In March 1895, as Willa Cather was about to graduate from the University of Nebraska, she traveled with a university librarian friend, Mary Jones, to Chicago to hear five opera performances featuring Metropolitan Opera stars making their annual visit to the Auditorium Theatre. The trip was a momentous one for Cather. She had not been outside of Nebraska since arriving there at the age of nine, and she would hear some of the finest singers then active in Europe and the United States in roles that made them famous. The Metropolitan’s offerings were a veritable feast for music lovers, yet Cather, who for some time had been actively writing music and theater criticism for the Nebraska State Journal, published a single column for the Journal mentioning only two events from that memorable week. Cather devoted a brief paragraph to the American soprano Emma Eames, who sang the role of Desdemona in the Saturday, 16 March, performance of Verdi’s Otello; the rest of her review is given over to the Thursday, 14 March, performance of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. Her column, an extraordinarily perceptive piece of work for a twenty-one-year-old college student, represented Cather’s debut as a critic of musical events beyond Lincoln, Nebraska, and makes interesting reading today now that Falstaff, after more than a century of lukewarm critical responses, has found a more or less secure place in the operatic canon. The review is all the more interesting given Cather’s almost complete lack of musical training. A reluctant piano student and raised on a diet of light opera and mediocre performances by touring groups, Cather nonetheless proved herself a sharper and more perceptive critic of Verdi’s unabashedly modern opera than others with far stronger credentials and wider experience.
The resistance Falstaff met as it made its way into opera companies’ repertoires has its roots in both musical and cultural shifts in the late nineteenth century. On the musical front, the explosion of interest in Wagner’s complex musical dramas had caused a general backlash against Italian opera. For many early audiences and critics, however, Verdi had unfortunately ended up on the “right” side of the Wagnerian controversy: the music of Falstaff was too Germanic, too Wagnerian, and not sufficiently Italian to satisfy audiences used to Verdi’s traditional musical vocabulary (Hepokoski 138–41).
Broader cultural shifts had also affected public tastes in theater and symphonic music as well as in opera. According to historian Lawrence W. Levine, the cultural hierarchies that privilege “serious” entertainments over “popular” ones began hardening into ironclad divisions as early as the mid-nineteenth century (33). For Levine, this “sacralization of culture” began with nineteenth-century America’s turning away from popular parodies of Shakespeare’s plays and ended with a “society in which Shakespeare is firmly entrenched in the pantheon of high culture” (4). This shift in taste was repeated in the public’s increasing disdain for popular opera and orchestral music and the gradual adoption of rigorous “categories of culture”—“high” and “low”— that are “fixed and immutable” (8). Because of the fossilization of such hierarchies, Verdi’s Falstaff, with its rollicking story and genuinely funny music deriving from perhaps Shakespeare’s most broadly humorous comedy, seemed destined to fall on the wrong side of these cultural developments.
Upon her arrival in Chicago, Cather had already joined this struggle between high and low cultures, and in her Falstaff review she clearly states her sympathies: “To be present at the fourth American presentation of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ was more than a pleasure: it was a privilege and a great opportunity. There is something especially wonderful and sacred about any great masterpiece in its first youth, before its romanzas have become street music, before the concocters of comic opera have stolen the choruses, while it is played by the first cast, and the ink of the score is scarcely dry” (“As You Like It”). The constellation of images in these opening sentences—“sacred,” “street music,” “concocters of comic opera,” “stolen” choruses—implies a tension between the real and the fraudulent, the legitimate and the counterfeit, and the sacred art object and its profane imitation. These tensions are worth exploring, as they not only appear again and again in Cather’s fiction and nonfiction but also have to a great extent explained modern American tastes and attitudes toward “culture” (Levine 9).
