Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs011.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 11

From The Song of the Lark to Lucy Gayheart, and Die Walküre to Die Winterreise

To keep an idea living, intact, tinged with all its original feeling . . . to keep it so all the way from the brain to the hand and transfer it on paper a living thing . . . that is what art means, that is the greatest of all the gifts of the gods. And that is the voyage perilous. Nebraska State Journal, 1 March 1896

Cather’s familiar words from 1896 provide an apt entrée to the relationship between The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart. Song, published in 1915, traces the long and hard journey by which its heroine moves from early intimations of her musical talent to their brilliant realization. Lucy, published twenty years later, moves from its heroine’s bright glimmerings of musical discovery to the fading of these fugitive gleams. This essay suggests that Cather underscored the gulf between these musical journeys by constantly projecting Lucy’s against the template of Thea’s, a contrast reflective also of the differing trajectories of Cather’s own life at these two stages in her career.[1]

Throughout Song, Cather endows Thea with the qualities essential to navigating the voyage perilous. First, there is the openness to ideas themselves. Composer Paul Hindemith likened the process of composition to seeing an entire landscape momentarily revealed in a brilliant flash of lightning, then struggling for months to recover and record the vision so briefly glimpsed (60–61). His analogy suggests not only the drudgery that follows the lightning but also the receptivity the artist must have to respond to these sudden flashes when they occur. This latter is a quality that Cather possessed in great measure—recall, to mention but one instance, how watching the wheat harvest on a June day in 1912 suddenly gave her the idea for “The White Mulberry Tree,” a moment Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant likened to “a great sound of cymbals in the air” (84). In Song, Cather constantly suggests a similar receptiveness in Thea. There is her powerful response to the wagon ruts left by early settlers (“the wind brought to her eyes tears that might have come anyway” [60]); the catalytic effect of having her own room (“her mind worked better. . . . Pleasant plans and ideas occurred to her which had never come before” [64]); the “passionate excitement” she feels after reading a Heine poem with Wunsch (“Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something” [87–88]).[2] It is this same quality that attracts the attention of conductor Gustav Mahler when Thea sings the part of a Rhine Maiden in a performance of Das Rheingold, as Fred Ottenburg recalls: “‘She seems to sing for the idea. Unusual in a young singer.’ I’d never heard [Mahler] admit before that a singer could have an idea. She not only had it, but she got it across. . . . She simply was the idea of the Rhine music” (435–36).

In the passage used as this chapter’s epigraph, Cather speaks of the god-given gift of “keep[ing] an idea living, intact . . . all the way from the brain to the hand,” a process directly relevant to the evolution of Song itself, as Cather commented in a March 1915 letter to Ferris Greenslet: “The death of the noble brakeman was the original germ of the story, I suppose. It happened when I was about thirteen. . . . Ever since then this story has been in the back of my head in one form or another. It has gone through many incarnations, but the germ of it, the feeling of it, has never changed” (Letters 199). Thea draws on a like compound of persistence and vision to survive the frustrations of her piano lessons with Harsanyi, the affronts of voice study with Madison Bowers, her long apprenticeship in Germany, and the professional slights that greet her at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Harsanyi marvels at her “unusual power of work,” her “way of charging at difficulties . . . as if they were foes she had long been seeking” (Song 195). Thea’s accompanist, Landry, comments on her struggle to master the role of Fricka in Das Rheingold: “When she begins with a part she’s hard to work with: so slow you’d think she was stupid if you did n’t know her It goes on like that for weeks sometimes” (492).

A third component of the process is the sudden revelation—like a second lightning flash—that makes everything fall into place. In Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (1927), a book Cather knew well, J. W. N. Sullivan describes Beethoven’s compositional process in terms of experiences, perhaps extending over years, that are “gradually coordinated in the unconscious mind of the artist” and released by “what psychologists call a ‘tripper’ incident” (126, 141). Richard Harris has compared the way such incidents often catalyzed materials long brewing in Cather’s mind—the “explosion and enlightenment” (Sergeant 116) when she thought of combining “Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree” into O Pioneers! or how seeing Lyra Garber’s obituary suddenly triggered the writing of A Lost Lady (Harris 22– 23). This too is a process Cather writes into Thea. After the lesson where she has struggled with the folk song “Die Lorelei,” Harsanyi recalls the moment when she grasped it,“as if a lamp had suddenly been turned up inside her Until she saw it as a whole, she wandered like a blind man surrounded by torments. After she once had her ‘revelation’ then she went forward rapidly” (Song 213). Landry uses similar language of Thea’s breakthrough with the role of Fricka: “All at once, she got her line—it usually comes suddenly, after stretches of not getting anywhere at all” (492).[3]

