A Classic Encounter With Don Quixote
Our latest musical journey that we lovingly call Classic Encounter, took on the marvelous story of Don Quixote. The original story was told by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605. Yes, I know, before I started working at XRT. Part two was published ten years later. Sort of like Peter Gabriel’s schedule. Every ten years whether you need to or not. But this story of a “knight” who acted out his fantasies, has touched so many generations and inspired artists to take on the character in symphonic poems, operas, a puppet play, and the Broadway musical Man Of La Mancha. The great German composer Richard Strauss (no, not the guy who gave us all of those waltzes) composed a symphonic poem on this character. You may be familiar with this piece by Strauss.
Less than two minutes of music that is familiar to people who have never attended a classical music concert in their lives. But like the O Fortuna we heard last month from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, these two minutes of music are so recognizable, but few know that another hour of music follows. Both of those two pieces are worth sticking around for.
Strauss lived from 1864 to 1949, and composed Don Quixote in 1897, one year after Also Sprach Zarathurstra, the two minutes of heaven you just heard. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was right on top of it, performing it for the first time in Chicago in 1899, so it was “new music.” I asked my lecture companion Martha Gilmer if she remembered the reception it received from fans and critics, but she assured me that she was not yet employed by the CSO in 1899. Just checking.
So let’s get into the story of our hero. Here’s a good introduction.
I mentioned the Broadway version of this story. Here’s a song from that production. Elvis covered this one too, but that’s it for the Elvis references.
Timing is everything. This program was the same day as the Cubs home opener. I have to admit that while preparing for this program, this song was even more poignant as I looked forward to another season of baseball on the North side. Less than a week later the dream seems even more impossible. Wait until next year. But this song shows that our hero is not an idiot, but a romantic idealist. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Reminds me of another hero. And we can also make a connection with Falstaff and other Shakespeare characters. It was just a couple of months ago that the CSO did a couple of programs on music interpreting Shakespeare characters. Although most classical music is abstract, about no specific story, these are the exceptions. Strauss used music and the different instruments of the orchestra to tell ten stories of our knight, right up to his death. Yes, our hero, like Falstaff, dies in the end. I didn’t give away the ending. I went to see Titanic in 3D this weekend, and I knew that darned ship was going to sink, and it did not diminish the story one bit.
When Strauss tells the story, he uses the cello for the voice of Don Quixote and the viola for the voice of Sancho Panza, his trusty side kick.
After the musical introduction, the first theme, or story, is the famous tale of Don Quixote doing battle with a windmill. One of the other stories has our hero blindfolded on a toy horse in a storm and he thinks he’s airborne. Strauss uses a wind machine that makes this an exciting moment in the piece. Vaughan Williams and Maurice Ravel also used this percussion device. At Classic Encounter we’ve heard cowbell, mallet hitting the big box, and even laptop computer. This was our first wind machine. Wonder how many lessons it takes for a percussion major at Northwestern to master this instrument. No, no, put your back into it. Careful with your wrist.
That performance featured the great YoYo Ma. He is coming to Symphony Center April 29th for Viva Brazil. Paul McCartney hugged me, but Martha Gilmer gets to party with YoYo Ma. We’re both lucky. She introduced me to YoYo Ma once and he is a real sweetie. You can see a wicked sense of humor in his eyes. If any of us ever get the chance to hang with him….
After a series of these insane pursuits, our hero finally reaches the end of his life. The last movement is the death of Don Quixote. In his last moments he regains his sanity and dies with a great deal of dignity.
As Wilco would say, I am trying to break your heart. Strauss is, anyway. Beautiful.
Even though his adventures were insane, he did stand for high ideals and chivalry. Like many other heroes in literature and real life, he was misunderstood by his peers and thought a fool. That reminds me of Paul McCartney’s take of a character totally misunderstood. This song was included in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour.
Don Quixote has been used as a musical metaphor by many contemporary artists, like Gordon Lightfoot, Nik Kershaw, and Coldplay, to name a few.
These songs deal directly with the Don Quixote figure, but my homework assignment for our group was to come up with songs that do not reference the literary figure, but follow the same theme, like Fool On The Hill. So far, our esteemed audience has come up with these two.
And someone else suggested the character of Lawrence of Arabia.
Thanks. The rest of you, feel free to submit. Your reading homework assignment is the biography of Frank Zappa named Frank Zappa: Electric Don Quixote.
Our next piece was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The great Russian composer had a lot in common with one of our Classic Encounter favorites, Gustav Mahler. They were both, in their lifetime, underappreciated as composers and acclaimed for their abilities as conductors. In fact, Martha referred to Rachmaninoff as the Barry Manilow of his time. I got some grief for that at Rhapsody after the concert and had to remind the gentleman that Martha came up with that…not me. But Rachmaninoff was a brilliant pianist, so his concertos for this instrument take a superhero to perform. You’d be hard pressed to be able to sing Mandy along with this piece. Our friend Mahler even conducted performances with Rachmaninoff on piano. Since death seems to be a reoccurring theme with us, and it was the night before Good Friday, Don Quixote died in the first half of the evening, and last month we dealt with death in a Mahler masterpiece, thought this piece would be of interest. A contemporary musician I first discovered on a Verve Remixed disc is “recomposing” Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which was unfinished. This clip reminded us all of the CSO’s composer in residence, Mason Bates, and the video I played earlier in the season where he went to record the sound of energy at Fermilab.
As I mentioned, I first heard a Herbert remix in the Verve jazz series. The haunting piano of Michel Petrucciani reminded me of Rachmaninoff.
Here it is unmixed, or pre-mixed. Whatever.
Here’s the original by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra.
And with all of the remixing and unmixing and recomposing….this leads us to the piece at hand.
A contemporary of Rachmaninov said the beginning of this piece was similar to a Russian liturgical melody. This leads us to our last piece. For the past two years, Classic Encounter has fallen on Maundy Thursday, a significant day in the Christian Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday and Easter. To mark the day we commemorate the last supper and the rite of food washing, which is a teaching on the essence of service to our brothers and sisters, I decided to share a piece of music of the season that I sang many times in my choir days. Both pieces are so beautiful and moving. You don’t need to be a church goer to appreciate the spirituality in this music. Last year I played Durufle’s Ubi Caritas. This year, a piece that is one of the most beautiful parts an alto can live to sing…William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.