Interestingly, however, Cather struggled for much of her personal and professional life with her own attitudes toward these cultural hierarchies. In her review of Falstaff she addresses these hierarchies in curious if conflicted ways and furnishes a helpful benchmark for measuring how, throughout her life, she alternately participated in and resisted this process of “sacralization.” At the age of twenty-one, she seems to suggest that great art such as Falstaff can be corrupted by prolonged association with its inferiors, a conception of culture that, for Levine, signifies the loss of “a rich shared public culture that once characterized the United States” (9). Yet Cather also revels in the “great opportunity” afforded by her encounter with Verdi’s opera, for she can become a participant in an artistic event instead of being a mere spectator. In Levine’s analysis, American audiences had once taken this kind of freedom for granted, but by the end of the nineteenth century they were less comfortable with it (9). Cather relishes the possibility of playing a collaborative role with Verdi: “On such an occasion one feels dimly what it must be to create” (“As You Like It”). Moreover, when she remarks that it was a “privilege” to hear Falstaff “before its romanzas have become street music,” she was not so much expressing her opposition to such vulgarization as conceding that it was an inevitable, perhaps even a constructive, process.
Later in her writing career, especially after she began to know very well “what it must be to create,” Cather withdrew from the elevation she occupied during the Falstaff performance and sometimes sought relief in lower artistic and musical altitudes. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she would always be comfortable inhabiting both the Apollonian and Dionysian artistic worlds, the temple as well as the street. Her youthful enthusiasm for Falstaff is certainly strong evidence that, even at the beginning of her writing career, she understood and relished engaging in the artistic struggle between the new and the traditional, the fresh and the timeless, the fleeting and the permanent, and perhaps came to realize that, despite attempts to insulate “high art” from the masses, “the perimeters of our cultural divisions have been permeable and shifting rather than fixed and immutable” (Levine 8). As she grew older, she continued to discover artistic fulfillment in personal encounters with music and artists of all stripes, encounters that her more sophisticated friends perhaps disdained or for which they were too embarrassed to admit their fondness. In her later years she may have had in mind how her own youthful exuberance and naïveté had once crossed paths with the mellowness of Verdi in his sunset years when she wrote in the prose fragment “Light on Adobe Walls” that “Art is too terribly human to be very ‘great’” (125).
In his late seventies, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) unexpectedly returned to writing comedy, an operatic genre he had abandoned more than a half-century earlier after the disastrous premiere of his comedy Un giorno di regno (A Day’s Reign) in September 1840. (His intervening twenty-five operas were decidedly not comedies, although more than a few had comic moments.) He combined this sudden turn toward comedy with a lifelong love for Shakespeare and in 1888 began collaborating with composer/librettist Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) on an adaptation of the character Sir John Falstaff from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and, more significantly, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the resulting collaboration, some of the most graceful and elegant music to be found in opera effectively illustrates Falstaff’s gluttony, lechery, and shameless egotism.
But by selecting The Merry Wives of Windsor as a major source for their opera’s plot, Verdi and Boito were going to the bottom of the barrel for a Shakespearean subject. As Gary Schmidgall has observed, “There are many more or less sacred cows in the Shakespearean canon. The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of them” (321). Schmidgall notes the unusual ratio of prose to poetry in the play—88 percent of the lines are in prose—and argues it is one of Shakespeare’s “least inspired efforts” (134). American audiences were dismissive of the play at the same time their reverence for “serious” Shakespeare was increasing. As Levine argues, by the end of the nineteenth century, “Shakespeare had been converted from a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations” (72). When it came to productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, American critics felt that Shakespeare had to be protected even from himself. One Chicago critic, reviewing a November 1886 performance, concluded that it was “almost impossible . . . to enter into the spirit of the blunt and gross humor of those buxom days.” The same critic offered backhanded praise of William H. Crane’s performance of the leading role: “[I]f it is not the Falstaff of Shakespeare, the actor may reply and truly that the Falstaff of Shakespeare is not in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’” (“Falstaff of Farce”). The “blunt and gross humor” of The Merry Wives of Windsor had begun to appear “un-Shakespearean” to American audiences of this era, and an operatic comedy based on it—especially one composed by the revered Verdi—would probably be even more difficult to swallow.
