This is the 6th post of the series about the songs composed from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. In case you missed the previous posts, click here
Mount Etna from Taormina - Arthur Hacker
Mount Etna from Taormina - A. Hacker
- “Know’st thou the land?”
- “It must mean Italy,” said Wilhelm: “where didst thou get the little song?”
- “Italy!” said Mignon with an earnest air: “If thou go to Italy, take me along with thee; I am too cold here.”
- “Hast thou been there already, little dear?” said Wilhelm. But the child was silent, and more could be got out of her.
This is the dialogue between Wilhelm and Mignon once the girl has sung her first song, just at the beginning of the third book; we've had to wait since the fourth chapter of the second book, when Wilhelm meets her, to hear her voice. I read somewhere that Goethe said he wrote the novel only because of Mignon and se non è vero, è ben trovato, as the child is a sweet and charming character, surrounded with a mystery which makes her especially attractive.

Do you remember that, when Wilhelm and Mignon first met, she was in an acrobat company? Her master used to abuse her and Wilhelm paid him to free her; since then, Mignon shows her gratitude to the young man by serving him. Wilhelm had already noticed her previously and had tried to know something about her, but he had only found out that “they call her Mignon”. He doesn't know her age, she looks like she is 12 or 13; she always dresses in boy clothes and because of her childish behavior, Willhelm doubts about her sex when he first sees her. In fact, mignon is a French masculine form (that we could translate as cute), the feminine form is mignonne. Goethe's scholars have often referred to the Mignon's sexual ambiguity at the beginning of the novel. It's said, for instance, that the child intuitively protects herself by dressing like a boy. Also, the disguise allows her to move more easily (Wilhelm often finds her sitting on the cupboard). We understand that she is still a child because of her manners; her desire to please, her habit of greeting each person differently or her way of going up and down the stairs jumping instead of walking.

Beyond the abuses (which, unfortunately, should have been quite common), some details suggest that Mignon wasn't brought up among those at the rope-dancing company. Wilhelm realizes she's a very clean girl who also takes good care of her clothes. The first few days with him, she often washes her face, as if she wanted to remove makeup traces, without realizing that her cheeks are red because of her own scrubbing. She's religious and every morning goes to mass and prays the rosary (so she's catholic); she can read and write a bit and asks Wilhelm to be her teacher. Finally, Goethe tells us that she speaks poor German muddled with French and Italian.

Sometimes Mignon is silent for a long time, sometimes she won’t stop talking. She's very affectionate and strives to cheer Wilhelm up when he's sad or worried (which is, as we know, quite often). Wilhelm adores her and, as we saw in a previous post, when the child suffers an attack and looks dead, he promises not to abandon her and to become her father.

We are now the day after that scene. The song that Mignon has just sung is Kennst du das Land? (Know’st thou the land?). The blue sky, the orange and lemon trees, the myrtle and the laurels suggest a Mediterranean landscape. Wilhelm thinks of Italy and it's said that Goethe, who knew well that land, was describing some place in Sicily.

This is the poem of the novel from which more songs had been composed. We have already listened to the ones by Duparc and Tchaikovsky and today we are listening to Schumann's, one of the most well-known. The performers are Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Julius Drake, but before listening to it, I suggest you read what Goethe says about Mignon's performance:
She began every verse in a stately and solemn manner, as if she wished to draw attention towards something wonderful, as if she had something weighty to communicate. In the third line, her tones became deeper and gloomier; the Know’st thou it, then? was uttered with a show of mystery and eager circumspectness; in the ’Tis there! ’tis there! lay a boundless longing; and her I with thee would go! she modified at each repetition, so that now it appeared to entreat and implore, now to impel and persuade.
What do you think? Does Schumann (or Duparc, or Tchaikovsky) capture what Goethe describes?
Kennst du das Land? 

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht?
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! dahin
Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.

Kennst du das Haus? Auf Säulen ruht sein Dach.
Es glänzt der Saal, es schimmert das Gemach,
Und Marmorbilder stehn und sehn mich an:
Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan?
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! dahin
Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Beschützer, ziehn.

Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg?
Das Maultier sucht im Nebel seinen Weg;
In Höhlen wohnt der Drachen alte Brut;
Es stürzt der Fels und über ihn die Flut!
Kennst du ihn wohl?
Dahin! dahin
Geht unser Weg! O Vater, laß uns ziehn!

Know’st thou the land where lemon-trees do bloom,
And oranges like gold in leafy gloom;
A gentle wind from deep blue heaven blows,
The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows?
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there,
O my belov’d one, I with thee would go!

Know’st thou the house, its porch with pillars tall?
The rooms do glitter, glitters bright the hall,
And marble statues stand, and look me on:
What’s this, poor child, to thee they’ve done?
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there,
O my protector, I with thee would go!

Know’st thou the mountain bridge that hangs on cloud?
The mules in mist grope o’er the torrent loud,
In caves lie coil’d the dragon’s ancient brood,
The crag leaps down and over it the flood:
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there
Our way runs; O my father, wilt thou go?

(translation by Thomas Carlyle)


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