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The waif Mignon is a familiar figure in Lieder. Although she was born and brought up in Italy she was kidnapped and taken to Germany where she becomes part of a travelling troupe of rope-dancers. She is befriended by Wilhelm Meister when she is twelve or thirteen years old and still in the habit of wearing boy's clothes. He rescues her from a savage beating by the leader of the troupe, and by buying her for thirty Thalers from this 'black-bearded, intemperate Italian' becomes her protector. She attaches herself to the group of actors who have also befriended Wilhelm. A little later the harper also attaches himself to the entourage. In the manner of novels of this type we discover (much later) that Mignon is his daughter. Mignon believes that her father was 'The Big Devil', a performing tumbler of great prowess, and is unaware of the truth. The harper hides his guilty secret that Mignon has been born of an incestuous union. Years before, he had been warned that Sperata, the beautiful girl with whom he was having a relationship, was his sister. He had refused to believe the family or the confessor and had later attempted to rationalise the union. Mignon was born, his child - and his sister's. Mignon and the harper are thus strongly related, but strangely. They sing together and often seem to think like each other, but there is no open acknowledgement of how profoundly close they actually are. The denouement of Wilhelm Meister irons out the bumps in the story with gentlemanly tidiness (for Goethe does not go into seamy details, nor would he have been inclined to do so in his time, any more than Dickens), but these characters are still relevant today in a world where we speak more openly of child abuse and violence, the dark and terrible side of poverty, the lifelong wounds inflicted by the brutally powerful on the bodies and psyches of the pathetically weak, and the cost to both victim and perpetrator.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995
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