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There is no doubt that Schubert had heard of Petrarch before he came across this poem, and he almost certainly knew the famous and touching story of the poet's unswerving devotion to a young girl he glimpsed in an Avignon church and worshipped from afar for the rest of his life. Although the magical name Laura is not actually mentioned in these particular sonnets, Schlegel helpfully adds a note about the fact that this 'geehrte heil'ge Laub' is the laurel tree ('lauro') which Petrarch often used as a metaphor for Laura, and that the poem is in fact a prayer to Apollo to restore her to health after an illness. In any case Schubert knew that this love at a distance had inspired later literature; he himself had already set poems by both Matthisson and Schiller (e.g. Die Betende and Die Entzückung an Laura) where the name Laura is apostrophised in more modern dress, and where the tone of those poets' devotion at a distance derives from Petrarch. In setting these texts Schubert was being very 'modern', as Einstein points out; the rediscovery of the Middle Ages was one of the achievements of Romanticism, and it is perhaps paradoxical that the young composer was moved to greater experimental daring with old texts such as these than he would have been with contemporary poets—always excepting his friend Mayrhofer, of course, who in any case was also a translator of Petrarch's sonnets.
Schubert's work on the big ballads of his teenage years, as well as on Mayrhofer texts like Liedesend, Iphegenia and Fragment aus Aeschylus, stands him in good stead when he tackles these poems. He was used to making a free sequence of musical movements to encompass the changing moods and metres of a text. We begin here with a recitative where the piano plays little part. In this opening address to Apollo, Schubert seems to have been aiming at the Attic simplicity of an unaccompanied vocal line, although he could not resist a tiny sighing motif on the piano after 'Verlangen'. There is an expressive and appropriate descent down the stave at 'in Vergessenheit gegangen' which chimes well with the English translation, 'sunk into oblivion'. At 'Frost und Nebeln' we have a dotted-rhythm shudder in the accompaniment reminiscent of Purcell's wintry scenes. The spacious setting of 'Wo du zuerst [pause for an interlude of four sighing quavers] und ich dann [pause for another interlude] ward gefangen' is superbly expressive of love at first sight where the afflicted lover is literally stopped in his tracks and rendered immobile by beauty. The change in the weather at 'die Luft erwarmen' is mirrored by a stately motif in the piano warmed into life by delicious little trills. Another short patch of recitative ('So werden wir, vom Staunen froh getroffen') depicts the astonishment of both Petrarch and Apollo, and leads us into the most extended lyrical outpouring of the work. The piece has been nominally in the key of B flat throughout, but not until the sonnet's final two lines of aria can we now hear this, so capricious and varied have been the harmonic changes. The page of music beginning 'Im Grünen, im Grünen uns're Herrin sitzen she'n' is Schubert at his most gentle and affectionate; we are freed from the rigours of duple time, just as Laura is delivered from her sickness. The music wafts in graceful 3/4. The idea of the laurel tree providing its own shade inspires a roof of minims and crotchets at the first 'Und sich beschatten' (the vocal line appears thus on the printed page) and fronds of leafy melisma on the repeat of those words. The gently rocking quavers of the postlude extend the feeling that love is something holy and mysterious; perhaps it is the suspensions which make this music curiously prophetic of the piano writing in Du bist die Ruh'. In both that song and this sonnet, the poets are struck by a similar sense of wonder and worship.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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