After two periods of enthusiasm for the work of Schiller in May and August 1815, Schubert's interest in the poet was rekindled in March 1816: among a number of other Schiller settings, two poems from the 'Laura' cycle were composed in this time. This coincides with the end of the two-year period when Schubert was said to have been in love with the baker's daughter, Therese Grob, and it is not too fanciful to compare the composer's idealised and impractical affection for Therese with the poet's for 'Laura' nearly thirty-five years before. Schiller's muse played the piano and Therese was known to have a beautiful singing voice (see note for the 1814 Matthisson setting An Laura — a différent Laura, of course, who sings — in Volume 12); cantabile piano playing is an extension of the vocal arts, and for both the young Schubert and Schiller (in this poem at least) the power of music explained, and rationalised, tempestuous attraction to the opposite sex. The first verse of Schiller's poem describes prodigies of prestidigitation and compares them to the supernatural achievements of Philadelphia, a famous conjuror and spiritualist of the time. To give musical voice to this analogy in our century one would need the composing fire of a Prokofiev and the fingers of at least a Horowitz or Argerich. However, Schubert seems to place Schiller in a historical context: Laura is not permitted to be a heartlessly efficient modern virtuoso but rather a gifted amateur of the 1780s. The song thus becomes an exercise in the polarity between the shy femininity of Laura's playing and the poet's exaggeratedly enthusiastic response, between the exquisite manners and music of the pre-revolutionary era and Schiller's seething intensity, which was a sign of future literary and historical developments, and which excited and shocked the readers of Die Räuber. The turbulent descriptive words which tumble out of Schiller's mouth and which masquerade as the enthusiasm of a musical connoisseur (something which the poet could never claim to be) are offset by an altogether contrasting portrait of Laura in the prelude and postlude of the song. In Schubert's scenario the narrator is driven into a frenzy not by musical mastery but by the beauty, grace and sensitivity of the executant.
The first verse of the poem is given over to alternation between recitative and solo piano strains. Verses 2 and 3 are in the home key; the section begins in a gentle and modest way: a graceful vocal line is accompanied by flowing quavers and eventually blossoms into a quasi-Italian cantilena propelled along by pulsating triplet chords. In the middle of Verse 3 ('Wie des Chaos Riesenarm') is a recitative which, not surprisingly, is entirely unequal to the cataclysmic images of the text. Here, as elsewhere in this poem, Schiller uses metre in a virtuosic way to paint the turbulence he describes, and it is true that a reciter could probably make more of this passage than a singer. The water music of Verse 5, in the dominant, begins gently enough ('Lieblich itzt, wie über glatten Kieseln') and becomes more violent as the words require. Here is the nearest thing to pianistic bravura in the song. Mention of Cocytus in Verse 6 reminds us that the Underworld river also makes an appearance in the map of another Schiller work, the infinitely more famous Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Volume 14). Perhaps the most effective vocal music in the piece is the genuinely eloquent, questioning recitative of Verse 6 to which an enigmatic repeat of Laura's wordless piano refrain seems the only acceptable answer; the remaining two strophes of Schiller's poem go unset. Indeed, this all seems a somewhat awkward marriage between word and tone, as awkward as a conjunction would have been between the captain's wife, all musical sensibility, and the impulsive young poet-doctor whose verbal command as yet outstripped his knowledge of real people and the ways of the world.
There are two versions of this song, dating from the same month. In the first, the piano prelude is only six bars long, there is no postlude, and various other différences between them (often arising because the key of the first, E major, dictates a différent vocal range to that of the second version in A major) show how far Schubert was prepared to adapt his initial musical ideas when tussling with Schiller. According to Fischer-Dieskau it was the Mozartian cast of this song which enraged Antonio Salieri and which prompted the break between him and his pupil Schubert; however, this theory begs the question as to why Schubert was such an enthusiastic participant in the celebrations in honour of his teacher later in 1816, and why he should publish a set of songs dedicated to Salieri (Op 5) five years later in 1821. It is worth noticing that Schubert's only other song about piano playing, An mein Clavier (Volume 17), also dates from 1816 and was also composed in the key of A major.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993