A Wagner Matinée

by

Willa Cather

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A Wagner Matinee Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One morning, Clark, the narrator, receives a letter postmarked from “a little Nebraska village.” The letter, which looks “worn” and “none too clean,” is from his Uncle Howard, informing Clark that Howard’s wife, Clark’s Aunt Georgiana, must travel to Boston to attend to legal matters. He asks Clark to tend to Georgiana’s needs while she is in Boston. Clark realizes that she is due in town the following day; if he had been away from home, he might have missed his aunt’s arrival altogether.
The condition of Howard’s letter suggests that it has weathered a long journey, hailing from a world very different from its destination. In this way, it prefigures Georgiana’s own arrival from Nebraska. The suddenness of Georgiana’s impending arrival also reinforces the sense of an imminent culture clash.
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Georgiana’s name stirs deep recollections for Clark—so deep that he feels “suddenly a stranger to all the present conditions of [his] existence.” He feels as if he is once again a “gangling farmer-boy … scourged with chilblains and bashfulness,” practicing scales on Georgiana’s parlor organ while she makes cornhusking mittens.
Clark’s dramatic sense of dislocation underscores the clash between Georgiana’s context and his own, and forebodes the feeling of estrangement Georgiana herself will feel. Clark’s recollections also introduce music as a significant part of his life on the farm and in his relationship with Georgiana.
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The next day, at the train station, Clark has some difficulty in finding Georgiana. She is the last to alight from the train, and she doesn’t seem to recognize him immediately, either. Having traveled the entire way in a day coach, she is dirty—her duster “black with soot” and her “black bonnet gray with dust.” Clark’s landlady immediately puts Georgiana to bed, and Clark doesn’t see his aunt until the following day.
Clark’s and Georgiana’s awkward reunion underscores the contrast between frontier and city life. Georgiana’s disoriented and disheveled appearance after her exhausting, stressful journey further makes her seem a stranger to Clark and to Boston.
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Clark is shocked by his aunt’s battered appearance. He regards her with “that feeling of awe and respect with which we behold explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz-Joseph-Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo.”
Both Franz-Joseph-Land, an uninhabited archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and the Upper Congo region of Central Africa were areas that were recent sites of European exploration at the time Cather wrote. Both places were regarded as utterly remote and devoid of familiar cultural touchstones. To Clark, Georgiana looks like a survivor of such dangers and privations. Though there is a note of wry exaggeration here, it emphasizes the contrast between frontier and civilization all the more.
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Clark reflects on Georgiana’s past. Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory in the late 1860s. While visiting her ancestral village in Vermont one summer, she had attracted the attention of the “idle, shiftless” Howard Carpenter, who followed her back to Boston. Georgiana ultimately eloped with him to the Nebraska frontier, fleeing the protests of her family and friends, and they established a homestead in Red Willow County. 
Georgiana’s character comes into clearer focus as it is revealed that she isn’t originally from Nebraska. Her prestigious background contrasts sharply with that of the unambitious Howard. It isn’t clear exactly why they chose the drastic step of homesteading on the frontier, but it is clear that Georgiana’s loved ones thought them a poor match, that the move was made in haste, and that the contrast between her upbringing and her marriage couldn’t be greater.
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Clark describes the couple’s dug-out as “one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions.” They got water from a lagoon where buffalo drank, and their provisions were “always at the mercy of bands of roving Indians.” Georgiana had not ventured more than fifty miles from the homestead in thirty years.
While Clark’s perspective might be taken with a grain of salt—he is, after all, a city-dweller, years removed from the homestead—it continues to reinforce the contrast between his world and his aunt’s. Georgiana’s living conditions are described as primal, dangerous, and almost unfit for civilized people. What’s more, her isolation has been extreme, and her estrangement from her roots absolute.
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Clark further reflects that most of the good of his boyhood was due to Georgiana, whom he held in “reverential affection.” After cooking three meals and caring for six children, his aunt would often iron until midnight while Clark, who rode herd for Howard, drowsily studied Latin, Shakespeare, or mythology at her side.
Clark’s reasons for moving to the homestead aren’t clear, but Georgiana was clearly a maternal figure to him. She not only appears to have been the ultimate pioneer wife—up all hours managing a large household—she also saw to Clark’s education, suggesting that she saw special potential in him and that their bond was unique. The contrast between “riding herd” and studying Latin shows that Clark, too, understands the frontier/civilization contrast firsthand.
