The quixotic quest of Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” which the Pacific Symphony will play May 18-20, is one of the odder pieces in the orchestral repertory, or let us say on the fringes of the orchestral repertory, so seldom does it turn up in performance.

For one thing, it is one of the rare symphonic works that can be genuinely called comedic, symphonic music in general not known for the laughing it causes. For another, it is almost unique in being a piece in which the soloists play characters, in this case Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza (the qualifying “almost” used only because Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” comes to mind as another).

Thirdly, there aren’t many pieces with a flock of bleating sheep roaming through it, though sheep indeed do make a brief appearance in a later Strauss work, “An Alpine Symphony.”

“Don Quixote,” of course, is what’s known as a symphonic poem or tone poem, a type of instrumental work that tells a story or paints a picture. Strauss excelled at writing them and became famous doing so. Written in 1897 and given its premiere in 1898, the work is inspired by the Cervantes novel and depicts characters and relates episodes described in the book. The subtitle on the title page of the score reads: “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character.”

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