A Wagner Matinée

by

Willa Cather

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on A Wagner Matinée can help.
Themes and Colors
Civilization vs. The Frontier Theme Icon
Music and the Human Soul Theme Icon
Home and Estrangement Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Wagner Matinée, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Music and the Human Soul Theme Icon

Music (and its absence) figures prominently in both Clark’s and Georgiana’s experiences of frontier life. Clark’s boyhood memories of Aunt Georgiana always involve her love of music, and often focus on the ways she used music to comfort Clark in an environment devoid of beauty. For him, music pointed to the promise of life beyond the frontier farm. For Georgiana, however, music comes to represent a path she chose not to take, and—especially now that modern music has outstripped her own study—becomes a source of grief. Throughout the story Cather argues that music expresses the soul’s longings because of its ability to transcend mundane existence.

Clark’s memories of Aunt Georgiana are all intimately tied to music—specifically to music’s ability to lift him beyond the deadening realities of life on the farm. Uncle Howard’s letter announcing Georgiana’s arrival opens “a gulf of recollection so wide and deep” that Clark feels himself once again a farm boy, fumbling with musical scales with his aunt at his side. Clark goes on to describe his “reverential affection” for the woman who not only managed the homestead, but also took time to coach him on the parlor organ when both were exhausted from a day’s work. Even mundane tasks around the farm were made “glorious” when Georgiana reminisced to Clark about seeing Meyerbeer’s Huguenots in Paris in her youth; a greater contrast to milking cows can hardly be imagined.

Clark also recalls Georgiana comforting him by singing Verdi’s “Home to our mountains” while he lay ill, thinking that her singing was “fit to break the heart of a Vermont boy near dead of home-sickness already.” He further remembers the particular joy, after leaving the farm, of seeing an orchestra performance for the first time: “fresh from ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change.” After such endless, plodding toil, the violinists’ bow-strokes “seemed to draw the heart out of [him].”

For Georgiana, however, music represents the aspirations she has left behind. In contrast to the hope Clark found in music—a hope apparently realized by leaving the farm—music awakens desires that it is now too late for Georgiana to fulfill.

Georgiana “seldom talked to me about music,” Clark remembers, and when she did, she warned him not to love it too much, “or it may be taken from you.” This suggests that even when Clark was a boy, Georgiana already considered music—perhaps her greatest love—to have been lost to her. When Clark takes his aunt to see a Wagner matinée during her Boston visit, he is at first puzzled by her seeming detachment. He then sees that her mangled hands instinctively recall the score of The Flying Dutchman. When he sees her tears during the “Prize Song,” Clark begins to realize that despite her stoic appearance, the music has touched longings hidden underneath Georgiana’s rustic exterior.

When he questions Georgiana about her knowledge of the “Prize Song,” she haltingly shares the story of a drifting cowboy she had known on the farm, a German with operatic training. This improbable figure had brought her much joy—Georgiana had even pushed him to join the choir of the country church—until he spent a drunken holiday in town and disappeared as suddenly as he had come. He represents something of Georgiana’s own lost dreams; the incongruity of this figure, pressed into service as a choirboy despite rather dissolute habits, speaks to the desperation of Georgiana’s longing in her isolated situation.

As the concert proceeds, Clark seems to realize the depth of his aunt’s pain as her tears increase. He cannot fully comprehend it—“I never knew what she found in the shining current of [the music] … I could well believe that before the last number she had been carried out … where, from the beginning of the world, hope has lain down with hope and dream with dream and, renouncing, slept.” Yet he has come to realize that Georgiana’s longings involve a much deeper renunciation than his own boyhood sufferings. After the concert ends, Georgiana gives full voice to her grief, and Clark finally understands that, for her, the music has not simply evoked nostalgia or melancholy, but the imminent return to a place that has meant the death of her deepest desires.

Music is an incredibly potent force in Cather’s story. For Clark, it has been a source of youthful solace that not only lifted him momentarily beyond his circumstances, but also gave him hope that he would someday leave them behind for good. For Georgiana, however, music has a far more tragic undertone. In Nebraska, she fought for every chance to savor music amidst daily survival, but in Boston, Wagner’s music overpowers her with the realization that her soul’s thirst can never be fully quenched. This is because music is not only a resource for her survival, but a part of herself that she has lost.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Music and the Human Soul ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Music and the Human Soul appears in each chapter of A Wagner Matinée. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire A Wagner Matinée LitChart as a printable PDF.
A Wagner Matinée PDF

Music and the Human Soul Quotes in A Wagner Matinée

Below you will find the important quotes in A Wagner Matinée related to the theme of Music and the Human Soul.
A Wagner Matinee Quotes

Aunt Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, somewhere back in the latter sixties. One summer, while visiting in the little village among the Green Mountains where her ancestors had dwelt for generations, she had kindled the callow fancy of my uncle, Howard Carpenter, then an idle, shiftless boy of twenty-one. When she returned to her duties in Boston, Howard followed her, and the upshot of this infatuation was that she eloped with him, eluding the reproaches of her family and the criticism of her friends by going with him to the Nebraska frontier.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter, Howard Carpenter
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking the three meals—the first of which was ready at six oclock in the morning—and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing-board, with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs. It was to her, at her ironing or mending, that I read my first Shakspere, and her old text-book on mythology was the first that ever came into my empty hands. She taught me my scales and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter, Howard Carpenter
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

She would sit beside me by the hour, darning and counting, while I struggled with the Joyous Farmer. She seldom talked to me about music, and I understood why. Once when I had been doggedly beating out some easy passages from an old score of Euryanthe I had found among her music books, she came up to me and, putting her hands over my eyes, gently drew my head back upon her shoulder, saying tremulously, Dont love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter (speaker), Howard Carpenter (speaker)
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrims chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized 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 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.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

She preserved this utter immobility throughout the number from The Flying Dutchman, though her fingers worked mechanically upon her black dress, as if, of themselves, they were recalling the piano score they had once played. Poor hands! They had been stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with;—on one of them a thin, worn band that had once been a wedding ring. As I pressed and gently quieted one of those groping hands, I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other days.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter
Related Symbols: Black
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Some years before there had drifted to the farm in Red Willow County a young German, a tramp cow-puncher, who had sung in the chorus at Bayreuth when he was a boy, along with the other peasant boys and girls. Of a Sunday morning he used to sit on his gingham-sheeted bed in the hands’ bedroom … cleaning the leather of his boots and saddle, singing the “Prize Song,” while my aunt went about her work in the kitchen. She had hovered over him until she had prevailed upon him to join the country church, though his sole fitness for this step, in so far as I could gather, lay in his boyish face and his possession of this divine melody.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

The deluge of sound poured on and on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last number she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the grey, nameless burying grounds of the sea; or into some world of death vaster yet, where, from the beginning of the world, hope has lain down with hope and dream with dream and, renouncing, slept.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

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.

Related Characters: Clark (speaker), Georgiana Carpenter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Black
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis: