Walter Braunfels, Don Juan, Op. 34

By Professor Ute Jung-Kaiser

Written for the concert Against the Avant-Garde: Romanticisms of the 1920s, performed on Dec 7, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Don Juan is a living myth. He is a projection screen for male longing, the embodiment of the seducer, who can bring any woman to his bed. Mozart raised him to the embodiment of “sensual-erotic ingenuity,” and for that reason, to the “absolute object of music” (Kierkegaard). His entrance aria in Don Giovanni – his “Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa” [Don Giovanni: Act 1, scene 15](“So that the beautiful women get hot from the wine”) – is a true demonstration of his demonic and Dionysian character. The enormous brio of the aria, the authoritative insistence on the same initial rhythm, the short-winded melody-phrases, and the rotating rondo form reflect his hot lust for life and the volcanic power of his being, the “ecstasy of lust” (Rosenberg). Even though it is not a drinking song, it is the directive with which the ball scene of the opera is opened. It sparkles like champagne, “like the eruption of an impounded eerie force of nature” (A.A. Albert).

There are reasons why a composer like Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), who reached the climax of his career in the early 1920s, chooses to make this aria the topic of his Don Juan Variations (1922-24): With his homage to Mozart, he manifests his conceptual difference from Richard Strauss, whose symphonic poem Don Juan (1888) is not based on a Mozart opera but on a Lenau ballad. Also, he reconnects with Liszt’s Reminiscences de “Don Juan,” which Ferruccio Busoni had published shortly before in his “large critical-instructive edition.” There are intellectual affinities between the composing styles of Busoni and Braunfels. It almost seems that the impressionable Braunfels confirms the interpretative approach of the elder Busoni, who does not ascribe an “existential fear” to Mozart’s aria, nor an experience with one’s limits or mystic views of the world.

This variation cycle is Braunfels’ third for large orchestra. In it he follows the concept of his Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, op. 25 (1920): the given theme stimulates intellectual-musical aspects, rather than programmatic-musical ones. The subheading alone “eine klassisch-romantische Phantasmagorie” [“Phantasmagorie” was a neologism from Goethe’s Faust II ] distinguishes the name of Opus 25.

In a way the previous work was a “symphony in disguise.” The Don Juan Variations is a “drama in disguise without words and scenes,” especially since the Komtur-theme and the theme of the seduction duets “La ci darem la mano”can be heard. The conventional variation form is revoked because of the motivic fragmentation and the scarcity of any thematic versions. Walter Berten wrote in 1930 that “in cause and effect [this piece is] musical-spiritual – and not poetic-literary.”

In the introduction, one can hear the main motive, followed by dark scales, tremoli, and trombone entrances. Not until then does the theme appear in the original key and tempo (B-major, presto). While the first variation highlights the theme by changes of voice, the second one only exhibits fragments of the theme. The third one cites the “La ci darem” in a lively Allegro con brio. The moderate tempo and seductive melos of the fourth variation form a contrast to the fifth variation, which suspensefully polarizes the diverse elements of moods (lust for life versus fear of death). After an andante with riterdandi, the joyful presto of the finale follows, which again cites the “La ci darem”. The Variations end with an intoxicating stretta.

The 1924 premiere of the piece took place in Leipzig under Wilhelm Furtwängler. The public reaction was divided; there were comments about eclecticism and misinterpretation. But Braunfels handled the original in a similar manner to how Max Reger over-composed his Mozart Variations in a late romantic way: The theme-fragments become transmitters for a new point of view of Mozart and his Don Giovanni.