Two Different Kinds of Heroes
Music by Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven
Melancholy Hidalgo: Richard Straussʼs Don Quixote
It just sounds better in Spanish: Don Quixote de la Mancha is embellished by his creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra as the ingenioso hidalgo, which is only imperfectly translated as “ingenious gentleman”. How much thirst for adventure, horse sweat and saddle leather cling to the proud title “hidalgo”, even though it refers to nothing more than the lower Spanish nobility! And ingenioso – isn’t there also a touch of “genius” in this epithet? Thus, in the title Don Quixote already becomes far more than a comical, gaunt old man riding across the Iberian plain with his amusing companion Sancho Panza, like a prefiguration of the popular comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy.
No, this Don Quixote is not merely a “knight of the sorrowful countenance”. According to the idealistic philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, he is elevated to the model of a knightly character from another time. An enthusiast who welcomes confrontation with the far from imaginary reality of the windmills – a dreamer whose imaginative inner world is so much richer than prosaic reality. That is the modern myth of this tragicomic gentleman who no longer wants to belong to a cynical, efficient society. And whose ideals of chivalry and erudition are ruthlessly rejected by this same society.
In this respect, Don Quixote is a key figure on the threshold of the technocratic age, and perhaps Richard Strauss sensed this when he chose him as the hero of a symphonic poem in 1897. In ten variations Strauss guides us through the adventures of the nobleman and his squire. But he does not vary the main themes, which refer to the characters and are clearly recognizable even during the greatest confusion, but rather the musical surroundings. The actual episodes are preceded by an introduction presenting the aging nobleman and bibliophile. Completely absorbed in the whimsical magnetism of chivalric romances, he decides to save the world. At this point we have already heard his themes: the first gallant and resolute, the second graceful, the third eccentric and rambling. The vision of the distant beloved Dulcinea appears in a delicate oboe melody. The self-proclaimed champion of virtue imagines glorious victories with a fanfare.
A new identity emerges from Don Quixote’s confused state of mind: a warrior full of bizarre grandeur, whose role is taken by the solo cello from now on. At his side, earthy, sarcastic and garrulous, the cunning Sancho Panza, first depicted by the bass clarinet and tuba, then the solo viola. The first fierce attack is against giants, who turn out to be windmills (first variation). Even more jarring is the attack on a flock of sheep in the second variation, bleating with incredible instrumental audacity: noises, clusters, flitting flutter-tonguing in the winds, interspersed with the simple melodies of the shepherds in the reed instruments. The vision of Dulcinea shines in the third variation like an ecstatic, sonorous F sharp major promise of happiness. Quixote attacks a procession of penitents that passes by singing a chorale (fourth variation). In variation five he again dreams of his noble lady with a love song in the solo cello. As a glaring contrast, Sancho Panza introduces an awkward country girl to him as Dulcinea in the sixth variation. The seventh variation depicts Quixote’s ride through the air; his horse remains on the ground, however, as the low pedal point in the basses reveals. After a dangerous boat trip, gentleman and squire fall into the water (eighth variation); with trills they shake off the drops that fall to the ground with splashing pizzicatos. Quixote again charges a passing pair of monks, whose strange song of prayer is played by two bassoons (ninth variation). In the tenth variation the knight fights his final duel, which he loses. He returns home and wants to end his life as a shepherd: the reed theme from the battle with the herd of sheep is heard again. An elegiac epilogue concludes the odyssey of the weary hero. Motifs from the introduction return in the enraptured melodic beauty of this cello cantilena. The close is poignant: after his adventures, the melancholy hidalgo slips away in silence. Strauss foregoes all ironic, explanatory commentary and gives his protagonist a death with eulogistic, lyrical transcendence.
Explosive hero: Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica”
The figure of Don Quixote has always been good for caricature and contemporary satire: in 1808 Napoleon turned up as the foolish “knight of the evil countenance” in a Spanish pamphlet against the French occupation. By this time Ludwig van Beethoven had long since withdrawn his dedication of the “Eroica” to the Corsican. His original plan was to dedicate the “heroic” Symphony, which he completed in mid-1803, to Bonaparte. Beethoven was a passionate, if naïve supporter of the First Consul of the French Republic, who seemed to promise democracy and human rights throughout Europe. Then, in summer 1804, the news reached Vienna that Napoleon wanted to be crowned Emperor. According to the story documented by Ferdinand Ries in his Biographical Notes on Ludwig van Beethoven from 1838, Beethoven supposedly tore up the title page with the dedication intitolata [entitled] Bonaparte and exclaimed “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!”
After several performances in 1804 and 1805, the Third Symphony was finally published in October 1806, now with the more neutral title Sinfonia eroica and the addendum in Italian “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”. In the meantime, Napoleon had proved to be anything but a democratic beacon of hope, and Beethoven turned into a Francophobe. Whom did he mean by the “great man”? Was it the anti-Napoleonic torchbearer, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed in battle shortly before the “Eroica” was published?
Two forte chords like lashes of a whip: the hero enters the stage strong and self-confident, an equal among equals. Only then is the theme heard in the cellos, a triadic motif, seemingly simple and familiar, but suddenly twisting and turning chromatically. We don’t know exactly where this theme is going. Only one thing is certain: it is not seeking the old, well-worn paths. The proceedings continue, with rebellious syncopations against the bar accent. It is difficult to imagine nowadays how shocking the opening of the “Eroica” must have seemed to Beethoven’s contemporaries. The first critics missed “light, clarity and simplicity” and objected to the “shrillness and bizarrerie”, the “corrupting” wilfulness. The programmatic idea was also bold: Beethoven envisioned two “heroes”. In addition to the Napoleonic idea, the symphony also contains an allusion to the mythological figure of Prometheus, who gave fire to humanity and thus, symbolically, the Enlightenment: Beethoven in fact quotes from his ballet The Creatures of Prometheusin the Finale. In any case, the death of the hero is recounted in the splendid second movement, a funeral march modelled on the French revolutionary music of Cherubini and Gossec, which celebrated the public commemoration of the dead as musical events. Beethoven transcends empty gestures with this emotional intensity, however: from the sighing figures of the march theme to the aggressive entrances and agitated build-ups to the gradual fading away of the theme, this movement covers an incredible dramatic spectrum.