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Georgiana also taught Clark to play the parlor organ, an instrument Howard had bought for her “after fifteen years during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.” Clark recalls that Georgiana seldom spoke to him about music, but that once when she found him determinedly playing passages from the opera Euryanthe, she had placed her hands over his eyes and tremulously said, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”
After having taught at the Boston Conservatory in her youth and then gone for fifteen years without a musical instrument, a parlor organ would have been a modest consolation for Georgiana. It goes to show just how much she has sacrificed by moving to the frontier with a husband for whom her own desires were of decidedly secondary concern. Clark’s memory of his aunt’s emotional warning, as well as the fact the Georgiana rarely chose to speak about music, further show that after more than a decade on the frontier, Georgiana already considered music to have been taken from her.
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The morning after her arrival in Boston, Georgiana still seems to be “in a semi-somnambulent state,” hardly realizing she is in Boston, despite how much she has longed for the city of her youth. After the wretched train journey, it is as if there were only “a few hours of nightmare” between Red Willow County and Boston.
After her difficult journey, Georgiana seems to be in a dreamlike, marginal state that keeps her from either differentiating herself fully from Nebraska or identifying with the city she has pined for over decades. She feels estranged from the environment that was once home to her.
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Clark has planned to take Georgiana to the Symphony Orchestra’s Wagner program, to repay her for some of the “glorious moments” of his boyhood—such as when she told him about splendid musical performances in the cowshed while Clark was especially tired, or after Howard had spoken sharply to him.
The dramatic contrast between milking cows and attending concerts shows Georgiana’s desperate efforts to hang onto aspects of her younger self. Meanwhile, Clark looks back fondly on the consolation afforded him by such moments, in a laborious environment for which he seems to have been ill-suited.
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Georgiana seems so timid about venturing into the city that Clark begins to doubt whether his aunt will enjoy the concert. Even as they discuss various changes in Boston, Georgiana is distracted with concerns back on the farm: a sickly calf and an opened kit of mackerel that might spoil. She has never even heard a Wagnerian opera performed before. Clark wonders if he should “get her back to Red Willow County without waking her.”
Georgiana continues to seem stuck between worlds, to the extent that Clark isn’t sure the concert will be a kindness to her. She has been subject to the cares of farm life for so long that she cannot extricate herself from them sufficiently to take in what is actually around her.
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As soon as they arrive at the concert hall, however, Georgiana appears to wake up to her surroundings. Clark had been concerned that Georgiana might be self-conscious about her outdated black dress or embarrassed at reentering a world “to which she had been dead for a quarter of a century.” He realizes he had judged her superficially. She looks around with eyes as stony as those of “a granite Rameses in a museum” and as aloof as old Yukon miners in a Denver hotel.
Clark begins to realize that, though she is superficially out of place, Georgiana is still the cultured woman he remembers from his boyhood. She embodies a placid, self-possessed dignity that belies her rustic exterior, and she appears to be coming back to herself.
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The matinée audience is made up mostly of women, hardly distinguishable except for the different fabrics and wide array of colors of their dresses— “all the colors that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape.” Georgiana looks at them “as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.”
Georgiana’s eyes are drawn to the other concertgoers’ dresses as if she is seeing fine art. In contrast to her own drab apparel, associated with the drudgery of the farm, the women’s dresses quench some of Georgiana’s thirst for the livelier, more varied world she has left behind.
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Georgiana’s interest is further quickened by the appearance of the musicians onstage. Clark thinks he can understand what his aunt is feeling, for he remembers how his own soul was refreshed after years of “ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn,” where one might never “[perceive] a shadow of change” in a whole day’s work. He reminisces about “the clean profiles of the musicians … the beloved shapes of the instruments … the patches of yellow light … the restless, wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows” the first time he attended a symphony concert.
Clark’s understanding of his aunt advances a little more, as her growing interest reminds him of his own reaction the first time he attended a concert after years of monotonous farm labor. Like Georgiana’s reaction to the colorful dresses, Clark was stirred by the vitality and variety of the orchestra compared to the monotonous green over the course of an endless workday.
