Strauss wrote these "Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character" in 1897. Franz Wüllner conducted the first performance on March 8, 1898, with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne. In addition to solo cello and viola, the work is scored for triple winds and contrabassoon; six horns, three trumpets, three trombones, two tubas; timpani, two percussionists, wind machine, harp, and full strings. Strauss was an omnivorous reader attracted firsthand to what Walter Starkie called "the first modern novel...a spiritual autobiography."
Strauss rearranged the novel's sequence of misadventures for purposes of structure, but otherwise put his powers of depiction at the mad Man of La Mancha's service. A myriad of marvelous touches are detailed in the first volume of Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary by the late conductor Norman del Mar, who concluded that, "on the side of humor and incredible fertility of invention...Strauss at no time surpassed what [he] accomplished throughout Don Quixote." Amen. Let me try to condense his analysis for home-listening consultation.
A long introduction heralds ten variations and an epilogue, based on a cornucopia of themes. Three of these pertain to the Don, who is immersed in literature about chivalry until fantasy unhinges his reason. A series of dissonant chords sends him "on his adventures with the cold, quiet logic of insanity," disguised as a solo cello which iterates the Don's themes. We hear two more for his fat squire, Sancho Panza, the first one played in unison by bass clarinet and tenor tuba, the babbling second one played by the viola, which thereafter impersonates him. The deluded Don's "Ideal Lady," Dulcinea, also has a theme, introduced by the principal oboe.
In Variation One, "the Knight and his squire start their journey" by mistaking windmills for giants. When the Don attacks, he is painfully unhorsed. Variation Two, "the victorious battle against the host of the emperor Alifanfaron," turns out to be against sheep. Their orchestral bleating still astonishes a century later. Variation Three, "colloquies of the Knight and his Squire," is the first of two eloquent rhapsodies addressing honor, glory, and the "Ideal Lady." Sancho keeps interrupting. Variation Four brings "the adventure with the penitents," mistaken by the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for robbers; it ends when they trounce him. Variation Five, "the Knight's vigil," nobly tender music, meditates on a vision of the Ideal Woman, conjured up by a horn. Variation Six, "the meeting with Dulcinea" becomes briefly droll, one of Strauss' very best jokes (in 2+3/4 time), when Sancho's search finds only a country tart and two companions. Variation Seven is "the ride through the air," blindfolded astride a wooden horse, features a wind machine. Timpani and basses play an earthbound tremolo underneath. Variation Eight depicts "the unfortunate journey in an enchanted boat"; it floats downstream without oars until a water mill capsizes it and the intrepid duo. (Listen for the cello to shake off droplets, pizzicato.) Variation Nine brings "The combat with two magicians" -- monks, actually -- routed from their prayers. Variation 10, "The duel with the Knight of the White Moon," in reality depicts a disguised townsman who has challenged Quixote. If the Don loses -- and he does, ignominiously -- he must renounce all further quests and return home quietly. The finale, ''The Death of Don Quixote," shows the Don restored to sanity but physically depleted, meditating on his follies until "the great Creator draws/his spirit, as the sun the morning dew." When the cello slides terminally from B to B below, the orchestra offers a brief, compassionate eulogy.