A Wagner Matinee

by Willa Cather

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Clark is a young man who makes his home at a boarding house in Boston. He receives a letter one day from his Uncle Howard in Nebraska; it informs him that his Aunt Georgiana will be arriving in the city to take care of some business matters. Uncle Howard asks Clark to pick her up at the station and to “render her whatever services might be necessary.” Not surprisingly, his uncle has written at the last minute; his aunt will be arriving the next day. The situation reawakens long-forgotten memories for Clark. He remembers the figure of his aunt, “at once pathetic and grotesque,” and in his mind he becomes again “the gangling farm boy [she] had known.”

Aunt Georgiana has come all the way from Red Willow County on a day coach and is exhausted and disheveled when she arrives in Boston. Clark notices that her familiar, misshapen figure is so stooped now that her shoulders are almost bent together; she wears “ill-fitting false teeth” and her skin is yellow from constant exposure to the elements. This worn woman had once been a teacher at the Boston Conservatory, but on a visit to relatives in a Green Mountains town at the age of thirty, she caught the attention of “the most idle and shiftless of all the village lads,” a “callow” youth nine years her junior by the name of Howard Carpenter. When she returned to Boston, Howard followed her. Ignoring the warnings of her family and friends, Georgiana eloped with her enamored suitor and left behind forever the comfortable environs of the big city. Howard had no money, so he took a homestead in Nebraska, and the couple arduously measured off their quarter section and settled there. Their lives were fraught with constant hardship and danger; their holding was fifty miles from the railroad in conditions that were utterly primitive. Georgiana has worked her fingers to the bone alongside her husband since then to eke out a living on the land. Until this trip to Boston, she has not left the prairie for thirty years.

Clark reflects that he owes to his aunt “most of the good that ever came [his] way in [his] boyhood.” During the years he had lived with the family, he watched as this indefatigable woman executed with dogged determination the daunting tasks of running a farm household and raising six children. Clark remembers that in the evenings, when the heavy work was finally done, Aunt Georgiana would help him with his studies, coaching him in Latin and introducing him to classical mythology and the great writings of Shakespeare. After fifteen years, Uncle Howard was finally able to buy his wife a small parlor organ; on this, the good woman taught her nephew to play, after a fashion. Although she provided him with the rudiments of exercises and scales, she rarely actually spoke to him about music. Clark understood that the hurt of having had to sacrifice the rich, cultural artistry of her former life had been at times almost too much for Aunt Georgiana to bear; when she had sensed that her nephew was hungering for more, she poignantly warned him, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”

Recalling how his aunt had on occasion told him about the “splendid performance[s]” she had enjoyed in her youth, Clark plans to take her to see a Wagner program rendered by the Symphony Orchestra, but the woman’s demeanor makes him wonder if indeed he should. Aunt Georgiana had been “wretchedly train-sick” for the course of her entire journey and...

(This entire section contains 1504 words.)

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still seems to suffer its effects. She is vague and detached, and though she questions her nephew “absently” about various changes in the city, her conversation seems focused more on tasks back at home she may have forgotten to do. To Clark, it seems as if his aunt has been separated from the life she once loved for so long that she no longer yearns for it and that the long struggle she must have waged to accept her necessary sacrifices has “mercifully ended at last.” It occurs to him that it might be cruel to rekindle in her these old desires, and he begins to regret having suggested that they attend the performance.

When they enter the concert hall, Clark’s aunt looks around her with an “impersonal, almost...stony” expression; the young man again wonders if the gulf that has separated her from the aesthetic delights of her past has grown too wide for her to bridge. The two sit at the far left of the first balcony, and Aunt Georgiana at first just waits passively and surveys her fellow concert goers—mostly women whose fashionable dresses create an impressionistic landscape of shifting, shimmering colors—with an air of quiet detachment. It is only when the musicians come in and begin to take their places that she gives “a little stir of anticipation” and watches their maneuverings “with a quickening interest.” Clark senses that the intricate details of the majestic instruments and their masters are beginning to penetrate her soul, not unlike the manner in which the first orchestra he ever heard had drawn his own heart out of himself.

Aunt Georgiana sits silently through the first number, the Tannhauser overture. Clark is aware that these finely wrought sounds of the orchestra are breaking for her “a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains.” He is unable to fathom exactly what his aunt is thinking, but personally he experiences “an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat.” He envisions the prairie, the “flat world of the ancients” that spreads from daybreak in the east to sunset in the west, and he counts the enormous cost of the efforts to tame it, “conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.”

The overture closes and still Aunt Georgiana sits, utterly immobile and mutely staring—but as the orchestra segues to the prelude for Tristan and Isolde, her fingers, “bent and knotted” from years of torturous labor, begin working mechanically on her black dress, seemingly of their own accord, “as though...they [are] recalling the piano score they had once played.” Clark reaches out and tenderly grasps his dear aunt’s hands, recalling the selfless services with which they had gifted him “in other days.” As the performance progresses, Clark looks over and sees that Aunt Georgiana’s eyes are closed and that “tears [are] glistening on her cheeks.” The young man knows then that her yearning never really died, and he is amazed that such excruciating suffering has been kept so well hidden that it was invisible on the surface.

When the tenor steps up to deliver a touching rendition of the “Prize Song,” Aunt Georgiana draws in her breath sharply and quickly. During intermission, she “huskily, wanderingly” relates that a young German cowpuncher who had come to the farm for a spell had often sung the “divine melody” just performed. Abstractedly, she tells Clark that the German had gotten drunk in town for several days on the Fourth of July; he had injured himself in a fall from a Texan steer and had subsequently simply disappeared. Clark makes a light-hearted comment about the music in a “well-meant effort at jocularity” at this point, but Aunt Georgiana is not to be so easily deterred from her melancholy mood. Gently and sadly, she continues her reflection and reproaches her nephew, murmuring, “And you have been hearing this ever since you left me?”

Aunt Georgiana weeps almost continuously through the second half of the program, and Clark is perplexed “as to what measure of musical comprehension [is] left to her,” isolated for so long as she has been, so completely consumed by the inexorable demands of her workaday world. The final selection of the performance is Siegfreid’s funeral march. As Clark observes the trembling of her face, he comes to believe that his aunt has truly been carried out “where the myriad graves are,” a place akin to death, where the restraints of the world are renounced and hopes and dreams are finally realized in the tranquil slumber of eternity.

When the concert is over and everyone has left, Aunt Georgiana makes no effort to rise. Clark waits with her in silence until even the members of the orchestra have packed up and gone, and when he ventures then to speak to her, she bursts into tears, sobbing, “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go.” Envisioning what awaits her when she leaves this place, Clark understands acutely her passionate complaint. Aunt Georgiana will return to the world of the vast, unforgiving prairie, where toil is ceaseless and everything is elemental and mundane. In the empty, unrefined landscape that awaits her, there is only the never-ending struggle for survival; there is neither time nor place for the fine musical and artistic experiences of the mind and soul.