‘Variations on an Original Theme for Flute and Piano’
Und Lenz wird kommen, und Winter wird gehn
Und Blümlein werden in Grase stehnn
Und Blümlein liegen in meinen Grab,
Die Blümlein alle, die sie mir gab.
“What I produce is due to my understanding of music and to my sorrows; that which sorrow alone has produced seems to give least pleasure to the world.” (Franz Schubert 1824 SDB 336)
Something else-B minor Rondo, live in Denmark
In1824, Franz Schubert wrote a set of variations for piano and flute. This was based on Trocken Blumen from Die Schöne Mullerin (The Miller’s Fair Daughter), which he had finished two months earlier. I fell for this work many years ago, but was also aware that it was not taken seriously for one very simple reason. It is flute music. There is a perception, particularly strong amongst we string players, that flute music is predominantly lightweight, and therefore, not worthy of notice. So this piece a cornerstone of the repertoire, and taken extraordinarily seriously by flute players, is not ‘in the ear’ of the string players playing the sets of variations which succeed it. That is a shame, most particularly as this work is not just a flute and piano piece. It is also a violin piece.
Schubert’s Trockne Blumen Variations is the last major representative of an special relationship between the flute and the violin. All through the 18th century, flute and violin chamber music had been interchangeable. Telemann, Bach, and even Mozart wrote works designed to be played on either instrument. One of the last works that Beethoven in Bonn in 1792, was a duo for two violins or two flutes. His Op 105 and Op 107 sets of Variations on National themes were written to be played on either instrument. But, in many ways, these works marked the end of the line. The rise of a new virtuoso string tradition, and the amount that this began to be incorporated into amateur practice spelt the death knell for the relationship.
It seems that Schubert wrote Trockne Blumen, for the flutist Ferdinand Bogner (1786-?), who was a prominent member of the Musikverein. However, it is clear that he and Schubert did not collaborate on the score. If they had, the piece would likely have been written with more concern for where a flute player might breathe! Moreover, as soon as the more complex material is tried on the violin, it becomes clear, that whilst this is extremely virtuosic, it all ‘lies’ under the hand, and indeed, many of the high speed leaps and roulades are facilitated by means of ‘open strings’-useful on the violin, but of no consequence on the flute. So I suspect, that this work was written with the help of Schubert’s violinist brother, Ferdinand. Seen as violin music, this piece is very close to the style of the virtuoso polonaises and caprices associated with the greatest living Viennese violin virtuoso, Joseph Mayseder.
One other factor which points in this direction is the connection between this work and the astonishing Fantasy for piano and violin, which Schubert wrote for Josef Slawik in 1826. Trockne Blumen laid the ground work for this titanic work, and the establishment of new relationship between confessional musical expression and virtuosity.
Schubert had begun 1824 the year in a dark mood. :
“Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer desperation over this always makes things worse instead of better. Think of a man, I say, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing; for whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer, but, at the best pain; whose passion for beauty (at least the sort that inspires) threatens to desert him. I put it to you, is not a wretched, unhappy being…every night, when I go to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and every morning only recalls yesterday’s grief.” (Letter to Kupelweiser 31 March 1814)
Perhaps returning to Wilhelm Mülller’s Trockne Blumen gave him a chance to reflect on his situation. He seems to have taken a deliberately rigid approach to the composition, mapping two lines of Wilhelm Mülller’s poem onto each variation. The opening introduction stands apart, a desolate winter landscape based on the trudging minor chords of the orginal song, perhaps the emotional landscape in which Schubert found himself.
Wilhelm Mülller’s poem found a curious solace in winter and death; one which, perhaps Schubert came to share. In his setting of the song, he mapped its hope of Spring in the midst of winter, in the ‘withered flowers’ on a grave, with a move from minor to major. The whole song is in effect, an extended Tierce de Picardie. This Baroque conceit, of turning to the major on the last chord of a work can be rather desperate. It sits a little uncomfortably for sure, when J S Bach uses it on the last bar of the first movement of his Double Concerto. However, in using this gesture here, Schubert was mapping the ‘hopeless hope’ of the poem. After all, winter is not the assurance that spring will come-it is just that spring follows winter-hopefully…
Writing variations on the song, Schubert took this process a long way further, toying with the move to optimism, to the major each time, falling back to the minor, to the pessimism which seemed to have overwhelmed him.
‘Think of a man, I say, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing; for whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer, but, at the best, pain…’
Eventually, the piece find’s an escape from grief through a deliberately old fashioned bit of counterpoint, an E minor variation, consciously or not, riffing on Bach. This builds into cadenza-like outbursts, which set up a quick-step march to finish. The ending is the complete antithesis of the funereal trudging with which Schubert began the Variations. Schubert was not just writing variations on the song, on his melody, but on the poem, and on the idea of the poem itself. It mirrored his own predicament, his own winter.
The end of 1823 saw the abandonment of Schubert’s attempts to find his way into serious music theatre. His Rosamunde failed, and was becoming clearer to him that he would not find success in this field. Perhaps writing this work may have showed Schubert a way forwards.
“This was the first major ‘mixed’ work (not totally keyboard) that ventured to explore the real personal dramas which animated him. The Trockne Blumen Variations set the stage for the great chamber variations that were to follow-in the Octet, the Rosamunde Quartet, the C Major Fantasy, and the astounding slow movement of the D minor Quartet Death and the Maiden.
“Do not think that I am not well or cheerful, just the contrary. True, it is no longer that happy time during which every object seems to us to be surrounded by a youthful gloriole, but a period of fateful recognitnion of a miserable reality, which I endeavour to beautify as far as possible by my imagination (thank God).” (Schubert to his brother Ferdinand, Summer 1824 )