Over the years, the elegant Ansonia residential hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has been home to many musical luminaries, among them Arturo Toscanini, Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninov, Igor Stravinsky, and a teenage Yehudi Menuhin. I was recently dipping into Menuhin’s autobiography, Unfinished Journey, and learned that Willa Cather was a frequent visitor to the Ansonia, having befriended his family in 1930, when the violinist was 14 years old. Cather and Mrs. Menuhin shared a sisterly bond, and the Menuhin children—Yehudi and his sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah—often accompanied their Aunt Willa on walks along the reservoir in Central Park. There were literary sessions at the apartment, with table readings of Shakespeare, Cather providing commentary on the language and plots of the plays. Menuhin remained close to Cather, and later, when his first marriage was in free fall, he turned to the writer for advice. “Aunt Willa was someone to be utterly trusted,” he wrote. “One could tell her everything in one’s heart.”
That Cather was drawn to the cultivated Menuhins (not just Yehudi, but also Hephzibah and Yaltah, who were talented pianists) is no surprise, given the degree to which music figured in her work—in her novel The Song of the Lark, for example, and in much of her short fiction. One of these stories is called “A Wagner Matinée,” one of the finest fictional accounts of music I’ve encountered. Published in 1904, the story begins when the narrator, a Bostonian named Clark, receives a letter from his uncle Howard in Nebraska, asking him to look after his Aunt Georgiana, who is on her way to Massachusetts to see about an inheritance. Aunt Georgiana is a talismanic figure for Clark, someone he has revered all his life. In her youth, we learn, she was a fine pianist and a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory. But upon meeting a “shiftless boy of twenty-one” from Vermont (the narrator’s uncle Howard), the couple eloped, moving to Red Willow County, Nebraska, where, penniless at first, they endured an almost primitive existence on the prairie. “For thirty years,” Clark says, “my aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead.”
Clark, a native Vermonter, grew up on that Nebraska prairie, herding cattle for his uncle. (We don’t know his backstory, but it might resemble that of Jim Burden in My Ántonia, an orphan sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska.) It was Georgiana who looked after Clark’s education, drilling him in Latin and Shakespeare, trying (unsuccessfully) to make a musician out of him, all the while keeping house from dawn to well after midnight. And so, simply seeing her name is enough to summon forth with startling intensity the world of his rural past, opening
a gulf of recollection so wide and deep that, as the letter dropped from my hand, I felt suddenly a stranger to all the present conditions of my existence, wholly ill at ease and out of place amid the familiar surroundings of my study. I became, in short, the gangling farmer-boy my aunt had known, scourged with chilblains and bashfulness, my hands cracked and sore from the corn husking. I sat again before her parlour organ, fumbling the scales with my stiff, red fingers, while she, beside me, made canvas mittens for the huskers.
Yet when Georgiana alights from her train, she is in a thick fog, seemingly distant and in some discomfort, her coat blackened with soot. She appears unable even to recognize the city that was once her home. Determined to treat her to a proper entertainment, Clark takes her, the following afternoon, to a Boston Symphony concert devoted to Wagner. Even the promise of encountering high art again, that world of her long-departed youth, does not rouse her from her somnambulant state. Timid and absentminded, she suddenly remembers, soon after entering the concert hall, that she’s neglected to leave feeding instructions concerning a troublesome calf, and that she’d forgotten about some mackerel in her cellar that would be sure to spoil. “I began to think,” Clark says, “it would be best to get her back to Red Willow County without waking her, and regretted having suggested the concert.”
Georgiana does liven up a bit when the musicians come out onstage, and the opening number, the overture to Tannhäuser, stirs something in her—“When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve.” But it is Clark’s reactions to the music that come to the fore now. He can’t help thinking of his Nebraska childhood, of the times he would come home “fresh from ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn.” Sitting there in Symphony Hall, he becomes attuned to naturalistic details, “the patches of yellow light” on the cellos and basses, and the “wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows.” Oddly enough, Tannhäuser evokes for him not the medieval German setting of Wagner’s opera but rather
the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer-bought than those of war.
