Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Willa Cather’s ‘A Wagner Matinee’

‘A Wagner Matinée’ is a short story by the American writer Willa Cather, first published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1904 before being collected in Cather’s collection The Troll Garden the following year. In just a few pages, Cather sketches out a wasted life where a woman, who left Boston to go and live on a remote farm, experiences the music of Wagner for the first time when she returns to the city, and realises how much she has missed out on.

‘A Wagner Matinée’ is a moving story about isolation, loss, and the distance between frontier life versus the metropolitan life of the American city. You can read ‘A Wagner Matinée’ here before reading on for our summary and analysis of Cather’s story below.

‘A Wagner Matinée’: plot summary

The story is narrated by Clark, a man in Boston who receives a letter from his uncle in Nebraska, informing him that the narrator’s aunt, Georgiana, is travelling to Boston to settle the estate of a relative who has died leaving her a legacy. Remembering his aunt immediately causes Clark to recall his childhood in Nebraska, where he was raised by his aunt on a farm.

Clark tells us that his aunt had been a music teacher in Boston, until one day she had taken a holiday in the Green Mountains of Vermont, her family’s ancestral home, and had met the narrator’s uncle, Howard, and eloped with him. They had set up their own home in a remote part of Nebraska, and Georgiana hadn’t ventured far beyond her homestead in the last thirty years of married life.

He takes her to her hotel and then collects her the following day, wanting to take her to see a Wagner opera in the afternoon to repay her for all she did for him growing up. She seems timid and half-asleep to find herself back in the city where she had lived and worked decades before, but she agrees to go to the opera with him. She proceeds to look around at everything in an impersonal and expressionless way, and seems out of place in her country clothes.

As the orchestra and singers begin to perform a selection of pieces from Wagner’s operas, tears appear in Georgiana’s eyes, and this causes Clark to cry too. She tells him that she had heard one of the pieces before: a young German cow-puncher had come to work on the farm and had sung the ‘Prize Song’ (from Wagner’s The Master-Singers of Nuremberg) to her; he had once performed in Bayreuth for Wagner’s opera company. The young man had subsequently left the farm.

Clark’s aunt remains very emotional throughout the rest of the matinée, and when the performance has finished she tells Clark that she doesn’t want to go back home.

‘A Wagner Matinée’: analysis

‘A Wagner Matinée’ is about the gulf between frontier life and life in the metropolitan city: Georgiana had lived and worked in Boston but had given that all up when she married Howard and moved out into the country to work on their farm. In never travelling more than fifty miles from her Nebraska home in thirty years of marriage – until the death of her relative necessitated a trip back to Boston to sort out the legal aspects – Georgiana has become isolated and shut off from both the city and, by extension, her old life.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that Georgiana feels that, in marrying Clark’s uncle and moving out to a remote part of the country, she has been robbed of the music and culture that mean so much to her and which form such an integral part of her personality and temperament. The emotion in her voice when she asks, half-disbelievingly, ‘you have been hearing this ever since you left me, Clark?’, reveals just how deeply she feels that she has been deprived of what had been her chief pleasure in life: music, both listening to and playing it.

But of course, the music is just a symbol for something much bigger, for it suggests that she has been isolated from the wider world in general: her life on her country homestead, with her constant responsibilities for the cows and the turkeys, has left her with no time for anything else but it has also shut her off from many of the things that have happened in the world since her marriage. Although she owned the sheet music for one of Wagner’s operas, hearing his music (much of which is from the 1860s and 1870s, after her marriage to Howard) is a completely new experience for her. It is moving because she takes such pleasure in the music but it is obviously bittersweet, because she suddenly realises how much she has lost out on over the last few decades of remote rural life.

Cather was a realist writer, and one of the most characteristic features of her fiction is her precision: she is able to name just the right detail to evoke a whole character, mood, or world.  ‘A Wagner Matinée’ is a good example of this aspect of her work, with the references to Wagner’s work, and to other operas, summoning the world that Georgiana left behind all those years ago, as well as the strain of longing and wistfulness which colours her own life:

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, or under what skies. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that the Siegfried march, at least, carried her out where the myriad graves are, out into the gray, 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.

It’s something of a cliché that music has a transformative power, and an ability to transport us to faraway lands; but here, such an idea has a dual function, since Georgiana is being transported to the realms of myth evoked by Wagner’s music but also, personally, back to her own youth, before she was married and had to leave Boston and the world of music behind.

But if ‘A Wagner Matinée’ highlights the distance between young Georgiana and old, it also suggests an emotional sympathy developing between her and her nephew, who narrates the story. By having Clark tell us about Georgiana’s encounter with Wagner’s music, Cather limited the focus of her narrator (unlike an omniscient third-person narrator, Clark cannot tell us how Georgiana is actually feeling), but also broadened the imaginative sympathy that the music makes possible. The final words of ‘A Wagner Matinée’ show him seeing the farm he has not visited for a number of years. Both of them are transported back ‘home’ by the power of Wagner’s music, although ‘home’ here means two very different places:

I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert-hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs, the tall, unpainted house, naked as a tower, with weather-curled boards; the crook-backed ash-seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry, the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.

Such a detail would not have worked with an impersonal third-person narrator telling us the story, and if Georgiana had narrated the story herself, such an observation would have risked sounding self-pitying and melodramatic. But in having Clark bring the Nebraska farm and the concert-hall together, Cather shows that, although ‘A Wagner Matinée’ is in many ways a lament for a life not lived and a road not taken, on another level it shows the communion and sympathy that music can foster.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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