Saturday, June 18, 2011
A Human, All Too Human Don Juan
(I'm sitting in the twilight in my castle (0:01). A stranger comes in (0:30). I ask him more than once who he is (0:37). Finally, He strikes up a song (0:50). Don Juan sees who it is, it is Death (2:05). Christus (4:11))
Sibelius never finished his Tone Poem about Don Juan, not even the program. Perhaps he found the subject matter too unbearable. This is something I can only surmise, since much of the material he wrote for it apparently made its way into the almost unbearably moving second movement of his Second Symphony. The fragment of program Sibelius wrote for the work fits so uncannily well into the music (both the program and the music displayed above this paragraph). One could easily construct a whole program around this music, complete with a dialogue about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, and memories of love lost and found.
In Sibelius's version, there is no statue to drag Don Juan into Hell. There may not even be a Hell. There is only death, and the inner demons of a man who has done everything he could to live to life's fullest extent, only to find himself meeting his end alone. This is a human, all too human Don Juan.
Without exception, every Don Juan seems as much a reflection of its creator as of the myth itself. As a man given to enormous excesses of women and drink - but also prone to the greatest extremes of depression, Sibelius understood the human meaning of Don Juan perhaps more than any other great creator. His Don Juan is free of illusions about consequence. The only satisfaction Sibelius derived from the excesses of his behavior were in the immediate short-term. After the party was over, Sibelius would return to his family to only find his long-suffering wife Aino and his children humiliated and frightened by his excesses. And thus would that cycle continue until his death.
Don Juan is larger than any one persona. He is an antihero with a thousand faces - invariably punished for the crime of pleasure. There are Don Juans both repentant and unrepentant, sometimes deserving of comeuppance and sometimes innocent victims. Everyone has their favorite face, but I have to be honest and say that most of them leave me cold for the simple reason that most explanations for Don Juan's self-serving behavior are self-serving in themselves.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and none larger than Mozart's Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni is not a mere face. Mozart's opera is as much the apogee of Don Juan as Heath Ledger's performance is the apogee of The Joker. Everything else before and after is a mere footnote because Mozart created something out of a myth larger than myth itself. What Mozart created was the closest any character in any work of art has ever come to a manifestation of the pure Id. Within the span of the 80-second champaigne aria, Mozart conjures up an image of pure lust for life that is unequalled by anything in any other work of art. If one looks for an equivalent moment in any of the arts, even by the most vital characters in fiction - characters as diverse as the Wife of Bath or Sir John Falstaff or Fyodor Karamazov or Emma Bovary or Sonny Corleone or Antoine Doinel or Homer Simpson or Ralphie Cifaretto - you will perpetually look in vain. Mozart's gift was such that Don Giovanni is larger than us - far more than a myth, and is therefore not supposed to be relatable. He is that piece of every one of us which wants to eat, drink and screw everything reflected back into us. He is the will to live life itself.
Byron's Don Juan is, well...Byron. Leave it to the so-called Romantic Hero among all romantic heros to take the myth to its least heroic, and perhaps least romantic interpretation - Don Juan was not the seducer, he was the seduced. Somehow, women just wanted to have sex with him and he couldn't refuse them. And over 16,000 lines Byron settles scores, made some jokes, and it becomes plain that the Don Juan of Lord Byron is just George Gordon in print - a high hedonist committed to living fast, dying young and leaving mere mortals who are neither noble nor poet with the consequences.
(NOTE: I have no idea of the exact count count how many lines of Byron's Don Juan I've read, probably a couple thousand....some probably more than once....eventually I'm sure I'll read the whole thing, but let me get to a few hundred other book-length poems first.)