El Caballero de la Triste Figura

Don Quixote, the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, here seen in Daumier’s famous painting (though it seems to me that the star of that particular show is the clapped-out horse, Rocinante – the Don’s doleful countenance just isn’t in evidence and poor old, long suffering Sancho Panza’s reduced to an amorphous blob on the horizon).

Strauss’ attraction to picaresque, episodic stories, like Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel, is easily explained by the similarity of the narrative (a series of disparate events held together by the constant of the main character) to the musical form of the rondo (a series of disparate episodes interspersed by the constant of the main rondo theme).

But when it came to the tone-poem (Don Quixote) to follow on from the freeform Also Sprach Zarathustra, despite – or maybe because of – the fact that the original Cervantes was also a picaresque novel, Strauss tried something different, something that would also work with this literary form: he wrote a series of variations.

Don Quixote is different in other ways, too: it’s a sort of cello concerto (with the cello in the role of the Don) or maybe, more accurately, a concertante piece since Strauss doesn’t forget the Don’s sidekick, Sancho Panza (a gaggle of instruments, led by the solo viola).

We follow the pair through a series of 10 adventures/variations including tilting at windmills, sheep, dreams of Dulcinea, a ride on a flying horse and an unpleasant encounter with demons; the work ends with an epilogue and the death of the Don.

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