The action of Verdi’s opera revolves around Sir John Falstaff’s attempts to seduce Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Meg Page. A subplot involves the love affair between Nanetta, the daughter of Mistress Ford and her husband, and Fenton. Ford forbids Nanetta to marry Fenton, and the two lovers have only fleeting moments together throughout most of the opera. In act 1, Mistresses Ford and Page learn that Falstaff has sent both of them identical love letters, and they vow revenge. When Alice Ford invites Falstaff to her home for a tryst, Falstaff falls for the bait. In act 2, she hides him from her husband by burying him in a laundry basket and instructs her servants to throw it out the window into the Thames. In act 3, Falstaff, often depicted in productions as emerging dripping wet from his dunking, is still convinced he is loved by both women and accepts the ladies’ invitation to come to Herne’s Oak in Windsor Forest at midnight. There, Alice, Meg, and Dame Quickly stage an elaborate masque with Nanetta Ford as the Queen of Fairies. Falstaff is frightened out of his wits by the faux-supernatural encounter and, when the joke is exposed, takes a beating from the ladies. Unbeknownst to her husband, Alice has also disguised Nanetta and Fenton and arranges for them to be married by the unsuspecting Ford. The opera concludes with a vocal fugue sung to the words “But he laughs well who laughs / the last laugh” (Hepokoski 1–18).
Verdi had had a brilliant success in 1887 with Otello, and the premiere of Falstaff (La Scala, Milan, 9 February 1893) was eagerly awaited by opera lovers around the world. Both Otello and Falstaff had concise, beautifully constructed libretti by Boito; both featured the great French baritone Victor Maurel in leading roles; and both productions were marvels of scenic design, costuming, and careful preparation. But whereas Otello had made a deep impression on audiences as it toured the world’s opera houses, Falstaff stumbled early in its international travels. A review of the first Rome performances of Falstaff, in April 1893, is typical and pinpoints a problem: There was considerable astonishment—perhaps even disappointment—among many of the innumerable admirers of Verdi’s immortal genius. . . . “Is this our Verdi?”, they asked themselves. “But where is the motive; where are the broad melodies that decorated his earlier operas; where are the usual ensembles; the finales? Alas, all of this is buried in the past. At the age of eighty, then, does he acknowledge having changed course? Are Rigolettos, Traviatas, and Aidas no longer beautiful and fresh?” (Montefiore 129) Whether Verdi appreciated it or not, audiences had sacralized him for his earlier successes and resisted having to rewrite their standards for sacralization.
Outside Italy, audiences were likewise confused by Falstaff’s strangeness. Within only two years of its first performance, Falstaff had traveled to nearly all the corners of the Western musical world—from Milan to Naples, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, London, and elsewhere— but failed to gain a foothold anywhere (Hepokoski 130). Even when critics wrote favorably of the work, audiences stayed away (Hepokoski 129). It fared somewhat better in New York in February 1895, one month before Cather encountered the work, but even there critics were nagged by doubts. According to the New York Times, “it may be that the remarkable ingenuity of the score passes into a subtlety which will escape the hearer at first, and it is certain that no one will ever fairly appreciate this opera who cannot follow the text line by line” (“Verdi’s Great ‘Falstaff’”).
Major difficulties for critics have included “reconciling [Falstaff] with the rest of Verdi’s career” and deciding the question, “is the subtlety of Falstaff an advance or a retreat?” (Hepokoski 138). No critic has claimed that Verdi or Boito was careless in his work—quite the opposite. In fact, the enormous sophistication of Boito’s poetry and Verdi’s musical ingenuity—the tonal relationships and juxtapositions between scenes, the amazingly vivid orchestration, the composer’s uncanny ability to match musical sounds with words and images in the text—is clear to a listener who follows a performance or a recording with an orchestral score. But therein lies a huge stumbling block for most audiences, only a small minority of whom wish to “enjoy” a performance by following along with a score. Falstaff is too subtle for most audiences to appreciate after a single encounter, and the opera’s lack of approachability discourages opera companies from staging it as often as other, more “approachable” works, thereby in turn preventing audiences from becoming more familiar with its novelties.
The controversy surrounding Falstaff as it made its way around the world no doubt increased audience excitement in Chicago, and its premiere there—Cather saw the first of two performances—was the subject of intense anticipation in the press. Even Martin T. Dooley, the fictional Irish bartender and raconteur beloved by Chicago newspaper readers, reported that he attended the premier and enjoyed a spirited political debate while the singers on the stage “was shalin’ away in Eyetallian” (Dunne). But the mood of Chicago’s more sober operagoers was rather sour. The newly founded (1891) and already greatly respected Chicago Symphony Orchestra, organized by Theodore Thomas, was on its own tour and would not accompany the Auditorium performances as it had in previous seasons (Marsh 61). And worse, the Metropolitan’s managers, Abbey, Schoeffel and Grau, had raised ticket prices by fifty cents over the previous year’s tour: prices for the March 1895 performances ranged from $1.50 to $3.50, with boxes going for $30.00 (“Grand Opera”). (To put these prices in perspective, Cather likely was paid $1.00 per column for her Nebraska State Journal work [Lewis xxxi].)
