Willa Cather, A Wagner matinée

Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Willa Cather's childhood home, Nebraska (Public Domain, By Ammodramus, via Wikipedia)

Willa Cather‘s short story, “A Wagner matinée”, was Library of America’s “Story of the Week” back in May. However, I was busy then, but I like Cather, so I put it aside to read later. And later has finally come!

I’ve reviewed another Cather short story here, “The sentimentality of William Tavener”, which was published in 1900. “A Wagner matinée” was first published a little later, in 1904. Like the previous story, and the novels of hers that I’ve read, this short story deals with her favourite preoccupation, the tough life of the pioneer. It is not, though, set in the midwest, but in Boston. The plot is slight, and can be summarised in a couple of sentences. The first person narrator’s aunt comes to visit him in Boston from Nebraska to which she’d eloped, against her family’s wishes, some three decades previously. Our narrator, Clark, has “a reverential affection” for this aunt who’d provided him with “most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood” and so he decides to treat her, an ex-music teacher, to an afternoon concert of Wagnerian music. The story chronicles the emotions aroused by this visit.

As usual, the Library of America’s brief introductory notes are illuminating. Apparently Cather attracted a degree of wrath after its publication, from Nebraskans and from her family. A Nebraskan editor slammed her depiction of prairie life suggesting that fiction writers who portray Nebraska should “look up now and then and not keep their eyes in the cattle yards”. If they did “they might be more agreeable company”. Take that, Willa!

Her family was upset because they felt she’d based the story’s Aunt Georgiana on her Aunt Franc who, like Georgiana, had lived in Boston and studied music before marrying and moving to Nebraska. Cather was apparently hurt by this as she’d maintained an affectionate correspondence with her aunt. Nonetheless, the notes say, when she revised and shortened the story for her 1920 collection, “she altered the portrait of Georgiana out of consideration for her Nebraskan family”. Hmmm … I should do my research and find the original as I believe the version provided by the Library of America is this 1920 one. In it, Georgiana seems a fairly sad case so I’d love to see what she’d written first. Regardless, it reminds me yet again of that fine line between fact and fiction that novelists who draw from life must tread.

Anyhow, the story. Aunt Georgiana arrives in a somewhat “battered” state, partly due to the arduous journey and partly, Clark implies, due to the hardness of her life. “For thirty years my aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead” which she had established side-by-side with her husband. Clark describes the time he’d spent out west with his aunt and the support and encouragement she’d given him. He also remembers her telling him once when he was “doggedly” practising a piano piece:

Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.

What was taken from her? Her music? Her old life? Was it taken or did she, willingly at the time, give it up? Her pain made clear, nothing more is said on this point. And I like the writing for it. The rest of the story describes the matinée and how he and his aunt react. The language is clear and strong, as you can see from this excerpt roughly half-way through the story. It describes the first piece in the concert, the Tannhaüser overture, which is particularly meaningful for me as Tannhaüser was my first opera:

… When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realised that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress …

Pretty stark stuff … and it becomes more stark as he describes his aunt’s physical reactions to the music and draws his own conclusions from it. Here she is reacting to “The prize song”:

Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks … It never really died, then – the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again.

Why Wagner, I wondered when I saw this story? It would be anachronistic to invoke our era’s discomfort with the man and, in fact, LOA tells us that Cather was passionate about Wagner. His is powerful, emotional music: this seems to be its relevance here. It is music which can stir the soul – and Georgiana’s soul has been stirred. She is no longer “semi-somnambulant” as she was when she arrived. Clark leaves us contrasting his emotional aunt with the “black pond” and “unpainted house” of home. However, because the story is told through Clark’s – albeit loving and sympathetic – eyes we cannot know what this all means for her. Instead, we are left to think about the sacrifices that attend the decisions we make and whether or not we can live with them. A thoughtful, moving story.

4 thoughts on “Willa Cather, A Wagner matinée

  1. Ah Cather, I love her for not sentimenalizing and romaticizing the hardships faced by settlers and for telling the truth too about the particular difficulties and scarifices women made.

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