LISTENING at the Queen’s Hall Symphony Concert on Saturday, to Strauss’s Symphonic-Poem »Don Juan«, which was completed when its composer – born in 1864 – was not more than twenty-five, one could not help thinking, once more, how wonderfully mature and individual is its music. There is nothing experimental, as in our young composers of its creator’s years or thereabouts, working some sixteen years after its completion. In some ways, it must even be allowed, »Don Juan« owes less to Wagner than the later – and more solid – »Tod und Verklärung.« Why speak of Strauss’s »Don Juan« at this time of day? That is what it may be the tenth time one has heard the orchestral poem played in a London concert-room. That attitude of silence on the part of music-lover in regard to works that have oft figured in a programme is, in the view of some, a sign of superior knowledge: an indication, in view of others of a frantic desire to discuss only the latest artistic sensation. Accordingly, »Don Juan« becomes a veritable »back number.« It will be understood that the present writer does not greatly esteem that attitude. He even refuses to make a »back number« of Beethoven’s »Eroica.« And he feels exactly the same in regard to many musical – and other – masterpieces, including ever so much of Bach. In other words, the »surprise« continues; he feels almost as if he were hearing a new work every time.
A composition of the calibre of Tchaïkovsky’s Fourth Symphony does not improve or excite wonder after a fourth or fifth hearing. It was completed about twelve years earlier than »Don Juan,« and Strauss, when he completed his work, was a younger man by exactly the same number of years. Yet »Don Juan,« figuring in the programme immediately before the »Fourth Symphony,« made the Tchaïkovsky sound quite dowdy. The contrast afforded also served more clearly to indicate a shortcoming of the Russian Master: and possibly of his School. Tchaïkovsky’s inelegance, worldliness and barbarous noise made one sigh for another example of highly strung, imaginative yet fully scientific Strauss. The noble German School. Long may it live! The Russians are mere youngsters in the art – whose impressionistic methods end rather in irritating the cultured listener than in pleasing him. Why should any music-lover desire to have music rammed into him, as Tchaïkovsky arranges in two movements of his precious »Fourth Symphony«? Of course not: Yet really only in degree. Some even call it glorified man-in-the-street music. But that is going too far. There is nothing artistically priggish in this view: it is the utterance of a man who once came under the influence of Tchaïkovsky’s art, and placed it on a higher level than was its due.
No doubt the composer did his best; no doubt he cannot be accused of insincerity; no doubt he is head and shoulders above any other modern Russian composer in genius. We should accept his work – enjoy it. But – but Richard Strauss is carrying on the splendid traditions of German School Music. And one again lays stress on this fact, for one knows it has been held, and somewhat widely, that the great line of German composers ceased with the death of Wagner. It is – and was – a precipitous statement, worthy only of electioneering methods, when truthfulness is, apparently, an unknown quantity.
The performance? Well, the »Don Juan,« welcome as the music was, did not go with enough nerve on this particular occasion. Even was there a want of »grip» of the earlier portions of the score. One prefers not to believe that the impression was due to an amended view of the score on the part of Mr. Henry Wood. Strauss himself would not have permitted such deliberateness. For a long time there was almost an effect of half-heartedness on the part of the band, more in accordance with the spirit of the composition. Mme. Lula Mysz-Gmeiner’s place was taken by Mrs. Henry Wood, who sang Tchaïkovsky’s rather unsatisfactory »Tatiana’s Letter-Song,« from »Eugene Onegin.» The programme indicated that the vocal piece would be sung in Russian. It was not – but in English, and the version differed here and there from the one offered in the programme. Mrs. Wood’s high notes were not pleasing in quality of tone. But the singer carried the thing through with the necessary theatrical go and effectiveness.