In a provocative article titled “The Operatic Revolt” that appeared in the Tribune four days before the anonymous critic complained about the sloppy preparation, capricious cancellations, and, in particular, the ever-rising ticket prices that marked the Metropolitan tours: Taking everything together, it is no wonder that the oppressed peoples have risen in revolt. To all this the managers will reply that Italian opera is a luxury and that luxuries are always costly, and that the salaries of operatic artists are so high that they cannot afford to charge reasonable rates. To this it may be answered that there is a limit even to the cost of luxuries, and that the price of luxuries even should be reduced to a reasonable rate when the managers are making large profits, as they are in this case. (“Operatic Revolt”) Opera, like performances of Shakespeare and symphonic music, was indeed becoming a “luxury” and unaffordable for lesswealthy audience members. By contrast, on the evening of the same day that Cather had attended a matinee performance of Otello at the Auditorium, the American local-color author George Washington Cable was performing “Creole-African Songs and Stories, with Illustrative Examples” at Chicago’s Central Music Hall, a first-class concert venue, with reserved seats priced at fifty cents, seventy-five cents, and a dollar (Central Music Hall).
No doubt due in part to the higher ticket prices, the Falstaff audience of 14 March, though “good,” was “not remarkably large” (“First Week”). The Chicago critics, moreover, were deeply divided about the performance. Reviews in the Inter Ocean (“‘Falstaff’ Is Heard”), the Record (“Maurel Won Laurels”), and the Evening Post (“Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’”) were generally positive, and Cather may have drawn on these notices when writing her own review. The notices in the city’s most powerful papers, the Tribune and the Daily News, however, were mostly negative. Witnessing the same performance attended by Cather, the Tribune’s critic found the music “threadbare” and noted “the first act impresses one as the work of an old man” (“Much Humor”). The same critic lamented a “fatal lapse of memory” by the American soprano Zélie de Lussan in the role of Nanetta Ford that threw the performance into disarray and elsewhere in the review mostly summarized the plot without commenting directly on Verdi’s music. In its Sunday edition following the premiere, the Tribune ran a general review of the Metropolitan’s performances to date in which the critic again lamented the “unfortunate break” in act 3 of Falstaff triggering an “unprecedented disaster” that was “painful to the audience as well as to those engaged on the stage” (“First Week”).
The critic covering the performance for the Daily News was the extremely colorful and caustic Amy Leslie, a legendary actress-turned-journalist who, a generation older than Cather, was the doyenne of Chicago music and theater circles for half a century. Her scathing review proves that Cather was not the only “meatax” critic terrorizing singers and actors in their forays around the Midwest. For Leslie, “the first act of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ is null and empty as a drunkard’s flagon. There is neither art nor luxury, no rhythm, no robust phrasing, no comedy, no music. . . . Even the richness of Maurel’s classic performance of Falstaff could not emphatically illumine Verdi’s soulless, stupid and vapid attempt at light harmony for a heavy clown.” She enjoyed the second act somewhat better, but the pleasure did not last. “[T]ouched by a gleam of music in Anne’s [Nanetta’s] solo and cheapened by a slovenly and lifeless ballet movement, the third act is tasteful only because of the presence of so masterful an interpreter of Sir John as Maurel proved to be.” The memory lapse noted by the Tribune’s critic also did not escape Leslie, although she blamed not de Lussan but soprano Emma Eames in the role of Mistress Ford, “who looked very beautiful without trying and sung very wretchedly also without trying.” Leslie’s overall impression of the work has been echoed by other critics down to our own day: “‘Falstaff’ is the spectacled accomplishment of genius in dotage and is neither a laurel for the adored name of Verdi nor a truce to his tone-posing antagonists of the noisier, nobler school.”
