Director's Cut #6:  A River of Sound

Great art has the power to reach across large spans of years, and chasms of divergent experience to touch the soul. When sitting in the opera house or concert hall and the lights dim I share an experience fundamentally not much different in form and content from experiences shared by others a hundred or more years ago; I am awed by the power of that connection. (Of course, the worlds that form the contexts for hearing a concert in 2000 and 1900 are vastly different. Those differences and their impact on our relationship to the works being performed is a fine subject for another occasion.) I was recently introduced to the fiction of Willa Cather. A love and knowledge of opera adds depth to an appreciation of Cather's tremendously gifted work, much of which has moved me. She refers to specific works, and great moments from opera are models for some of her most poignant incidents. Reading her prose has made me acutely aware of the timeless energy of great music and of the human spark it ignites. She is one of the few writers who truly captures in words the experience of hearing great music.

In her novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), she traces the artistic development of an opera singer, Thea Kronborg, from childhood through success. The novel's pivotal moment occurs when Thea hears a matinée performance of Dvorak's E-minor Symphony.

The first theme had scarcely been given out when her mind became clear; instant composure fell upon her, and with it came the power of concentration. This was music she could understand, music from the New World indeed! Strange how, as the first movement went on, it brought back to her that high tableland above Laramie; the grassgrown wagon trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles, that old man and the first telegraph message.

When the first movement ended, Thea's hands and feet were as cold as ice. She was too much excited to know anything except that she wanted something desperately, and when the English horns gave out the theme of the Largo, she knew that what she wanted was exactly that. ... There was home in it, too; first memories, first mornings long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old, that had dreamed of something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born... [1.]

Her short story, "A Wagner Matinée" (1905) tells of a young man taking his aunt, who left her position as music teacher in Boston to become the pioneer wife of a Nebraska homesteader, to hear a matinée of Wagner excerpts.

The first number was the Tannhäuser overture. When the horns drew out the first strains of the Pilgrim's chorus, Aunt Georgina clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. ...there came to me a sense of the waste and wear we are powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim...; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-clothes were always hung to dry before the kitchen door... Soon after the tenor began the "Prize Song" I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her 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. [2.]

Our narrator realizes his aunt's enormous sacrifice and the gifts she gave by prodding his attention to his Latin lessons, teaching him scales and simple music on her parlour organ, and telling him of the "performance of 'Hugeunots' she had seen in Paris, in her youth". She nurtured his drive to reach for a rich, fulfilling life and fed a respect for things that grow in the mind and soul as well as for the tangible things that grow in the ground.

Thea Krongborg's gifts are recognized early by her mother, the town doctor, select family friends and townspeople, and, most perceptively by her piano teacher, Herr Wunsch. On occasion, the lessons cover more than the notes on the page and fingers on the eighty-eight keys.

Wunsch began to pace the arbour, rubbing his hands together. The dark flush of his face had spread up under the iron grey bristles on his head. He was talking to himself, not to Thea. Insidious power of the linden bloom! "Oh, much you can learn! Aber nicht die amerikanischen Fraülein. They have nothing inside them," striking his chest with both fists. "... Something they can learn, oh yes, may-be! But the secret -- what makes the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love - in der Brust, in der Brust it is, und ohne dieses gibt es keine Kunst, gibt es keine Kunst!" [3.]

I am led to think of our Aunt Georginas and Herr Wunschs. The men and women outside our immediate families who guide our ears to music beyond the top 40 countdown; the men and women who teach our ears the patience to hear the exquisite, heartfelt harmonies that spring out of the dazzling mayhem of Mozart's ensembles in the second act of Figaro; the men and women whose quiet example leads us to breathe deep, and ride, body and soul, the great surging phrases of a Wagner perroration; the men and women whose excitement about a broadcast, a local peformance, a new recording gives "adult" approval to our keen pleasure in the theatrics of it all.

These men and women open more than the doors of music; they show us the joys of great literature, the impact of live theatre, the poetry of dance. At the least, they share with us the value of being in the audience; and, even more dear, these men and women encourage our own efforts - those first poems and stories, our piano lessons, ballet class, the all-school play. These men and women are our links to a river of sound, sight and sense that connects our moments on earth to the humankind of the past and of the future.

In the short story, "Paul's Case", (1905) Cather tells the tale of a young man who has no Aunt Georgina, no Herr Wunsch, no postive model, no mentor to provide an alternative to the dry, imaginationless world of his father and teachers. Deprived of the opportunity to really connect, Paul grabs for a blaze of glory that burns to a tragic end.

Willa Cather speaks to me now. She bends to my ear to ask that I notice the Pauls and give them a smile. She takes my hand and reminds me to voice my pleasure in a performance that offers a new look at an old work, or one that is exquisitely sung. She asks me to rave about about a great book I've read, a play I've seen, the magic of a Kandinsky on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She tells me to include, in a letter to a nephew, a description of listening to the Lohengrin Prelude while watching the sun rise. You never know when a Paul or Thea will be around to hear your voice match the seemingly solitary one from his or her soul. To keep the gifts of opera - the matchless joy of all the arts - we must pass them on.

I was lucky to grow up in a home that honored the arts but I'm also blessed to have received the gifts of many Aunt Georginas and Herr Wunschs. This is my thank you to them.

Grammie Ione
Aunt Norma
Phil Keeler
Linda Boxleitner
Lara Rachlin Steinel
William Chester Keeler
Patrick McHugh

"Thank you for connecting me to the river of what matters in life."

1.Cather, Willa; The Song of the Lark (New York: Penguin Books USA, Signet Classic)
"The Song of the Lark", chap. V, p.174. [originally published 1915]

2.Cather, Willa; Collected Short Stories, "A Wagner Matinée" (New York: Vintage Books, 1992) pp. 194 -195.
[Originally published in The Troll Garden (1905); revised version published in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920)]

3.Cather, Willa; The Song of the Lark (New York: Penguin Books USA, Signet Classic)
"Friends of Childhood", chap. XI, p. 69. [originally published 1915]

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