Don Juan is not only one of Richard Strauss' first tone poems; it is also one of the most interesting. Unlike later works such as Till Eulenspiegel or Eine Alpensinfonie, Strauss gave no indication regarding the programme, in other words, the content of his composition. The fragments of Lenau's dramatic text quoted in the score solely offer a psychological profile of the hero but do not breathe a word of the plot. And yet, this tone poem can easily be seen as a round of love adventures, highlights, conquests and farewells.
This is mainly due to the conciseness of the themes, which are vividly designed and cleverly orchestrated, such as only a composer like Richard Strauss could achieve. The exuberant verve of the first bars cannot escape the listener: with this ascending line, Don Juan takes over the stage. The music then calms down, creating a climate of intimacy and whispers of love murmured by the solo instruments (violin, flute, oboe). Don Juan does not let himself be held back, on the contrary, his appearances sound increasingly self-confident before he lets himself go, at the height of his triumph, to melancholy and weariness.
This opposition between the worldly and macho boast and the pale and dying swan song in minor key blends seamlessly into the period (1888) in which the symphonic poem was composed: a period marked by faith in progress and optimism, which laboriously concealed the surrounding pessimism. Don Juan was Strauss' first great success.