The Chicago Falstaff reviews illustrate the generally shifting tastes of American opera audiences in the late nineteenth century. Verdi’s earlier operas such as Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata had been wildly popular in the United States, and Verdian “romanzas”—arias detached from their operatic sources and with texts translated into the American vernacular—had supplied a huge number of popular songs that entertained Americans in the parlor and concert hall. This was the world that Cather herself had known in Nebraska and that informed her own musical tastes. Well before Cather’s Chicago visit, however, Wagner’s revolutionary musical dramas had begun to eclipse the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi himself. Indeed, “Italian opera, which had been dominant in the first half of the century, came under attack in the second” (Levine 220). In Cather’s “A Wagner Matinée” (1904), for example, Clark gently chides his Aunt Georgiana, “Well, we have come to better things than the old Trovatore at any rate” (328). By the time Falstaff appeared on the American scene, Verdi’s works in general were slipping in popularity and Verdi himself was being labeled, in Amy Leslie’s phrase, a “genius in dotage.”
Additionally, Falstaff, with its combination of physical comedy (the title character’s enormous size and grossness) with elegant wordplay and music of extreme delicacy and ethereal beauty, still represents an unusual mixture in the operatic canon. The jarring juxtaposition of “high” and “low” art in Verdi’s final opera likely discomfited American audiences who were already used to canonizing Shakespeare’s plays as “high art” and for some time had been turning their backs on the parodies and interpolations that had characterized Shakespearean performances in the nineteenth century (Levine 21–23). On several levels, Verdi’s Falstaff probably struck Chicago audiences as a curious anachronism.
Against the backdrop of the Tribune and Daily News reviews, Cather’s article in the Nebraska State Journal makes a powerful contrast. Even the Shakespearean title “As You Like It,” which Cather had earlier adopted for some of her critical articles in the Journal and under which the Falstaff review appeared, seems a strategic and not merely coincidental choice for the review, for it underscores the whimsy and introspection that infuse Cather’s writing. There is no carping about high ticket prices or sloppy production values. Instead, more than one quarter of Cather’s review treats the subject of the general excitement triggered by the appearance of any new work of art, an event so remarkable and significant that even a performer’s memory lapses contribute their own magic: “Something of the very personality of the composer seems to cling to it. Its bloom, its freshness, the wonderful charm of its novelty, even the slight uncertainty with which some of the principals carry their parts, all emphasize that one is witnessing an absolutely new creation, a new work that did not exist yesterday, that has been called up out of nothingness and that henceforth will be a part of the art of the world” (“As You Like It”).
In the above passage, Cather luxuriates in the moment when Chicago audiences have passed from living in a “pre-Falstaff” to a “post-Falstaff” world and focuses her attention on the audience’s reception, not the performers’ labors or mistakes. (Interestingly, the “unprecedented disaster” of the act 3 memory lapse noted by the Tribune critic—it is conceivable that the conductor stopped and restarted the performance—was for Cather merely a “slight uncertainty.”) Cather’s identification with her fellow audience members strongly evokes the mood of Levine’s elegiac description of early-nineteenth-century American audiences of Shakespeare: “they are participants who can enter into the action on the field, who feel a sense of immediacy and at times even of control, who articulate their opinions and feelings vocally and unmistakably” (26). For Cather, the Auditorium audience that Thursday night had not yet surrendered the freedom whose passing, Levine notes, was already well under way in the 1890s.
Like other critics of early Falstaff productions, Cather detects something new and radically different in Verdi’s musical language, but she is much more accepting of it than were most critics: “it seems almost as wonderful that [Falstaff] should come from Verdi as it is impossible that it should have come from any other man living.” She praises the “titanic comprehensiveness” of the work while also appreciating “the decided flavor of the opera comique that separates it from Verdi’s earlier work”—a mingling of genres noticed by few other critics. Moreover, she appreciates the demands Verdi makes on an audience used to a “different” Verdi and grants him the right to make such demands: “The whole composition is as difficult as it is beautiful and is less in the florid Italian style than any other of Verdi’s works. Instead of largely consisting of the lengthy solos so pronounced in ‘Il Trovatore’ and even in ‘Aida’ and ‘Otello,’ the dialogue is short and choppy; made up of one line recitations and caught up rapidly by the singers.” In fact, the almost total absence in Falstaff of “set” musical pieces—Cather uses the term romanza for such “detachable,” discrete segments of music— separates Falstaff not only from Verdi’s earlier works but also from those of almost all of Verdi’s contemporaries.