Cather’s description of Thea’s climactic performance as Sieglinde captures the arrival achieved both by Thea in Die Walküre and by Cather in Song, and in language rich in intimations of the qualities each brought to this voyage perilous: That afternoon nothing new came to Thea Kronborg, no enlightenment, no inspiration. She merely came into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long. . . . [T]his afternoon the closed roads opened, the gates dropped. What she had so often tried to reach, lay under her hand. She had only to touch an idea to make it live. While she was on the stage she was conscious that every movement was the right movement, that her body was absolutely the instrument of her idea. Not for nothing had she . . . kept it filled with such energy and fire. All that deep-rooted vitality flowered in her voice, her face, in her very finger-tips. She felt like a tree bursting into bloom. (525–26) Flash forward now to Lucy Gayheart’s final icy walk—the end of her journey—which inverts, even plays off this language that twenty years earlier Cather had written for Thea. For Lucy, the roads become ever more impassable, what she reaches for ever farther from her hand, her body ever less the instrument of her intentions—and her fingertips scarcely able to put on her skates when she reaches the river.[4] Lucy too had possessed energy, fire, deep-rooted vitality, but they fail her in this frozen world where nothing flowers, where no trees bloom. At the end her voice too fails her, as she futilely shouts “Harry!” into the bitter wind, then watches him disappear.[5] To juxtapose these two episodes is starkly to reveal the gulf that separates these two young musicians, a gulf that Cather in Lucy Gayheart constantly suggests by implicit cross-references of just this sort. Song is about perilous voyages completed, Lucy about the opposite; indeed, Lucy’s story is itself a voyage perilous of a very different ilk.

FROM SONG TOWARD LUCY : 1916– 1932

In retrospect, one can trace a gradual erosion of the transcendent vision of artistic arrival that Cather created at the close of Song, a trajectory that reaches its conclusion in the tale of loss, both artistic and human, that Cather will tell in Lucy Gayheart. Even in the years immediately following the publication of Song, she writes four stories about singers whose careers contrast sharply with Thea’s in character and outcome: Cressida Garnet of “The Diamond Mine” (written 1916), whom managers chose less for her artistry than for her conscientious reliability (100); Kitty Ayrshire, who in “A Gold Slipper” (1916) admits that though she knows art’s higher calling, that way is not hers (160) and in “Scandal” (1916) courts public notice by letting herself be thought more scandalous than she really is; and Eden Bower, who in “Coming, Eden Bower!” (1920) willingly compromises her art, and herself, to garner public recognition and monetary gain, and of whom our last glance is of a face “hard and settled, like a plaster cast” (“Coming, Aphrodite!” 74).[6]

The erosion continues into the 1920s. In a tragic subplot of One of Ours, a brilliant young violinist, David Gerhardt, is killed in the last stages of World War I. Before he dies he sees his Stradivarius smashed, and when asked about his career, he notes “the regular pulsation of the big guns sound[ing] through the still night” and says,“That’s all that matters now. It has killed everything else” (552). Cather links young talent with premature death again in her 1925 essay on Katherine Mansfield, describing her genius as a writer in terms of musical “timbre, [which] cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be,” and commenting, “That she had not the happiness of developing this glorious gift to the full, is one of the sad things in literary history” (47, 49). That same year Cather published “Uncle Valentine,” in which a talented young composer—one modeled on Ethelbert Nevin—is killed just two years after the “golden year” in which he composed “all of the thirty-odd songs by which he lives” (31). Among these is “I know a wall where the red roses grow” (37), a song whose roses recall both Nevin’s brilliant career and his early death. And whereas the climactic scene of Song peaks in the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, the memorable opera scenes of The Professor’s House and My Mortal Enemy focus on separation and loss—the poignant vignettes from Thomas’s Mignon in the former (91–94), the young soprano’s powerful performance of “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma in the latter (59–61).[7]

