Schubert's devotional style is already familiar from Die Betende. The pace is stately yet passionate—tremendous emotional energy is suppressed and hushed, as seems appropriate in a church. It seems unclear whether we are meant to hear Laura singing herself (Capell thought so, and wrote that in his view the piece was never far from Elisabeth's prayer in Wagner's Tannhäuser). But it is surely the enraptured poet who sings an ecstatic commentary within himself, so intensely as to drown the Graun. The form of the work is most unusual. The music of Verses 2, 3 and 4 is more or less the same apart from relatively small details of declamation lovingly altered by Schubert where appropriate for the prosody. It is this music which is the main body of the work. The first verse, which normally sets the tone of a strophic song, is by way of being a curtain-raiser and introduction, and ends with a mighty cadence ('danken dir, o Heilverknderin'). It seems that this is a chorale sung in mighty concert, with the poet's words for his Laura substituted for Klopstock's in the singer's mind. The opening shot of the film (if we imagine it thus presented) is of the whole church resounding with music—something like the opening of Die Meistersinger as Walther looks at Eva. We expect this music to be repeated in strophic manner, but instead the camera zooms onto Laura herself, and the music changes style: the organ is re-registered in dulcet tones and public utterance yields to the privacy of dreams and musings of sublimated sexual ardour. The song takes on an intimacy and gentleness in which time seems to stand still, a mood which is sustained for three verses.
Schubert probably discovered the poetry of Friedrich von Matthiss through the settings of his masters Zumsteeg and Beethoven. We also know that Salieri had set the words of this poet. Matthisson's work was the first by a completely contemporary poet that had come into Schubert's ken, and in this period of the mighty ballads, it persuaded him also to take shorter lyrics seriously as vehicles for music. Matthisson, born in Magdeburg and educated at Halle, led a sheltered and pleasant life under the patronage of the Duke of Württenberg. His poems were fashionable at the beginning of the nineteenth century but now they seem merely facile; his homages to classical style and metre sometimes emerge as unintentional parodies, and they lack the strength of the best of his forerunners, his revered Klopstock for one. Even in his own time, Matthisson was roundly criticised by Schiller and rejected by the Schlegel circle. But even if his poems are period pieces, their elegance and sensibility served Schubert's purposes well in the spring and summer of 1814 as a pathway to his encounter with Goethe's poetry in the autumn of that year.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991