new phrase with the pickup to Letter H, and that the trumpets lift after the dotted half note for the same reason. 

While most attention for violinists for audition preparation is for “page 1”, they must also be prepared for “page 3”, which is as difficult or more so than the more commonly asked “page 1”.  The section from Letter H to Letter K contains the same sort of material as the beginning, the same flair and excitement which portrays the dashing figure of our “hero”.  At 2 measures before Letter K, the brass can play a forte piano crescendo to enable the strings to be clearly heard.  At 1 measure before Letter K, the conductor may conduct the entire measure in 4, or perhaps only subdivide the last half note.

The passage at Letter K, agitated and passionate, leads to the third of Don Juan’s loves.  This character is achieved with accented syncopations in the violins and intensity the violas and cellos.  I would suggest two bows per measure for violas and cellos in both the second and third measures of Letter K.  Two downbows may be utilized to bring out the expression for the violas in the 5th and 6th measures after Letter K, followed by an up bow to the 7th measure, played on the D string for an effective change of color.  Keeping a steady tempo 7 measures after Letter K between the syncopated flute and the strings can be problematic.  Be sure that the violins change their notes on the eighth rest in the flute.  A portamento in both violins between the B flat and the D flat in measure 212 adds to the espressivo character.  In the pickup to measure 221 in the horns and 224 in the trumpets, an unforced single forte is sufficient.  Notice that in measure 223 the first violins play squarely on the second half note, unlike the other string sections, who play a pickup to the next half note in the preceding figures.  The poco a poco piu’ tranquillo is more easily achieved by waiting to slow down until 4 measures before Letter L. 

The love scene at Letter L features the famous oboe solo, often heard on auditions.  The grace note in the third measure can be done in a variety of ways; I like it to be played delicately on the beat, preceded by a diminuendo in the 3 quarter notes before, which are also slightly held back.  The string accompaniment must be played very quietly and with minimal vibrato to allow the oboe to never have to force the sound.  At measure 243, a slight holding back of tempo with the written diminuendo is a nice color.  The tempo mustn’t be allowed to drag.  At measure 248, be sure the flutes play rhythmically.  Notice that 6 measures after Letter M, the indication is crescendo as opposed to diminuendo, which appears in the 8th measure of the first phrase.  A tiny bit of time at the cadence in measure 267 is effective. 

The coquettish passage in the clarinet at measure 268 can move ahead a little bit, with the grace notes here also played on the beat with great tenderness.  A tempo may be achieved by a subtle expanding of measure 273.  The bassoon and clarinet now take the melody from the oboe.  At measure 281, taking a little time before the written high E in the next measure is an effective expressive gesture.  The clarinet must add a breath after the first quarter note in measure 285 to delineate the phrase.  Note the evaded cadence at measure 286.  At the reentrance of the oboe solo at measure 288, the tempo can move just a bit, relaxing again at 1 measure before Letter N.  At 6 measures after Letter N, the first violins can continue to play on the D string, and then change to the A string after the pause.  At measure 304, continuing on the A string is a little risky, but produces a golden magical effect.   

I find that it’s more secure to begin the stringendo for Don Juan’s unrest on the second beat of measure 310, rather than on the downbeat, as written.  Note that the first phrase of the Don Juan theme at measure 314 is marked forte, and the second phrase at Letter O is marked fortissimo.  I find that the quarter note followed by a quarter rest in measure 317, and in subsequent passages, is best played at full value with noble expression.  The same is true in measure 325 for the note that is followed by the rest to be played at full value.  That phrase is developed starting at 3 measures before Letter T and later at 5 measures after Letter Z, and can be played in this manner as well at that point.  At Letter O, the woodwinds must play very strongly to be heard; a diminuendo in the violins is helpful to make this happen. 

The lower strings come crashing in at measure 337, as the scene shifts toward the so-called carnival scene at a measure 351.  At Letter P, we again find the phrase with the expressive quarter note in the third measure, this time in the low instruments.  The hemiola at measure 349 and 350 is essentially two 3/4 measures followed by one 2/4 measure for the strings, and a 1/4 measure followed by two 3/4 measures and a 1/4 measure in the winds.  For student orchestras, slow rehearsing for the strings and winds under tempo, and then combining them, allows each group to hear the canon, and how their respective parts fit together.  Delaying the crescendo in the brass and timpani allows this passage to be heard clearly.

