Cervantes’s 17th-century epic Don Quixote de la Mancha, with its tragicomic hero, seemed tailor-made for Richard Strauss during his early maturity. The composer’s series of “tone poems” (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Also sprach Zarathustra) had received general praise from the public, though critics—and especially the overly influential Eduard Hanslick—had been harsh in condemning their restless, quasi-Wagnerian orchestral style. Perhaps feeling himself to be a bit of a beleaguered hero of modern music, in the late 1890s Strauss composed two works that examined the very nature of heroism, not without a dose of irony. Ein Heldenleben depicted the composer and his wife rallying against a sea of critics; and Don Quixote shows the ultimate “quixotic” hero (who may indeed be mad), devoted to his struggle even while aware of its hopelessness.
Don Quixote remains one of Strauss’s most satisfying works, a sort of “mini-concerto” for cello and viola (with a lesser role for violin) that includes ample soloistic playing from various members of the large orchestra. With the subtitle “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character,” its theme-and-variations approach reflects the discursive, episodic storytelling of Cervantes’s original: “a variations form carried out ad absurdum, and ramblingly tragicomic,” as Strauss wrote. It was completed in December 1897 and performed in Cologne in March 1898, with the conductor Franz Wüllner on the podium.