, WoO134, and its four versions spanning a period from before March 1808 to circa 1823, refers to Mignon
and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
. It is one of the most famous poems in world literature. In the novel, it appears at the end of Book 4, chapter 12, when Wilhelm hears a “free duet” sung by Mignon and the mysterious, melancholy-mad Harper, whose tragic history we only learn after his suicide near the end of the novel. He was once Augustin, the son of the eccentric Marquis Cipriani in Italy; brought up apart from his younger sister Sperata (her name derived from “Speranza”, or hope) and ignorant of her existence, he meets her as a young man, they fall in love, and she bears him a child: Mignon. Fate brings father and daughter together in Germany—but they do not know their close kinship with one another. Because this poem was included among the “Mignon” poems in Goethe’s poetic anthologies, it was often set as a solo song, and it drew composers like iron filings to a magnet. Beethoven’s first three versions are all tiny, strophic (two verses), devoid of piano introductions, and musically modest, as if Beethoven had tried to match Goethe’s own preference for music that respected his poetry by taking a back seat to it. But even in these deliberately modest works, Beethoven was experimenting with different metres for Goethe’s rhythmically complex words—duple, triple, compound metres—and minor or major mode as the most appropriate musical garb for this enigmatic character. After two versions in minor, the third version is in major mode, its opening mood of calm abnegation intensified in midstream by the rise to “aller Freude”, those joys now lost. Only in the fourth version, no longer strophic, does Beethoven invest Goethe’s Old Testament-like language about burning bowels (“Es brennt mein Eingeweide”) with throbbing pulsations in the piano and make even more of the Neapolitan harmonies (chords on the flatted 2nd degree of the scale) that first appear in the second version. When Schubert came to set the same text, he too would make the gravitational force of this harmony an element of poetic expression for the tragic figures of Mignon and the Harper.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2008