Cather may have heard Falstaff with more open ears than did other audience members, but her attitude toward the work is nonetheless conflicted. At the same time Cather exults in Verdi’s creative spirit, she expresses an ambiguous attitude toward the cultural hierarchies that were hardening into impenetrability in the 1890s. She expresses no disappointment in Verdi for having attempted something new in this groundbreaking work, but she nonetheless tries to construct an insurmountable barrier around Falstaff to prevent its slide into mere popular entertainment. “‘Falstaff’ has none of the rich arias and beautiful romanzas which abound in ‘Il Trovatore,’ ‘Aida,’ and ‘La Traviata,’” she writes. “With perhaps the exception of Oberon’s song [sung by the character Nanetta in disguise] in the scene in Windsor Forest there are no airs in the opera that will ever be garnered into ‘Treasuries of Song’ and other popular collections.” After savoring the thrill of encountering Falstaff before contamination by the street will change forever how audiences hear its music, Cather ultimately expresses her belief that Verdi’s opera will remain apart from audiences who no longer thrill to its newness— as if Verdi has somehow inoculated his work against contamination from inferior listeners.
Early in her career, Cather is beginning to formulate a personal aesthetic credo that would shape her later fiction and criticism and help define her relationship with readers and critics in our own time as well. The uncompromising integrity, even aloofness, that Verdi proclaimed in writing Falstaff appealed strongly to Cather even while she was a college student: “On such an occasion one feels dimly what it must be to create, to dream and to send out of one’s dreams golden song that shall be immortal.” Conspicuous by its absence from Cather’s review is any mention of the importance of an artwork’s immediate popular appeal in determining its immortality. Cather seems to believe that, even if other critics panned it and audiences sat on their hands, Falstaff was here to stay. Her growing confidence as a critic is clear in this review, and Bernice Slote was right to recognize how, in the columns Cather wrote after her Chicago trip, “one may sense a new kind of vitality, often freer, more ecstatic language. She knew that the best was real, and her own independence and authority in the arts could be based on that knowledge” (20). At twenty-one, Cather already seems to understand and even to envy a great artist’s independence—the ability to do fresh and groundbreaking things without merely indulging an audience’s taste for something “new.” Verdi’s unwillingness to compromise his art and give his audiences a new version of the same formula they had come to expect from him—the same strength she later identified in such influences as Flaubert—commanded Cather’s deepest respect even at a young age and perhaps helped supply a model for her own career path as a writer.
Given her theater experience in Red Cloud and Lincoln, Cather understandably has much to say in her review about baritone Victor Maurel’s acting ability in the title role, devoting alsmost half its space to ecstatic praise of his stage movements, costumes, gestures, and so on. (Strangely, however, in her column’s brief reference to the Otello performance of Saturday, 16 March, which featured Maurel as Iago, she makes no mention at all of the great singer’s legendary portrayal of the role he had created only eight years earlier.) Her comments on Verdi’s orchestrations, however, a subject about which Cather knew almost nothing from experience or study, are perhaps most interesting for modern opera fans and set her review apart from almost every other contemporary assessment: In Verdi’s youth he was accused of light and superficial orchestration, but certainly his last opera, a crowning glory in more senses than one, once and forever refutes that charge. It is a wonder, a marvel, a miracle of clever orchestration. . . . [T]here are a hundred little things, like the prodigious sigh of satisfaction among the wind instruments every time Falstaff lifts his cup of sack to his lips, the lively crescendo when fat Sir John is dumped into the moat, the monotonous mezzo forte of the orchestra as Falstaff runs over the items of his bill at Garter Inn and then, when he reaches the total, suddenly forte! Cather’s familiarity with Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor would have prepared her for the situations portrayed in Verdi’s opera, but it is unclear how she understood so quickly and confidently the musical evocations of these situations.
