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Gesänge des Harfners, D478

No 1: 1816; No 2: September 1822; No 3: 1816. First published in 1822 as Op 12
author of text

These songs inhabit a different world from most of the other settings of the year. Thanks to Goethe, Schubert was inspired to a depth of response which left behind the cosy German world of Hölty and many of the other poets of 1816. There is in these works (which Einstein called Schubert's first great song-cycle) a compassion for human suffering in general which is kindled by the character of the harper but, as in all great songs, goes beyond the particular to embrace the universal. It is praise enough for Schubert to say that his musical response is a match for Goethe's lyrics - word and tone are emblematic of the loneliness of all those who carry on their shoulders a cross of their own making. Although he understood this broader view of the harper's significance, it is clear that Schubert had read the whole of Goethe's novel with close attention, and that he was much occupied in depicting the harper and his daughter Mignon as Goethe described them. It is this care for dramatic background and context which shows how gifted Schubert was, in this aspect at least, as a composer of drama.

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


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 23 – Christoph Prégardien
CDJ33023Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


No 1: Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt
Track 21 on CDJ33023 [3'47] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 18 on CDS44201/40 CD25 [3'47] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
No 2: Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass
Track 22 on CDJ33023 [4'15] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 19 on CDS44201/40 CD25 [4'15] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
No 3: An die Türen will ich schleichen
Track 23 on CDJ33023 [1'47] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 20 on CDS44201/40 CD25 [1'47] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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