MIGNON and the KEYS to UTOPIA
Know'st thou the land where the fair citron blows,
Where the bright orange midst the foliage glows,
Where the soft wind greets us from the azure skies,
Where the silent myrtles, stately laurels rise?
So begins Goethe's Mignon, an evocation of Tuscany - but could it not be Provence (land of
the troubadours!) as well? - or better: the half - forgotten, golden dream of childhood, or yet
again: a bright utopian vision of innocence reclaimed? Musicians, whose homeland is ever
elsewhere, have found this poem irresistible, and it is illuminating to see the approaches, as
various as they are successful, to turning it to music (our favorite of course being the version
by Hugo Wolf with its throbbing modulations and parlando melody)...
...Our favorite, that is, until the discovery of a setting of this poem by Heinrich von
Ofterdingen. In the relatively short duration of my tenure here at the Gesellschaft, I have
learned the value of circumspection: hence I will not here divulge the circumstances under
which the discovery was made. Suffice it to say I was in the right place at the right time
(while my colleagues were not), I was alert (while they napped), assiduous (while they
loafed), yes (since I am provoked!): sober (while they were inebriated). In the musicological
jungle I acted the part of a lion, they, so many wild bores.
But to the music! Goethe's text falls into three parts: this places it in elegant harmony with
Ofterdingen's tripartite system of modes (which derives ultimately from Hoelderlin's theory of
modulation of tones). Our composer has taken the liberty of switching the order of the
second and third stanzas, probably to achieve the right arrangement of moods, starting with
the Lyric mode, following with the Fantastic and concluding with the Heroic.
A kind of postlude returns to the Lyric mode, and it is here that the enigma I call the keys to
utopia is manifest. The mode in question, as everyone knows, comprises a locus of
symmetrically distributed tonalities: D flat, E, G and B flat; movement between these keys is
facilitated by special "gateway" chords. It seems that D flat is the ultimate tonic, while E
represents not so much another, and similar, place, as an alternative state of hidden
inwardness. We find ourselves there not in fulfillment of expectation, but with wonder and
surprise, the music seeming to intimate: "No, you can not possibly know that land, it is not at
all what you imagine, it is far better..." It is certainly no coincidence that these very same
two keys are juxtaposed to a similar effect in both Schumann (opus 12) and Schubert (lots of
places). In the final, ecstatic vocal exclamation, we actually reach a G ninth chord, redolent
of dissonant yearning and, at a tritone's distance from D flat, as remote as possible from
home: a sonic confession of failure...
...A failure rooted in an ancient lie, a primordial temptation, an original musical sin. I'm talking
about the day mankind strayed from the walled-in Garden of the diatonic modes, and the
restless urge to modulate poisoned the world with vain hope that somewhere else is better
than here. Schubert, in his genius and alienation, sensed this fallacy, and devised, in
preference to standard modulation formulas, a system of magical trapdoors, secret
passages, leading not elsewhere, not away, but inward. Yet his efforts were hampered by
the dark inheritance of temperament: however miraculous and unanticipated his arrivals, we
recognize the terrain itself as indistinguishable from that of all other keys. Even worse: the
tendency toward symmetrically disposed mediants leads (as Taurskin notes) to the
codification of the octatonic scale, bringing Romanticism to the ultimate impasse: for how
(except in the case of God) can the center be everywhere and still be the center?
Abnegating a hierarchical world-view, can we impose values as it pleases us?
The truth, my friends ( my anonymous faithful, my readers - 24 of you at last count) is that to
be all places is to be no place - nada, nonexistence, nirvana (and no thanks to that!), while
Utopia is the land of the Blue Flower, a dream that draws us onward even as it proclaims its
eternal innacessibility...Or else life is the dream, art the key and death a door opening unto a
land of waking and fulfillment.
Anyway, the current song, interesting in itself, is of special importance to Ofterdingen
scholars as it constitutes the only complete vocal work extant by the composer. (A few
tantalizing fragments can be seen in the Secret Notebook (see Publications), but their
authenticity is questioned. If, as has been conjectured, Ofterdingen composed one or more
operas (currently missing - The Frozen Troubadour? The Man Who Ate Too Much?) then
we have here a glimpse into what his dramatic vocal might be like.
It is not promising. The vocal line lacks distinction, the scansion is pedantic, the
accompaniment overdone and awkward in execution. Imagine three of four hours of this,
presented by a cast of hefty singers in colorful costumes, cavorting in duet, in trio, yes, even
in sextet! Perhaps, after all, there some mysteries better left unplumbed.