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During the first number, the Tannhäuser overture, Georgiana clutches Clark’s sleeve, and he realizes that this music “broke a silence of thirty years” for her. For Clark the frenzied music evokes “an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat.” He visualizes the Nebraska farm, the house “black and grim as a wooden fortress,” the land “the flat world of the ancients.” Amidst all of it are “the conquests of peace, dearer-bought than those of war.”
After thirty years without it, the opening notes of a symphony performance would have been overwhelming for Georgiana. For Clark, the music reminds him of the relentless march of time, the forbidding homestead, and the starkness of the land—all things that cost his aunt dearly.
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Georgiana’s reaction to the first overture is somewhat impassive, and Clark wonders what she gets from the music. Georgiana’s musical education had been a sophisticated one, and Clark remembers her singing Verdi’s melodies when he was a boy—especially, when he was sick, singing “Home to our mountains, O, let us return!” He recalls that she sang “in a way fit to break the heart of a Vermont boy near dead of home-sickness already.”
Clark remembers Georgiana’s singing of Verdi as a melancholy reminder of home. Yet, for his aunt, it expresses a deeper yearning still—a longing for a “home,” an entire sense of self, from which she is already permanently estranged.
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As the concert goes on, Clark wonders if Georgiana has “enough left to at all comprehend this power which had kindled the world since she had left it?” She remains stoic through the piece from The Flying Dutchman, but Clark notices that her fingers are working automatically, as if recalling the piano score she had once played. He is moved by the sight of her gnarled hands, “mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with.”
Given the years that have passed since Georgiana was trained, Clark isn’t sure that she can connect with music as paradigm-shifting as Wagner’s, but he has again misjudged her. He is moved by the contrast between the physical condition of her hands and their unrestrainable desire to create music. Her hands were meant for the latter, but have been dedicated instead to the utilitarian concerns of survival. 
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During the “Prize Song,” Clark notices that there are tears on Georgiana’s cheeks and that she continues to weep throughout the melody. Clark realizes that “it never really died … the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only.”
Georgiana’s tears symbolize the thawing effect that music has on the soul, as the music transcends the bitter realities of frontier life. Clark’s questions about her responsiveness to music are laid to rest, as he marvels at the resilience of his aunt’s soul underneath her changed exterior.
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During the intermission, Georgiana explains that she has heard the “Prize Song” before. “Wanderingly, as though she were talking in the weak lapses of illness,” she tells the story of the tramp cowboy, a German, who had drifted to the Carpenters’ farm. He had sung in the chorus at Bayreuth as a boy and would sing the “Prize Song” while cleaning his boots and saddle. Georgiana had even prevailed upon him to sing in the church choir, but he disappeared after spending a drunken holiday weekend in town.
The incongruous figure of the opera-singing German cowboy represents Georgiana’s desperate longing for music in her isolated context. He provided a transitory link to civilization and home which ultimately couldn’t survive on the frontier, despite Georgiana’s efforts to anchor him in that world by making him join the church choir.
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During the second half of the concert, Georgiana weeps continuously, “as a shallow vessel overflows in a rain-storm.” “The deluge” of Wagner’s Ring “poured on and on,” and Clark doesn’t know where the music takes her. He supposes that she has been carried into some spiritual realm where “hope has lain down with hope and dream with dream and, renouncing, slept.”
As the music goes on, it seems to carry Georgiana beyond mere reminiscence and melancholy. Her thoughts and feelings aren’t accessible to Clark, but he discerns that she is confronting the grief of her abandoned dreams.
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The concert ends. The rest of the audience files out talking and laughing, and the musicians exit the stage, leaving it “empty as a winter cornfield.” Georgiana remains seated, however, and when prompted by Clark, she bursts into tears and pleads, “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”
The silent, empty stage evokes a barren prairie, in contrast with the cheer of the departing crowd. It also leaves Georgiana faced with the reality of what awaits her, and she finally voices her despair to Clark.
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Clark understands. For Georgiana, outside the concert hall “lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs,” the weathered house, and an environment promising endless work and little beauty.
Clark finally understands his aunt’s feelings. While the concert hall is no longer a place Georgiana fully belongs, the barrenness of Nebraska has become all the more repellent in light of the glimpse of transcendence the concert has given her. She cannot find home in either place.
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