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Who Set It Best: Mignon's Song "Kennst du das Land" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Updated: Sep 27, 2021



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, and critic. He wrote many different kinds of literary works, and is considered one of Germany's greatest writers. Many composers were and are inspired by his work, and Goethe himself was a music lover. Music features often in works such as "Faust" and "Werther", both of which were later turned into well-known operas.


The character of Mignon (who sings "Kennst du das Land") is found in the celebrated "Wilhelm Meister" novels - in this case, "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship". Mignon is a 13-year-old girl, who was kidnapped from her home country of Italy by a troupe of acrobats, and brought to Germany. She is raised androgynously - hence the name Mignon, rather than the feminine Mignonne.


Young, disillusioned merchant Wilhelm is fascinated by Mignon; he buys her freedom, and the two form a close bond. Wilhelm is attracted to her exoticism and sensuality; her character is somewhat of a Lolita/nymphet archetype (these terms are from the 20th Century, recognised because of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita"). In “Kennst du das Land”, Mignon recalls her homeland and expresses her desire to go there with Wilhelm - her new father figure.


Here is the text to the song, first in German and then in English. Read on for examples of how composers set it to music!


German

Kennst du das Land? wo die Citronen 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, gethan?

Kennst du es wohl?

Dahin! Dahin

Möcht' ich mit dir, o mein Beschützer, ziehn.


Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg?

Das Maulthier 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!


English

Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom;

where golden oranges glow amid the dark foliage?

A gentle wind blows from the blue sky,

the myrtle stands still, the laurel tall:

do you know it?

There, O there

I would like to go with you, my beloved!


Do you know the house? Its roof rests on pillars,

the hall shines, the room shimmers,

and marble statues stand and look at me:

what has been done to you, poor child?

Do you know it?

There, O there

I would like to go with you, my protector!


Do you know the mountain and its clouded walkway?

The mule seeks its way through the fog,

in caves the ancient brood of dragons dwells;

the rock falls, and the tide falls over it.

Do you know it?

There, O there

Go our way! O father, let us go!

 

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Listen to these four settings of the German text, and see how each composer used music to tell the story. Keep scrolling for three special mentions!


  • Beethoven - 6 Gesänge, Op. 75: I. Kennst du das Land "Mignon"


  • Schubert - Mignon, D. 321


  • Wolf - Goethe-Lieder: IX. Kennst du das Land


  • Schumann - Lieder un Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, op. 98a: I. Kennst du das Land


Special Mentions

  • Thomas - Mignon: Connais-tu le pays

    • *This French setting of the text is very well-known, from the opera "Mignon".


  • Adamo - Little Women: Kennst du das Land

    • *In this opera by American composer Mark Adamo, the character Dr. Bhaer sings the first stanza in German, and the second in English.


  • Berg - Mignon

    • *This setting only sets the first stanza of the poem.



 

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