Cather probably had read at least some of the Chicago newspapers’ extensive coverage of Falstaff in the days leading up to and following its premiere, but even these accounts—some of them consisting of several columns devoted to careful musical analysis, thematic quotations, and plot synopsis—do not approach Cather’s strikingly precise discussion of Verdi’s handling of the orchestra. (For example, the critic for the Evening Post praises Verdi’s orchestration but fails to mention particular instruments [“Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’”]). In fact, few other critics, European or American, of this era whose reviews I have read seem to match Cather’s grasp of two of the most powerful aspects of Verdi’s score: its eroticism and its purely musical humor: The second part of the third act opens with some of the most beautiful lyric music Verdi ever wrote, music breathing all the witchery of a summer night of moonbeams and uncertain shadows, of fairy festivals and of elfin trumpeters. And then those rare mellow strains of which the opera is full, now racy, snappy and piquant as one of Sir John’s jests which were best not told before ladies. Now bloodstirring, amorous to grotesqueness, with a sort of yearning sensuousness like the naughty dreams which flitted through the fat knight’s tipsy slumber. Tantalizing strains of reeling, sweeping sweetness that were rudely broken off before they were half begun, that pleased and excited and irritated and went to one’s head like champagne, and over and over again came that royal laughter of the king of jolly good fellows; now crashing out of the whole orchestra, now picked lightly upon the strings amid the chatter of women, now sighing from the wind instruments in the summer breezes of Windsor Forest, now chuckling in the bellies of the big bassoons, repeated in every kind and degree of mirth, the ribald laughter of Sir Jack Falstaff. Cather’s gnarled, jagged sentences and obvious fun in joining words to images and impressions seem to aspire to Verdian heights, as if her writing has been infused with the very spirit of Falstaff. The sheer pleasure she seems to take in writing also supplies a strong but not entirely dissonant counter-melody to the otherwise exalted tone of her review. Early in her career as a writer, Cather is actually confirming the observation made many years later by Edith Lewis on Cather’s writing: that “her style, her beauty of cadence and rhythm, were the result of a sort of transposed musical feeling” (48).
Cather easily reconciles Shakespeare’s gross, lecherous glutton with the sometimes brassy, sometimes gossamer, and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful music with which Verdi surrounds him. And yet the humor in Verdi’s music—its lightning-fast alternation between broad comedy and charming sentiment, the delicacy and wit of its orchestration, its mock-serious themes—was a long time gaining acceptance by audiences (Hepokoski 138–44). In Cather’s day and well into the twentieth century, most audiences seemed not to grasp at all what was going on musically in Falstaff. Cather’s confident, almost effortless ability to explain how orchestral color itself can make a story amusing gives her review an uncanny, exhilarating quality.
More than two weeks separated Cather’s attendance at Falstaff on 14 March from the date of her review’s publication in the Nebraska State Journal on 31 March. During that period, Cather contracted a serious illness (“typhoid-pneumonia”) that was attributed to the killing pace of her trip to Chicago (Bennett 156). While she recovered in Lincoln, she may have had time to relive and reflect on her whirlwind trip to Chicago and to “replay” the Falstaff experience. Although her written recollections of the Falstaff performance have much of the spontaneity and warmth found in other columns that she wrote to meet tight deadlines, the new “ecstatic” tone identified by Slote in Cather’s post-Falstaff criticism seems to have its roots in a period of thoughtful reflection during which her personal relationships to art and artists, to her home and family in Nebraska, and to the larger world represented by Chicago and points beyond probably underwent a reexamination.
Almost a year after the Falstaff performance, Cather wrote her stern manifesto on the rigors of being an artist, a column that seems to temper her youthful hubris with a mature understanding of the risks undertaken by any artist: “In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few men born of woman who are strong enough to take the vows” (“Mighty Craft” 417). Seen through the prism of Cather’s later, more austere judgment, the March 1895 encounter with Falstaff appears to have triggered a recognition that her own critical voice was perhaps as lonely and irrelevant to the masses as Verdi’s opera had seemed to many audiences and even to distinguished critics with impeccable credentials. Instead of weakening Cather’s confidence in her own taste and standards, however, this recognition may have bolstered her resolve to resist conforming to the conventional viewpoint and to trust her own artistic tastes and instincts.
Clearly, Cather’s high artistic standards—already taking shape while she was a college student—are confirmed by her later rejection of solicitations to popularize her fiction through filmed adaptations and paperback editions and by her efforts to prevent republication of her earliest writings. Her gentle mocking, for example, of Lucy Gayheart’s starry-eyed intoxication at a performance of Lohengrin at the Auditorium can be read as a parody, albeit a fond one, of her own youthful tendency to go weak-kneed in the presence of art, great or not so great. I think it is just as likely, however, that when it came to music, Cather simply knew what she liked and never tried to fool anyone—least of all herself—into taking her ideas about it too seriously. As Richard Giannone points out, Cather “was devoted to music but as a member of the laity. She listened to music to add to her dreams” (4).