Although Cather’s ever-darkening musical journey will eventually lead to Lucy Gayheart, her first extant allusion to that novel, in a 15 October 1926 letter to Louise Guerber, is jaunty: I won’t be back in town before November 4th or 5th, probably. I’m flirting a little with a story that’s been knocking round in my head for sometime. Title “Blue Eyes on the Platte”— platte, not plate. Rather frivolous and decidedly sentimental, love’s-young-dream sort of thing. (Letters 387) Her letter fills out Edith Lewis’s comment that “writing a story about a girl like Lucy” had been on Cather’s mind “several years” before she began the novel (173–74) and provides a baseline for following the subsequent stages in the novel’s evolution. This late-1926 letter is light and playful, and one wonders whether meeting the lively Louise may have been the “tripper incident” that released this story from its long “knocking round” in Cather’s head.[8] By late 1927, however, just a year later, Cather’s father had suffered a serious heart attack, harbinger of the series of tragedies she would face in the years ahead, and her next piece of fiction differs sharply from the frivolous tale she had described to Louise: “Double Birthday,” a draft of which Cather completed in early 1928.[9] The story revolves around Marguerite Thiesinger, a talented young musician who initially lacks the ambition to become a professional singer, eventually discovers that drive and plunges into serious study, but just as she is primed for success is stricken by cancer and dies. A comment from Dr. Englehardt confronts the existential ramifications of his protégée’s tragedy: “Youth, art, love, dreams, trueheartedness—why must they go out of the summer world into darkness? Warum, warum?” (52–53). Underscoring this “Why?” for Cather was Sullivan’s Beethoven book (published in late 1927), which focused on the incomprehensible cruelty of the composer’s early deafness, and which Cather clearly echoes in “Double Birthday.”[10]

“Double Birthday” is a pivot point in the evolution of Lucy Gayheart. Its heroine’s story foreshadows that of Lucy, who also lacks musical ambition through most of the novel, is suddenly spurred toward serious study near the end of book 2, then dies before she can put this new ambition to work. At the same time, Cather in “Double Birthday” also looks back, setting the story of her young soprano against the backdrop of The Song of the Lark (compare the implicit contrasts she had created between Thea and the singers of her 1916–19 stories). Marguerite Thiesinger is reminiscent of Thea in both name—“Thie–singer”—and appearance: “a sturdy, blooming German girl standing beside the piano . . . glowing with health. She looked like a big peony just burst into bloom and full of sunshine” (49); but the tragic outcome of her story diverges sharply from Thea’s—the very strategy that Cather will repeatedly employ in Lucy Gayheart.

In 1932 Cather again revisited the heroine of Song. Her 1915 dust-jacket copy had described that novel as “[t]he story of a great American singer,—her childhood in the Colorado desert, her early struggles in Chicago, her romantic adventures among the ruins of the Cliff Dwellers in Arizona, her splendid triumphs on the operatic stage. It is a story of aspiration and conflict, of the magnificent courage of young ambition.”[11] In contrast, here is how she describes Thea Kronborg in the new preface she wrote for Song in 1932: Her human life is made up of exacting engagements and dull business details, of shifts to evade an idle, gaping world which is determined that no artist shall ever do his best. Her artistic life is the only one in which she is happy, or free, or even very real. . . . [T]he harassed, susceptible human creature comes and goes, subject to colds, brokers, dressmakers, managers. But the free creature, who retains her youth and beauty and warm imagination, is kept shut up in the closet, along with the scores and wigs. (Song 618) This description of Thea mirrors Cather’s own life in 1932, and as such suggests the professional discouragement she was feeling as she began writing Lucy Gayheart. Equally important, it reveals—as did “Double Birthday”—that though the heroine of Song was still much in mind, Cather was now seeing Thea’s career in a far different light—one sardonic, even mocking (it is in this same preface that Cather suggests that ending Song with Thea’s success was a mistake). The new preface is dated 16 July 1932. On 24 July—just eight days later—Cather wrote Blanche Knopf that she had finished her new preface to Song and that she had “begun a new book, just as an experiment; if my interest grows, I’ll go on with it. If it bores me, I’ll drop it. It’s about a young thing, this time. If I finish it, I’ll call it simply by her name, ‘Lucy Gayheart.’” Taking a cue from her new preface to Song, Cather in this new novel constantly projects her “young thing”—as she had Marguerite Thiesinger—against the paradigm of Thea Kronborg.

A DARKER COUNTERPOINT: LUCY GAYHEART AND THE SONG OF THE LARK

The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart are Cather’s only two novels with young female musicians as their central figures, and no one who reads both can fail to note their larger similarities of plot. In both a small-town midwestern girl displays an early gift for the piano and goes to Chicago to pursue advanced study. For both a caring piano teacher opens new possibilities in the world of vocal music: Mr. Harsanyi persuades Thea that her future lies in voice, not piano; Mr. Auerbach enables Lucy to become rehearsal pianist to a great singer, Clement Sebastian. Both women meet with success in these new realms: Thea’s singing eventually leads to an operatic career in New York, while Lucy’s work as a rehearsal accompanist earns her Sebastian’s invitation to follow him to New York in that capacity.

