For over a century composers have been drawn to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and the enigmatic songs of the waif-like Mignon.

Few today take the time to read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, yet in the 19th century a great many composers were drawn to this philosophical coming-of-age tale, and especially to the subsidiary character of the mysterious and waiflike Mignon. Although the story contains a total of eight songs, one in particular has attracted almost twice as many settings as all the others put together.

Kennst du das land (Do you know the land) – in which the enigmatic child reveals tantalising and fleeting fragments of her traumatic past, and expresses her desire to find a father figure in the novel’s young protagonist – commanded the attention of Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt, of Tchaikovsky, Wolf and even Alban Berg.

Malcolm MartineauMalcolm Martineau

So, what’s in a song? And what can we learn about the development of songwriting across this crucial century by following the musical fortunes of one particular text? Pianist Malcolm Martineau, whose latest ‘Decades’ project on the Vivat label aims to explore the art form from 1810 up to 1910, has lived with this song for years.

“I think it’s the enigma of Mignon that drew people to Kennst du das land,” he says. “The fact that she is only 13 or 14, and she has this mysterious past. It’s a very dramatic story, but different from a normal Romantic heroine, because she’s androgynous. People keep asking whether she’s a boy or a girl. She’s otherworldly as well. In the book, after she’s acted in a Nativity play she wants to remain as an angel because she feels more
at home in that realm than she does on earth.”

In Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister, a young merchant with a passion for the theatre, rescues Mignon from a troupe of acrobats who, it turns out, have kidnapped her from her native Italy and carried her off to Germany. The child forms a close bond with Wilhelm who finds her quixotic nature – and possibly her latent sexuality – deeply intriguing. Along with an equally mysterious and emotionally damaged harper, she accompanies Wilhelm on his adventures. Later on we learn that Mignon, who will die of a broken heart, was born out of an incestuous relationship between the harper and his own sister – a fact of which the child is entirely unaware – but not before, in a memorable scene, Mignon sings Kennst du das land in which she recalls memories from her past and seems to ask Wilhelm if perhaps he might be her father.

Mignon, GoetheMignon from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister

In the first of three verses Mignon recalls the scents of Italian citrus trees. The second suggests memories of the marble halls of her home, and the third her traumatic upheaval. In the middle of each verse she asks Wilhelm if he knows this place and if he will go there with her. But what is it specifically about this poem that has made it appeal to so many composers?

“The strophic nature and the fact that it builds as it goes along is always interesting,” reckons Martineau. “Images of Italy and the oranges, and more specifically about the house and the statues talking to her are especially colourful. And then the unhinged bit about the dragons over the mountains where she goes into her own wacky and wild world invites a composer to come up with something slightly unhinged himself. It’s also highly dramatic. I always say when I’m teaching this song, ‘Imagine Wilhelm’s reaction to each of the verses as you’re singing them.’ I mean, what the hell is this woman talking about?”

Back in the 19th century, audiences would have known the novel well, but not so much today. Does that give it an elusive quality that renders it difficult for us to approach? Martineau thinks that isn’t a problem. “People can create their own pictures, even if they don’t know the backstory. We’ve lost a lot of knowledge of German Romantic poetry. We may not know the symbolic meaning of a lily or a rose, but it doesn’t make the songs any less interesting.”

The first to set Kennst du das land was Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814). Although a musical footnote today, in his time he was a force to be reckoned with, composing 1500 Lieder to texts by some 125 poets. A friend of the author, the notoriously finicky Goethe turned to the sensitive Reichardt to set the Wilhelm Meister songs for publication alongside the text in the novel itself. “Goethe hated his poetry set to music at all,” explains Martineau. “He wanted a simple accompaniment, because he thought  it didn’t need any – the simpler the better.” However, in this case, Goethe clearly imagined readers reaching for a guitar or going to the piano to play the songs through.

In fact, the writer gave composers particulary clear interpretative instructions in the novel as he describes Mignon herself performing the song: “She intoned each verse with a certain solemn grandeur, as if she were drawing attention to something unusual and imparting something of importance. When she reached the third line, the melody became more sombre; the words ‘Do you know it?’ were given weightiness and mystery, the ‘There, oh there!’ were suffused with longing, and she modified the phrase ‘I would like to go with you’ each time it was repeated, so that one time it was entreating and urging, the next time pressing and full of promise.”

MignonPaul Léveré’s Mignon and the Harper (1923)

Though some have accused Reichardt of being lacking in imagination, that’s precisely what he does in a setting that is far from a simple folk tune and closely mirrors the child’s stated manner of delivery. Reichardt’s Mignon is sweet natured and direct. But that would not exactly be the case when the next, rather more revolutionary songsmith got his compositional hands on her.

Beethoven also revered Goethe, and although their lukewarm meeting in 1812 was to be one of history’s damper squibs, in 1809 the irascible composer decided to have a crack at Kennst du das land. “He speeds things up in the choruses and makes it much more dynamic,” Martineau explains. “And he gives you the dramatic pauses – basically saying ‘let’s go, let’s go!’ – and then it sort of stops, as if he’s going ‘what the hell?’. He sticks with the same tune for all three verses, but he does add a bit more for the dragons by speeding up the left hand accompaniment and going into four rather than three.”

Suffice it to say, Goethe loathed it. “Mignon would sing a song, not an aria” he grumbled to his friend the composer Václav Tomášek (1774-1850), who would set the song himself in 1815. Beethoven was in good company – Goethe also hated the version by Louis Spohr (1784-1859) who similarly committed the cardinal sin of through-composing his poem in 1816. If Beethoven portrays the turbulent forces swirling around in Mignon’s past, Spohr’s mixed-meter jitters capture her unpredictability.

