It is not certain exactly when in 1816 this song was composed. This poem's original title is Serafina an ihr Klavier
, but Schubert left out the third and fifth verses of the poem in order to remove Serafina from the song, as well as any reference to Schubart's infatuation with her. The piece is in fact a (rather more successful) companion piece to the Schiller setting Laura am Klavier
. The song has always enjoyed a popularity because audiences have long valued the supposed autobiographical link between the song and the composer's own piano. In actual fact, because Schubart was a man of the eighteenth century, it is probable that the keyboard with which he was most familiar was the harpsichord. It has been suggested, however, that because the opening words are 'Sanftes Klavier', the poet is describing the soft and gentle sound of that most intimate of instruments, the clavichord. Aware that the poem is a period piece, Schubert made a song of matchless simplicity with an accompaniment contained within a short clavichord-like keyboard compass. The song is in the key of A major; John Reed states that this tonality 'unlocks the essential Schubert' and, on the evidence of this alone, this seems to be true. The use of the composer's favourite dactylic rhythm confers a special magic on this music; the repetition of the motif (all on one note) of a crotchet and two quavers, in the manner of a celestial dance, seems appropriate for music of the spheres.
There are three other settings of Schubart, including the famous Die Forelle. Although these poems little reflect the poet's revolutionary political leanings, members of the Schubert circle would have been aware of Schubart's unjust treatment by Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg (who was also the young Schiller's tormentor) and the fact that he had languished in prison for ten years for supposed sedition. They would have regarded Schubart as something of a hero from the past, and they would have been touched by the famous prisoner's faith in the healing power of music. Schubert almost certainly knew that Schubart was also a composer of note and that his numerous song settings had enjoyed a considerable vogue in their time.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993