A Wagner Matinée


Willa Cather

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Clark, who lives in Boston, receives word from his Uncle Howard that his Aunt Georgiana is coming to visit from rural Nebraska—in fact, she is due to arrive the following day. Clark has not seen Georgiana since his youth, and he is immediately pulled into vivid recollections of practicing music at her side.

The next day, at the train station, Georgiana arrives dusty and disoriented, and Clark is shocked by her weathered appearance. Georgiana, he explains, had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory as a young woman, but she met Howard in Vermont one summer and subsequently eloped with him to the Nebraska frontier. Together they established a claim fifty miles from the railroad in Red Willow County, building a primitive dugout. Georgiana had not been away from Nebraska for thirty years.

Clark had spent much of his boyhood on his aunt and uncle’s homestead, and he owes to Aunt Georgiana most of the good he experienced as a child. After long days of farm work, he studied Latin, literature, and music while his aunt did chores and offered him encouragement. Now Clark hopes to repay her for her kindness by taking her to the Symphony’s Wagner concert. However, the day after her arrival, Georgiana still seems detached, distracted by problems back on the farm. Clark worries that the matinée was a bad idea and that his aunt will feel embarrassed at reentering a cultured environment. Upon their arrival at the concert, however, he realizes he has misjudged her. She has a dignified bearing and is quickly engaged by the rich sights and sounds of the concert hall.

As the concert begins, Clark finds Georgiana’s reactions inscrutable, and he wonders if she can relate to the music, given her many years of estrangement from higher culture. Eventually he notices that she is weeping, and he realizes that her soul, which has suffered so much, is still the same underneath the shockingly changed exterior. By the concert’s end, Georgiana is sobbing, and she pleadingly tells Clark, “I don’t want to go!” Clark understands that beyond the concert hall, there is nothing for Georgiana except for the drudgery of the colorless homestead.