“Kennst Du das Land?”
“Connais-tu le pays?”
“Do you know the land? [where the lemon trees blossom . . .]”
In any language, it’s the eternal question of the mysterious, melancholy waif Mignon, the sentimental focus of Goethe’s 1795/96 novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre” (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship).
Wilhelm Meister, the naïve hero, comes from a prosperous business family, but has been bitten by the theater bug from his earliest years. This causes him to consort with a fickle actress and have his first heartbreak. As he travels to gain experience in both business and life (his “apprenticeship”), he encounters a band of gypsy acrobats and performers who have kidnapped a young girl, Mignon, who they use and abuse cruelly. Wilhelm actually purchases/adopts her to rescue her from the troupe. She in return becomes hopelessly devoted to him, with no small amount of romantic affection mixed in, despite their age difference and her role as his “child.”
Mignon, we find out eventually, is the product of an incestuous union of brother and sister in Italy (the land of the blossoming lemon trees in her song). The gypsy troupe brought her over the Alps to grey, cold Germany. They are shadowed by a mysterious figure named “The Harpist,” a grizzled, half-crazed, depressed old man who turns out to be Mignon’s father!
Mignon dies in a fit of jealousy over seeing Wilhelm kiss a woman she believes he is engaged to.
Both Mignon and the Harpist have poem/songs inserted into the prose of the novel. Hers are about longing for home, a terrible secret she must never reveal, and transfiguration into an angel. The Harpist’s are primarily about loneliness and guilt.
There are other characters that provide some comic relief and counterpoint to the heavy air of looming tragedy. The plot strands are very convoluted, with relations circling around, and people in disguise turning out to be “other” people later on, devices typical of Goethe’s reaching to include as many autobiographical facets as possible while speaking through discrete characters. He also theorizes about what makes successful theater, as Germany was struggling to define its own theater art at the time, in view of the recent translation of Shakespeare’s works into German, which revolutionized so many creative artists.
There is plenty of irony in the way Goethe dissects whether the illusions of the theater or the illusions we cling to in life are more damaging.
The book was one of the most influential “Bildungsroman” (“formation” novel) of the eighteenth century. Such novels tell of the passage and struggle to maturity of its characters.
Countless art song composers were moved to set the songs of Mignon to music. Schubert and Wolf wrote the greatest of them, but Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and many others did too.
French opera composer Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896) set part of the story to music in 1866 in the opera “Mignon.” It became his most successful work, and with a really good mezzo-soprano in the title role, it deserves more frequent revival despite the numerous diversions from Goethe’s original in the libretto.
Explore it, dream, and think of how we may progress from naivety to more complete understanding.
Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is available in paperback in the fine series “Goethe: The Collected Works” Volume 9, Princeton Univ. Press, translated very well into readable English by Eric A. Blackall.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs