Strauss wrote and conducted the piece when he was only twenty-four years old and it became an international success shortly after its debut. It marks the discovery of the composer's formal style and tonal language. The work is based on the poem Don Juan by Nikolaus Lenau, from which much of the musical work's passion is drawn. According to the composer, who wrote two days after the first performance "Well then – Don Juan had a great success, it sounded wonderful and went very well. It unleashed a storm of applause rather unusual for Weimar."
An average performance takes around sixteen minutes. The extreme difficulty and virtuosity of nearly every part has made the piece a staple of orchestral audition lists for most instruments.