GoetheJohann Wolfgang von Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler (1828).

What Goethe thought about perhaps the most famous setting, that of Franz Schubert who penned his effort the year before Spohr, we’ll never know. We aren’t even sure if it was among the bundle of settings the composer mailed to Goethe that year, and to which he famously received no reply. Probably he’d have hated it as well, since most believe that Schubert hadn’t even read the novel! For all of its catchy tune, his Mignon doesn’t really ring true.

“A lot of singers shy away from it,” says Martineau, explaining how in its original key it sits awkwardly high. “Schubert was obviously in love with a very high soprano at the time!” His girl feels like an innocent, and there’s little psychological disturbance in the third verse with its Freudian dragons. “But it’s very Schubert,” reckons Martineau. “He often captures a naiveté and an open heartedness, which later composers miss.”

Over the next decade or so, plenty of others took their slightly cautious turns – Fanny Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) had a go in the 1820s, while Spontini’s chipper French version hails from 1830 – but by the middle of the century, Goethe was conveniently deceased, Romanticism was at its zenith and a couple of big hitters picked up Mignon’s ball and ran with it.

Liszt was the first, setting it three times in 1842, 1854 and 1860. An uprooted and unsettled Schumann, who had recently fled Dresden to escape the draft, had his go at reaching into the troubled mind of Mignon in 1849.

GoetheJohann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein’s Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787)

Half a century on from Reichardt, Liszt is far more melodramatic than you imagine Goethe would have tolerated – even Beethoven might have raised an eyebrow. “It paints a psychological picture, which none of the earlier composers really did,” explains Martineau. “He even dared to tamper with the poem. Only Liszt had the ego to do that. We start suddenly with an uncertain harmony. With Schubert, things are very diatonic, but with the second chord in the Liszt we are already into another world (even though it’s not the very Italian world, which Mignon is describing). Liszt songs are often maligned, but sometimes he got nearer to the heart of the poet than a lot of other composers did.”

Equally neglected are Schumann’s Mignon songs. Some have called them rambling or portentous, others think they detect the instability that would see him committed to an institution five years later. “People are scared of late Schumann, because its a completely different musical style from the songs he wrote in 1840,” says Martineau. “His song is more plaintive than the others. It’s still very strophic, and he doesn’t change the music really in all three verses, but the wandering quality of the prelude, even before it starts, shows that Mignon’s already uncertain about what Wilhelm’s answer will be.”

One thing does seem clear, though. As Schubert knew Beethoven’s setting, so Schumann and Liszt draw on their illustrious predecessors, and so on as the catalogue of settings grows and Wilhelm Meister spreads its wings to fly outside of Germany. In 1866, Ambroise Thomas’ opera Mignon was a triumph at Paris’s Opéra-Comique (despite the happy ending bearing little resemblance to Goethe!), and the sentimental aria Connais-tu le pays is one of its biggest hits. Henri Duparc wrote his Romance de Mignon in 1869, and Tchaikovsky set it in Russian the same year.

Martineau finds the French versions overly nostalgic. “They paint Mignon looking back at her past life, and there are none of the psychological complications that you get in the German settings. I love the Duparc, but he only sets two verses and the translation is very free. With Tchaikovsky the Russian text is totally asexual, so it can equally be a male song, which changes everything.”

What really did change everything was the setting by Hugo Wolf in 1888, an interpolation of Goethe nearly 100 years on that tears up the rulebook in its attempt to squeeze maximum juice out of every poetic phrase. “I think the fact that nobody’s dared set it since, shows they’re in awe of Wolf,” says Martineau. “It’s the absolute pinnacle of Romantic dramatic Lied. It’s an aria, really. All the big operatic singers want to sing it, because it shows off a massive range and calls for many colours in the voice.”

Wolf’s challenge to singer and to pianist – Martineau calls the repeating chords after Mignon’s mention of the dragons the absolute limit of what one can expect of the piano – does comes at a price. “It makes her much more complex,” he says. “But nobody else really shows the fact that Mignon was older than her years, which is something Goethe explains eventually in the novel. She stops being this androgynous waif. This is very definitely a girl, and psychologically complex.”

Although composers from Sibelius to Korngold kept great poets like Shakespeare alive throughout the last century, by the end of the 19th, the rich seam that was Goethe and Kennst du das land had all but dried up. With the exception of Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) who had a go in 1903 and Alban Berg who set it in 1907 (both the work of young men), that’s it for poor old Mignon.

Martineau blames Wolf. “He’d done everything that could be done,” he believes. “It’s a bit like the reaction of all of those composers that came after Wagner at the end of the 19th century. What do you do now? And I think it’s like that with Wolf and the Mignon settings – what the hell do you do after that?”

It’s perhaps surprising, given Mignon’s mental and bodily state – Goethe describes her as physically stunted – that 20th-century sensibilities never latched onto the darker, more creepy side to her tale. But like the rest of us, Martineau must content himself with what we have.

“To be honest, I think each of these great composers bring different things to the poem,” he says. “And I love the difference. I love playing the Schubert because it shows Mignon’s wide-eyed innocence, and the fact that she definitely thinks she’s found her dad. Schumann and Liszt paint things in different colours. But like art and the great masters, each composer paints this curious scene in a different way.” And that’s what makes a great poem into a truly great song.

Decades: A Century of Song – Volume 2 is out now on Vivat. Dorothea Röschmann sings Liszt’s Kennst du das land and Anne Schwanewilms the Duparc later in the series