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From the preface of the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score:
In 1925 Walter Braunfels, a pupil of Theodor Leschetitzky and Ludwig Thuille 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, Die Vögel , 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 (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”).
During his years in Munich (1919-25) Braunfels wrote two orchestral works: Don Juan, and Prelude and Fugue for large orchestra. He also turned out Don Gil von den grünen Hosen, 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.
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. 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 favourable, 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).
For the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score please contact Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich.
Walter Braunfels calls Don Juan a “classical-romantic phantasmagoria,“ although it can only be called “classical“ with reference to one source of inspiration – the „Champagne“ aria from Mozart’s eponymous opera; otherwise, the music is romantic in every way. The scoring alone is that of the large-orchestra literature; it was not Braunfels’ intention to be faithful to the [aria’s] original sound. Instead, he let his imagination run free, as fragments of the aria (and other Mozartian themes) emerge here and there. Braunfels’ sheer mastery of the orchestra’s expressive power is an overwhelming auditory experience from beginning to end.