Precisely what Georgiana is feeling, however, is a mystery to us—and to Clark. “She sat staring dully at the orchestra,” he says. “What, I wondered, did she get from it?” And: “I watched her closely through the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, trying vainly to conjecture what that seething turmoil of strings and winds might mean to her, but she sat mutely staring at the violin bows that drove obliquely downward, like the pelting streaks of rain in a summer shower.” And: “Had this music any message for her? Had she enough left to at all comprehend this power which had kindled the world since she had left it? I was in a fever of curiosity, but Aunt Georgiana sat silent upon her peak in Darien.”
During an excerpt from The Flying Dutchman, her fingers begin to work “mechanically upon her black dress, as if, of themselves, they were recalling the piano score they had once played,” yet only when a tenor sings the “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger, does she finally begin to thaw:
I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks, and I think, in a moment more, they were in my eyes as well. 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.
She weeps throughout the “Prize Song” and during intermission tries to tell him why that piece means so much to her. There had been a young German, she says, a peasant who “had drifted to the farm in Red Willow County,” a “tramp cow-puncher, who had sung in the chorus at Bayreuth when he was a boy.” On Sundays, as Georgiana worked in the kitchen, he would clean his boots and saddle while singing that very “Prize Song.” She had prevailed upon him to join the local church, where he could put his “possession of this divine melody” to use. But one summer day, the German got drunk, gambled his money away, and fractured his collarbone while riding a steer. Then, he disappeared. “All this my aunt told me huskily, wonderingly,” Clark says, “as though she were talking in the weak lapses of illness.” Clark attempts some jocularity, but he misses the mark. Georgiana’s “lip quivered and she hastily put her handkerchief up to her mouth. From behind it she murmured, ‘And you have been hearing this ever since you left me, Clark?’ Her question was the gentlest and saddest of reproaches.”
It’s a heartbreaking (and damning) moment, and sure enough, during the second half of the program, consisting of four excerpts from the Ring cycle and concluding with Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, Georgiana weeps continuously, her face a trembling mess. Afterward, with the audience and orchestra long gone, and the stage as “empty as a winter cornfield,” Georgiana once again bursts into tears: “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!” The narrator, then, has what he thinks is a moment of clarity:
I understood. For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.
It seems to me, however, that Clark understands nothing at all, that the entire story has been about his failure to comprehend his aunt. Just as he was unable to relate to her musically as a child, so too does he misread her as an adult. Consider an earlier moment in the story, before the concert even begins. Clark looks out upon the audience of mainly women and notes the colors of their clothes, “red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, écru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colours that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.” Yet how could he possibly know that? After all, his aunt is as silent as stone at this point, and Cather was too careful a writer to be slipshod with point of view. It’s Clark who regards the scene thus, the boy from the prairie who now resides on tony Newberry Street, with its brownstones and fancy shops, who, we can imagine, might spend his Saturday afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts, gazing at Monet and Degas, but for whom the landscape of the West exists just below the surface of things. To which environment—Newberry Street or Red Willow County—does he truly belong? What exactly is his birthright?
His mistake is in equating his impressions with his aunt’s, in imposing his point of view upon hers. What Clark fails to perceive, what seems obvious to me, is that Georgiana had been in love with that young German farmhand, that the afternoon’s music has left her despondent precisely because it has summoned forth his shade. I’m reminded of “The Dead” (a story that appeared, incidentally, a decade after “A Wagner Matinée”), when Gretta Conroy’s love for the long-dead Michael Furey is rekindled by Bartell D’Arcy’s singing of “The Lass of Aughrim,” her husband, Gabriel, oblivious until the very end. In Die Meistersinger, the itinerant knight Walther arrives in Nürnberg and falls in love with the radiant Eva Pogner. The only way to win her hand (and gain entry into the guild of Mastersingers) is to win the song contest—which he does via his “Prize Song.” The irony is that the young German in Nebraska could never have been Walther: as a married woman, Georgiana had no hand to offer. And by abandoning Red Willow County, he gave up any chance of joining a “guild” of farmers. Georgiana, who, we are told, knew the plots of Wagnerian opera, would have been all too aware of this. I can’t help thinking that her sending him off to church was a way for her to atone for her conflicted emotions.
It isn’t the prospect of going home, I think, that destroys Georgiana by concert’s end. The past, not the present, is what torments her. Cather’s denouement is at once enigmatic and dark, beautiful and devastating. It reminds us, as well, of the power of music to stir, to haunt, to bring back with such lucidity and force the joy or anguish of our youth.
Listen to our Spotify playlist of the pieces heard in “A Wagner Matinée,” below, or follow this link.