The melody of the first five bars of this song is uncannily like that of Am Feierabend
from Die schöne Müllerin
('Hätt' ich tausend Arme zu ruhren'). Because of this it is tempting for performers (perhaps only unconsciously) to sing it at the same tempo, bringing to a song of long suffering the heavy immediacy of the mill wheel, and the atmosphere of rumbustious and frustrated work. The tempo is 'Etwas geschwind', but it is significant that the composer's marking in the first version (which is almost identical, but in the almost unheard of key of G sharp minor as opposed to the published version in G minor) is the more informative 'Klagend mässig'. On the other hand it might be argued that both songs are about unbearably strong passions nurtured far from public gaze, and bubbling beneath the surface, which is perhaps why the same melodic shape, if not the same key, came into the composer's mind. A due to the tempo is to be found in the 'traunger Gestalt' of the words, a dull ache is described, contemplative and mournful, (except for the fourth verse) rather than a single searing flash of emotion. The mordants in the piano interludes sound flippant in too fast a 'Bewegung'. Like Schubert's strophic song Die Spinnerin
, which unfolds a girl's tragic story in the context of the dnudgery of her spinning work, the repetitiveness of the strophic form is here ideal to depict passion tortured by long-term separation. The music, like the poet's feelings, seems to go round in cirdes, trapped in an emotional maze from which there is no escape. The rather low-lying, and thus masculine, bass-line is a strong one, the vocal part tugs against it in eloquent fashion, and the excursion into the Neapolitan key of A flat (more like an interrupted cadence perhaps) wrenches the emotions to a higher pitch. The song, like all good strophic compositions is capable of being whatever its performers want it to be, stronger in the fourth verse certainly, and withdrawn in other places. Goethe wrote the poem in 1796, a good thirteen years after he had created the character of Mignon in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
. John Reed seems certain that An Mignon
is addressed to the suffering waif who was a central figure in that novel. Admittedly this plaint sounds a bit like Mignon's own mysterious Iyrics of suffering, but if Mignon herself (a character whom Goethe killed off in the novel) is not the person feeling the pain, who is, and why? Is it perhaps possible that this Mignon is simply a girl with a poetic name (like Ida or Rosa or Laura) or even nickname, from whom the narrator is painfully separated? The distinguished Goethe scholar Eduard von der Hellen in a commentary published in 1902 puts forward another theory that identifies the inspiration of the poem (perhaps originally intended to be part of a second cycle of Roman Elegies) as Magdalena Riggi, a beautiful Milanese girl whom Goethe met on his Italian journey. She envied the poet his freedom, and spoke of watching the ships (as in this poem's third verse) coming and going in Rome's harbour. In this case, An Mignon
is a real woman's lament, dedicated to the character of Mignon by one who shares and empathises with her emotional predicament. It is doubtful whether Schubert could have known all this, which is probably why the song, for all the ambiguity of its text and background, seems to call for a male singer.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990