But music also had practical importance for Cather’s criticism and fiction. The Falstaff review may be an early attempt by Cather to preserve and relive a deeply memorable event by describing the particular sounds that have anchored various sensory images in her memory. These images can be conjured up by Cather by “playing” the sounds in her memory and matching them to words. Music thus supplied a language that helped Cather translate memories such as the Falstaff performance into words to be shared as images among her readers. This “musical language,” although essentially private, has a strong narrative component and enables Cather to write with unusual clarity and color about stories in which plot and characters already have been clothed in musical dress by a composer. As early as March 1895, writing, for Cather, furnished a “transposing” tool that enabled her to render remembered sounds into “definite effects with words” (Lewis 48).
Given the sophistication of this transposing skill, it is understandable that Cather occasionally sent mixed signals about her general musical expertise. In November 1931, for example, H. L. Mencken shared a Carnegie Hall box with Cather while attending a concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its director, Serge Koussevitzky, and was very surprised to learn that Cather, whose taste Mencken had long respected, had preferred a suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe, a “very cheap piece of trash” in Mencken’s opinion, to the evening’s major work, Mahler’s Symphony no. 9, receiving its New York premiere. In his diary, Mencken recalled, “I had always thought of Cather as a musician, but she told me she really knew very little about music, and thus preferred Ravel’s obvious banalities to Mahler’s very fine writing” (41).
The Carnegie Hall episode shines light on Cather’s honesty and her reluctance to make “high” and “low” distinctions when explaining her attraction to particular music or composers. As far back as the 1895 performance of Falstaff, she had been able to respond almost intuitively to a work that, to many audiences and professional critics, lacked the seriousness and weight that Wagner’s operas possessed. Although in the years after 1895 Cather became an ardent Wagnerite, her musical tastes apparently remained catholic without becoming indiscriminate. Even though she prized the chance in Chicago to hear music that had not yet been played to death, she did not disdain romanzas merely because they had become “street music.” Mildred Bennett relates an incident involving Cather and her childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, who were riding the Hoboken ferry during one of Sherwood’s visits to New York. Sherwood recalled that “on the boat was an old Italian playing many familiar operas on his accordion. When the ferry docked, Willa said, ‘Do you mind if we stay on for another trip? I do enjoy that music’” (155).
No doubt the Italian accordionist was playing early Verdi, not the quirky, fleeting melodic fragments that steal through the score of Falstaff, but Cather appreciated art wherever and whenever she could. Throughout her life she seems to have retained a strong populist streak in her musical tastes that enabled her to enjoy, without embarrassment or irony, art, be it great or modest, in artistic temples as well as in streets—and even on ferryboats. It is this side of Cather—the artist who finds room in My Mortal Enemy for Myra Henshawe’s tipping of the boy with no overcoat playing “The Irish Washerwoman” on a pennywhistle, in Lucy Gayheart for Lucy’s enthusiastic embrace of Michael Balfe’s hackneyed opera The Bohemian Girl, in “Old Mrs. Harris” for Hillary and Victoria Templeton’s attending Robert Planquette’s once wildly popular but now entirely forgotten operetta The Chimes of Normandy, and so on—that seldom receives much critical attention.
Yet these fictionalized encounters with “low” art illustrate Cather’s own respect for art that could not be rendered “inauthentic” merely because of where it was encountered or what kind of people made up its audience. Certainly, Cather’s remarkably eclectic taste, her unembarrassed embrace of musical belly laughs in Verdi’s Falstaff and Ravel’s opulent, wonderfully sensual ballet score Daphnis and Chloe, never deadened her taste for more cerebral works, such as Beethoven’s last string quartets. Her enthusiasm for high and not-so-high art—for both Wagner and opéra comique—helps to explain and to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the youthful seriousness of her 1896 manifesto—“In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God”—and the mature wistfulness of “Art is too terribly human to be very ‘great.’” The cultural chasm between these two artistic credos seemed to shrink rather than grow during Cather’s life, if indeed there ever was a chasm at all.