Though Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) made significant contributions to the symphonic and chamber music repertoire, he is most lauded for his prolific song output— he produced over 600 songs in his short 31-year life. From the early success of Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814) and Der Erlkönig (1815) to the masterful song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), his works set a new standard for the genre of song. While Schubert’s vocal lines declared the texts of such great poets as Schiller, Goethe, Rückert, and Müller, his piano writing discarded the role of mere accompaniment, ascended to equal partnership with the voice, and assumed an extra-musical persona that supported the poetry (e.g. the spinning wheel in Gretchen, the brook in Wohin? from Die schöne Müllerin, etc.).
The Introduction and Variations for flute and piano (1824) uses the 18th song from Die schöne Müllerin (“Trockne Blumen”) as the basis for a set of variations. This narrative song cycle sets 23 poems from Wilhelm Müller’s Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling-Horn-Player and tells the story of a wanderer who falls in love with a miller’s beautiful daughter only to have his affections replaced by a hunter wearing green. The wanderer becomes obsessed with the color green, fantasizes about his death, and ultimately drowns in the same river that initially led him to the mill. “Trockne Blumen” (i.e. Dry Flowers) is one of the last songs in the cycle in which the narrator imagines taking the now withered flowers from the miller’s daughter to his grave so that they may spring forth once more and prove that his love was true. Ferdinand Pogner, a flutist and friend of Schubert, commissioned the set of variations specifically on “Trockne Blumen” after hearing a performance of the song cycle. Though the text of the chosen song may seem quite somber for a set of flute variations, this brilliant tour de force demands equal technical virtuosity from the flutist and the pianist and ends with a triumphant march.
My favorite recording of this work is by Andrea Lieberknecht from her “Flotenmusik Der Romantik” CD, but one of the most impressive live recordings on YouTube is Mimi Stillman and Charles Abramovic.