For over a century composers have been drawn to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and the enigmatic songs of the waif-like Mignon.

Few today take the time to read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, yet in the 19th century a great many composers were drawn to this philosophical coming-of-age tale, and especially to the subsidiary character of the mysterious and waiflike Mignon. Although the story contains a total of eight songs, one in particular has attracted almost twice as many settings as all the others put together.

Kennst du das land(Do you know the land) – in which the enigmatic child reveals tantalising and fleeting fragments of her traumatic past, and expresses her desire to find a father figure in the novel’s young protagonist – commanded the attention of Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt, of Tchaikovsky, Wolf and even Alban Berg.

Malcolm Martineau Malcolm Martineau

So, what’s in a song? And what can we learn about the development of songwriting across this crucial century by following the musical fortunes of one particular text? Pianist Malcolm Martineau, whose latest ‘Decades’ project on the Vivat label aims to explore the art form from...