Walter Braunfels – Don Juan op. 34 (1922-24)
(b. Frankfurt am Main, 19 December 1882 — gest. Cologne, 19 March 1954)
A Classical-Romantic Phantasmagoria for large orchestra
In 1925 Walter Braunfels, a pupil of Theodor Leschetitzky (piano) and Ludwig Thuille (composition) who had been living in Munich since 1919, was appointed by Leo Kestenberg to head the newly founded Musikhochschule in Cologne. The appointment was the upshot of three works that had placed him in the front rank of German composers: the opera Ulenspiegel, op. 23, premièred at the Stuttgart Royal Theater on 4 November 1913 under Max von Schillings; Die Vögel, op. 30, an operatic setting of Aristophanes’ The Birds that was premièred by Bruno Walter at the Munich National Theater on 30 November 1920 (this was incomparably Braunfels’s greatest success in the theater); and the wildly applauded première of his Te Deum, op. 32, conducted by Hermann Abendroth at the Ninth Gürzenich Concert in Cologne on 28 February 1922 (G. Tischer, writing in the Rheinische Musik- und Theaterzeitung on 1 March 1922, called it “the greatest triumph ever accorded to a première in Cologne”).
Before moving to Munich, Braunfels had also produced a number of orchestral works: Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Rhyme, op. 15 (1909); Ariel’s Song, op. 18 (1910), a short tone-poem after Shakespeare that received its première in the Munich Tonhalle on 22 March 1911; the instantaneously popular Serenade in E-flat major for small orchestra, op. 20 (1910), premièred by Ferdinand Löwe at the sixth subscription concert of the Munich Konzertverein (later the Munich Philharmonic) on 9 January 1911 and published by Ries & Erler in that same year; a Piano Concerto in A major, op. 21, conceived in a Lisztian symphonic vein (it was renamed Concerto for Orchestra and Piano one year later) and premièred in Berlin by Siegmund von Hausegger at the second concert of the Blüthner Orchestra on 20 November 1911, with the composer taking the solo part; a Carnival Overture, op. 22 (1911), first performed in Stuttgart on 8 February 1912 under the baton of Max von Schillings (he had already conducted the première of Braunfels’s artistic breakthrough, the opera Prinzessin Brambilla, in 1909); and the extraordinarily brilliant Fantastic Apparitions of a Theme of Hector Berlioz, op. 25 (1914-17), a set of variations on the ‘Song of the Flea’ from La Damnation de Faust that was premièred by Volkmar Andreae and the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich on 19 or 20 January 1920 and quickly entered the repertoires of many major orchestras (it was reissued as Study Score no. 212 in the Repertoire Explorer series in 2002). During his years in Munich (1919-25) Braunfels wrote two further orchestral works: Don Juan, op. 34, and Prelude and Fugue for large orchestra, op. 36 (1922-5), premièred in 1925 by the principal conductor of the Krefeld Concert Society, Rudolf Siegel. He also turned out Don Gil von den grünen Hosen, op. 35 (1921-3), a three-act comic opera loosely based on a comedy of mistaken identity by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina and premièred in the Munich National Theater on 15 November 1924, Hans Knappertsbusch conducting.
Don Juan was composed from 1922 to 1924 and published in score by Universal Edition one year later with the subtitle a classical-romantic phantasmagoria. Written with a phenomenal instinct for orchestral effects, it is a discursive and loose-limbed set of variations on Finch’han dal vino, the number commonly if misguidedly referred to as the “Champagne Aria” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Ferruccio Busoni, a composer much admired by Braunfels, considered this aria to be the quintessence of “urbane agility, nonchalance and dazzling joie de vivre.”) Later Walter Berten, in an article published in Die Tribüne (Cologne, 1929-30), aptly summarized Braunfels’s two great sets of orchestral variations: “The given material is used not so much in the spirit of variations on a theme, dissecting or combining it in mirror-reflection, but rather to kindle a richly fertile fantasy that lends a distinctive guise to each new ‘apparition’ from a personal perspective. […] Just as the Berlioz setting is essentially a symphony in disguise, so the Mozart variations are a wordless and unstaged drama in disguise on the diabolical figure of Don Juan.” Accordingly, the tragic aspect of Mozart’s music — the theme of the Commendatore — is present from the very outset, and other themes, notably Là ci darem la mano, crop up more or less furtively in the course of this capricious work.
Don Juan was heard for the first time in Leipzig on 13 November 1924, when it was given by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under its principal conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. (Furtwängler was the former fiancé of Braunfels’s wife Bertel and later sought Braunfels’s advice on many questions of compositional technique.) Four days later, on 17 November, Furtwängler conducted the work’s Berlin première with his other orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, over which he had also presided since the death of Arthur Nikisch. As if that were not enough, on 17 and 18 March 1927, during his third season as visiting conductor in New York, Furtwängler also conducted the first two American performances of the piece with the Orchestra of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York (later the New York Philharmonic), following it in the same program with Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto played by Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Although the critics were seldom entirely favorable, the Don Juan variations continued their successful progress through the cities of Germany, including Frankfurt in 1925 (under Clemens Krauss), Dresden on 30 September 1927 (under Fritz Busch) and Munich on 9 December 1927 (with the Munich Philharmonic). Further information on their genesis, background, musical structure and subsequent reception can be found in Ute Jung’s standard German monograph Walter Braunfels (Regensburg, 1980, ISBN 3 7649 2215 X), from which much of the information in this preface has been taken.
For performance materials please contact the original publisher Universal Edition, Vienna (www.universaledition.com).
Reprint with the kind permission of Universal Edition AG, Vienna, 2003.
Deutsches Vorwort > HERE