“Don Quixote” down the musical ages
In a village of La Mancha whose name I prefer not to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those that keep an old shield and a lance in a rack… So begins the great novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
Cervantes, like his contemporary William Shakespeare—they died within a day of each other, exactly 400 years ago in 1616—came to personify the literature not just of his country but of an entire language. The protagonist of his eponymous novel is one of the very few literary figures to have slipped the bonds of the printed page to take on lives of their own — Don Quixote’s compatriot Don Juan is another. Don Quixote has even entered the language as an adjective: “quixotic”.
Don Quixote was published in Madrid in 1605. Translations came almost immediately, as did a bogus sequel that prompted Cervantes to write a second part himself in 1615, which now completes the novel. The timeless story of the elderly, upstanding and gently mad knight-errant and his faithful squire Sancho—a world where dreams dreamt hard enough become real— proved irresistible not just to readers but also other artists. It has inspired a raft of paintings, drawing, plays, films, operas, ballets, instrumental and vocal music.
Musical adaptations go back to the seventeenth century. Henry Purcell wrote songs for The Comical History of Don Quixote, a three-part (and seven hour!) dramatization. Although rarely performed, some pieces such as From rosy bow’rs remain popular. The Venetian Antonio Caldara wrote two operas: Don Chisciotte in Corte della Duchessa (1727) and Sancio Panza Governatore dell’isola Barattaria (1733). Both Giovanni Paisiello and Antonio Salieri wrote operas within a year of each other: Don Chiosciotte della Mancia (1769) and Don Chiosciotte alle nozze di Gamace (1770) respectively. The story of Don Quixote at Camacho’s wedding was picked up by Georg Philipp Telemann whose one act comic operetta or serenata Don Quichotte auf der Hochzeit des Camacho dates from 1761. Felix Mendelssohn composed an opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho, based on the same section of the novel, in 1827.
But the most famous musical narrative works derived from Don Quixote are surely the ballet by Léon Minkus, which premiered at Moscow’s Bolshoi in 1869, the 1910 opera by Jules Massenet—who had already reached for classical Spanish sources for his 1885 opera Le Cid—and, probably most widely known of all, the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. All of these deviate considerably from the book by providing a much greater role for Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s entirely imaginary lady, or at least for Aldonza Lorenzo, the peasant girl whom Don Quixote imagines to be her.
Instrumentally, Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, which incorporates music from his opera, and Richard Strauss’s 1989 tone poem for cello and orchestra are among the two best-known orchestral works.
The land of Don Quixote’s birth is, somewhat ironically, musically best-known not for a full-length work but for the innovative 1923 one-act puppet-opera El retablo de maese Pedro by Manuel de Falla which, like many works, is based on a single chapter of Cervantes’s long novel.
It was inevitable that Don Quixote’s world at some point enter the popular mainstream. The original Broadway musical Man of La Mancha premiered in 1965 and ran for 2,328 performances. It has been revived multiple times, translated into many languages and was made into a film.
From this wealth of material, we have chosen a century’s worth of Don Quixote-themed lyricism from opera to musical, from Spanish zarzuela to French art song. Several of the pieces have never before been performed in Hong Kong.