At measure 351, the tempo can move ahead somewhat.  If the tempo is quick enough, the violins and violas are able to play their triplets at measure 361 in one jete’ stroke, with an upbow on the eighth note.  The woodwinds and horns here play with a light staccato.  Make sure that the first violins don’t rush the ties in measures 353 and 354, and again at measures 367 and 368.  At measure 358, rather than divisi, have the first 4 or 6 violas play the scale marked Die Haelfte.  At measure 371, with a mezzo forte indication, second violins and violas can play with a normal rather than jete’ bowing.  At measures 371 and 373, horn can start quietly and exaggerate their crescendo. 


At Letter R, brass can play forte piano, with a crescendo in the next measure to allow the rest of the orchestra to come through.  At Letter S, a tenuto half note for brass connects the phrase, as noted earlier.  Also holding out the note before the rest in measure 399, as noted earlier, makes for a more expressive phrase.  Make sure that bassoons, cellos, and basses at 3 measures after Letter T separate the two half notes, to make a more distinct beginning to their phrase.  The same applies between measures 409 and 410. 

At Letter U, a long quarter note for the trumpets enables their melody to be heard more clearly.  As Don Juan falls into the abyss 3 measures after Letter U, the strings must play as strong as possible, with a free change on the long note, and two bows for the 16th note passage.  The timpani needs to be fiercely loud, perhaps starting the diminuendo in the second measure, rather than immediately.  We then meet the spirits of the former lovers, in measure 431, measure 438, and at Letter V.  Note that the intonation at measure 441 is made even more difficult by the octave C# between the second oboe and first trumpet.  The low C# for the oboe is often flat, and the trumpet may have to tune a bit lower to accommodate.  The agitated passage for the solo violin before Letter V can be made even more so by a portamento to the D flat on the D string at one measure before Letter V.  The intonation between the piccolo and clarinet at Letter V may need attention.  The horns playing the stopped notes at measure 453 may use metal mutes for a raspy, agitated sound.   

Don Juan’s emergence at measure 457 features difficult passages for the strings.  Make sure that the tempo is not too fast, so that the 16th notes are clear.  To avoid a crescendo, each passage can include a diminuendo for the triplet in the second measure.  The cello passage can be played with a harmonic on the high A.  Be sure that the first violins, oboe, and horns play together, as the violins tend to be early and the winds late for the pickup.  The same may be true two measures later for the second violins.  At 1 measure before Letter W, changing this measure to a 3/2 measure with a rest on the third half note, assures a clean lift at the end of the measure as well as a clear downbeat for Letter W.  Be sure that the second violins and cellos understand that they too need to play to the end of the second full beat. 

At measures 479 and 484, the eighth note in the violins and violas may be played as triplets rather than a measured eighth note.  In measure 501, five consecutive downbows add excitement and energy.  A broadening at 2 measures before Letter Y enables Letter Y to be played more expansively.  The same comments concerning the lengths of the notes before the rests apply.  An extra bow (or two!) for the violins and violas at Letter Z is in order to sustain the long note as much as possible.  The tempo is then pushed to tempo primo at Letter BB.  For the frantic stringendo at Letter CC, I go into 1 at measure 577, but this call is subjective for each conductor.   

At measure 586, the mood is an eerie calmness, followed by the fatal stab in the next measure, for me sharp accent in the trumpets followed by a soft dynamic.  A uniform swell in the strings is achieved by a crescendo to the middle of each measure.  At 1 measure before Letter DD, be sure that the first violins begin their ascending scale exactly after the second note.  The violas tremolo can be exaggerated to portray the final death throes of Don Juan.

I always warn young orchestras that no matter how brilliantly they play, the soft ending always seems to lead to a tepid response from the audience.  I’m sure to give a solo bow to the oboe and solo violin.