This is Schubert's first excursion into B major in his songs, his tonality of sacred, intimate love, the key in which Suleika confides her love of Hatem to the East Wind, and in which the boy confides his love of the miller's daughter to the brook. It is also the key of the last of the Mignon songs in which the dying waif seems transfigured by an understanding of the deeper mysteries of life. In Die Betende
the confessional tone is reserved for where it is most appropriate—a church. Laura is praying, and with a thinly disguised voyeurism the poet watches her, turning his passion into a type of religious ecstasy. This is a forerunner of the exquisite mixture of devotion and blasphemy we find in Heine's poem Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome
. The remote and exotic tonality limns the girl's sensual beauty rendered infinitely inaccessible by the conventions of society and religion. The musical style seems also to be transfigured: a Protestant chorale keeps its sobre dignity in the outer voices but writhes and falls chromatically in its inner parts—a hymn book with a plain cover secretly interleaved with miniatures in the sensuous Italian colours of Raphael. When Matthisson mentions Laura, Klopstock is never far away, and the whiff of a poet of an earlier, more devout, generation makes Schubert think of the musical style of Klopstocks's contemporary C P E Bach whose settings of Gellert had defined piano-accompanied religious song thirty years before.
Schubert is famous for his ability to take us outdoors and into the country—the open-air style is often invoked by the Matthisson poems. But here he shows his uncanny ability to set a song indoors and light it with the muted but rich colours of light pouring through stained glass. The accompaniment seems destined for an organ, and women must have also seemed thus to the young composer at the height of the pains of his adolescence. Here he had to make do with a piano and a solitary manual. It is the popular misconception that Schubert forgot his songs as soon as he had written them, but this is belied by the fact that in the autumn of 1828 he used the opening bars of Die Betende in the sketches for his last work, the unfinished opera Der Graf von Gleichen.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991