Wilhelm followed every movement of the dear little creature, and felt surprised to see how finely her character unfolded itself as she proceeded in the dance …. At this moment he experienced at once all the emotions he had ever felt for Mignon.
—from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
Franz Schubert (1791-1828), whose birthday is this Thursday, January 31, found musical ideas in some unlikely places, including the old coffeemill he called his “most precious possession,” grinding away while telling a friend, “Melodies and themes just come flying in …. One sometimes searches for days for an idea which the little machine finds in a second.”
Though the anecdote comes from “a not absolutely reliable source,” according to Joseph Wechsberg’s Schubert, it sounds too good, too Schubertian, not to be true, and if he could find music in a coffee grinder, what’s to keep him from finding it in a cat? I’d like to think that at some point in his life Schubert had a feline at his feet as he was composing and that whenever he felt in need of some company he could reach down and stroke it while the creature gazed up at him the way cats do, as if he and the world were one. While I’m at it, let’s make the cat the 19th-century Viennese equivalent of our Nora, a ten-year-old tuxedo female with a white patch on her brow and white paws.
Our brother and sister tuxedos were named for that effervescent couple from the Thin Man movies, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy). Although the Dickensian puddle of lovable catness we call Nick has never been remotely effervescent, his sister Nora has been a screwball comedy, a Disney cartoon, a creature feature, and a silent musical all in one. Most kittens meet the challenge of climbing and descending the stairs in their own sweet way, some more playfully and lovably than others. Nora slid down the bannister. Nor did she simply trip kittenishly up the stairs: she took them in three effortless bounds. She did not romp: she flew. And she danced. The gavottes we witnessed had to be seen to be believed. When confronted by a suspect obstacle or a toy mouse she would jump straight up, halfway to the ceiling.
Lately I’ve been listening with special attention to the Mignon songs in Schubert Lieder (Deutsche Grammophone), with soprano Gundula Janowitz and pianist Irwin Gage, while reading selectively (the emphasis on Mignon) in Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96). The more I read, the more I recognize qualities in the gentle, loving, otherworldly Mignon that remind me of our antic Nora.
“In her whole system of proceedings,” Goethe says of Mignon, “there was something very singular. She never walked up or down the stairs, but jumped. She would spring along by the railing, and before you were aware would be sitting quietly above upon the landing.” When Wilhelm asks her how old she is, she says, “No one has counted.” When asked who was her father, she says “The Great Devil is dead.” Later on, when Wilhelm is feeling low, “she laid her head upon his knees, and remained quite still. He played with her hair, patted her, and spoke kindly to her” (he also pats her after she performs her flawless blindfolded dance among the eggs). Mignon, like our small but mighty Nora, “was frolicsome beyond all wont.” Responding to a Punch and Judy show, she “grew frantic with gayety: the company, much as they had laughed at her at first, were in fine obliged to curb her. But persuasion was of small avail; for she now sprang up, and … capered round the table. With her hair flying out behind her, with her head thrown back, and her limbs, as it were, cast into the air, she seemed like one of those antique Mænads, whose wild and all but impossible positions … often strike us with amazement.”
Like I said, two of a kind — though, to be honest, our Mignon has mellowed into middle age and is now sweet, sensible (most of the time), and companionable.
Mignon Lives On
When it comes to singing, however, the resemblance between early Nora and Goethe’s Mignon becomes decidedly less credible. A review of a lieder recital at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall in New York in last Friday’s New York Times (“Of Goethe’s Land, Romantic and Full-Throated”) shows that Mignon is alive and well through German soprano Dorothea Röschmann’s performance of Schubert’s setting of “Heiss Mich Nicht Reden/Bid Me Not Speak.” In Wilhelm Meister, Goethe indicates what that song means for Mignon: “Often for the whole day she was mute. At times she answered various questions more freely, yet always strangely: so that you could not determine whether it was caused by shrewd sense, or ignorance of the language; for she spoke in broken German interlaced with French and Italian.”
A Potent Silence
A thoroughly mute and radiantly feline Mignon is 13-year-old Nastassja Kinski in Wrong Move/Falsche Bewegung (1974), the inventively free adaptation of Wilhelm Meister directed by Wim Wenders and written by Peter Handke. Having embarked on his adventures, Wilhelm (Rudiger Volger) is seated on a train bound for Bonn when he becomes aware of a presence, the full force of which is so magnificently impending you can feel him being literally turned in his seat by the penetrating gaze of the creature across the aisle. It’s an appearance in the most enigmatic sense of the word, revealed in a sequence of gradually more intimate camera movements until her face fills the screen, magnified to a mysterious glory by cinematic chemistry and the natural beauty of Kinski in her screen debut. Ten years later she’s the missing mother in Wenders’s Paris, Texas, one of the great films of the 1980s. Given the animal intensity with which she compel’s Wilhelm’s attention on the train, it’s no surprise that the same actress ends up starring in Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982).
A Notorious Tour
The notes to Schubert Lieder, which was recorded in Berlin in 1976 and 1977, refer to how Gage encouraged Janowitz to “sing as her own nature dictated.” I chose this recording not only because it includes performances of the Mignon songs but because Irwin Gage introduced me to great music when he and I were on the same student tour of Europe long long ago. The tour earned a certain notoriety when the bipolar leader had a nervous breakdown ten days into the itinerary. Among the numerous delusions consuming the man was one right out of Wilhelm Meister; he wanted us to become a traveling company of performers called the Golden Bear (after the Berkeley-based tour company). He even wrote nonsensical songs for us to sing (“Vi are di Europins uf di Golden Bear/Ve have stars und straw dust in are hair”). By the time we got to Oslo, our guide was totally out of control and had to be taken away by the police.
As the tour was shepherded through Europe for the next two months by a relay team of leaders, Irwin accompanied me to a stirring outdoor concert of Respighi’s Pines of Rome in Venice, a performance of Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, and a Mozart program in Salzburg, presumably part of the same festival where 18 years later he and Janowitz would present a program (“The Fortunes of Women in Schubert’s Lieder”) around the time they made this record.
The extraordinary rapport between singer and accompanist (they had been playing together since 1970) is worth a column in itself, but in deference to my theme I’ll stick to Mignon’s songs, “Kennst du das land/Know thou the land,” in particular. It always struck me as odd that pieces meant to be sung by a haunted 13-year-old waif should be performed by ample, well-endowed middle aged women. As if anticipating the potential incongruity, Goethe describes Mignon’s singing in Wilhelm Meister in terms suited for adult performers looking for direction: “She began every verse in a stately and solemn manner, as if she wished to draw attention towards something wonderful, as if she had something weighty to communicate. In the third line, her tones became deeper and gloomier; the words, ‘Dost know?’ were uttered with a show of mystery and eager circumspectness; in ‘’Tis there! ’tis there!’ lay an irresistible longing; and her ‘Let us go!’ she modified at each repetition, so that now it appeared to entreat and implore, now to impel and persuade.”
Composed when Schubert was 18, and performed by Janowitz and Gage in just under five brilliant minutes, the song has everything: grandeur, passion, longing, and mystery: it’s wanderlust set to music. No doubt that’s why Thomas Wolfe used the poem as an epigraph for Of Time and the River, and why Wim Wenders, whose production company is called Road Movies, gave us the train scenes and Kinski’s Mignon in his version of Wilhelm Meister. And it’s why I see a tuxedo cat named Nora sliding down the bannister every time the piano breaks free and flies at the “Let us go!” moment of maximum longing.