At the same time, however, no one who reads both novels can fail to observe that Thea’s and Lucy’s similar beginnings lead to radically different conclusions: at the end of Song Thea has become a leading soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, while at the end of book 1 of Lucy the heroine’s New York plans have vanished with Sebastian’s death, and at the end of book 2 her renewed interest in a musical career falters and she herself drowns. The editors of Cather’s Selected Letters describe Lucy Gayheart as “a darker counterpoint to the triumphant Thea Kronborg” (465), and it is impossible to believe that an author as intentional and self-aware as Willa Cather would not have recognized this relationship (especially given the similar counterpoint she had created between Marguerite Thiesinger and Thea Kronborg a few years earlier in “Double Birthday”).

This is not the place to discuss Cather’s intentions, or her expectations as to her readers’ responses, with respect to the “dark counterpoint” that Lucy plays on Song. The texts of the two novels are historical artifacts, both of them created by Cather, and it is a simple fact that the text of Lucy often does recall that of Song. The extent of these intertextual links, and their frequent closeness, merit more attention, as does the fact that they regularly begin in similarity only then to diverge—just what Cather had done in “Double Birthday” with Marguerite Thiesinger. Readers familiar with both novels will frequently encounter passages in the later text that invite them to set Lucy and her experiences against Thea and hers in ways that evoke rich perspectives on both novels.

Two pairs of passages from the novels afford good examples. As Thea returns by train to Chicago to resume her studies, she sobs through the night, resenting the “stupid, good-natured child” she had been when she first went there: “How much older she was now, and how much harder! She was going away to fight, and she was going away forever” (273). As Lucy makes a similar return to Chicago, she lies “in the dark . . . giv[ing] herself up to the vibration of the train. . . . That sense of release and surrender went all over her body; she seemed to lie in it as in a warm bath” (26). After Thea leaves her first orchestra concert, she plunges into the cold and crowded Chicago streets and senses “some power abroad in the world bent on taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape. . . . Very well; they should never have it. . . . As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it” (224). In contrast, here is Lucy as she faces Chicago’s winter and its crowds: “She went slowly across the town, getting a kind of comfort out of the crowded streets and the people who rushed by and bumped into her. . . . In the city you had plenty of room to be lonely, no one noticed, she reflected. . . . [T]onight all these people seemed like companions, and she felt a kind of humble affection for them” (65–66). Whether Cather was intentionally echoing the two Song passages in the corresponding passages in Lucy we cannot know—nor need we. Lucy comes across as compliant, complacent, even a bit spineless in the Lucy passages when they are read alone, but these qualities are yet more apparent to readers who recall the fierce, feisty independence of Thea in their Song counterparts.

Such implicit correspondences are especially marked in the musical subtexts of these novels. Both women, for instance, become vocal accompanists in Chicago. Lucy loves accompanying Sebastian, and her respect for him is such that she refrains from making even positive comments. In her assumption of Sebastian’s superiority, and of her own subordinate role, she is the self-effacing rehearsal accompanist that many soloists seek.[12] Not so Thea, whose very talent and assurance—she is by nature a prima donna!—make it impossible for her to be rehearsal or lesson accompanist for lesstalented singers without revealing by facial tics and barbed comments her dismay over their flaws of execution and taste. That said, it is of course Thea who will go to New York as an operatic diva, while Lucy is for a time headed to New York as but a rehearsal pianist—and never gets there.

The contrasting musical episodes that dot the stories of the two heroines diverge in similar ways, with Thea’s moving toward discovery and arrival, Lucy’s toward loss and aporia—“lostness.” On the evening when Thea first sings for Mr. Harsanyi, the hymn with which she begins, “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” reflects her feelings at this stage of her Chicago training, as do the words of the aria she sings from Gluck’s Orfeo, “Alas, I have lost you” (207–8). But the last line of the second hymn she sings, “Rejoice, for the Shepherd has found his sheep,” sounds the opposite theme (207), and Thea notes that this hymn won her a job when she first came to Chicago (just as here she is taking the first step toward a singing career). An informed reader knows too that Gluck’s Orfeo will find his Eurydice—as Fred will find Thea’s score of that opera, and Thea will find both Fred and her own musical self.

When a few days later Thea works through “Die Lorelei” with Harsanyi, she finally understands the song’s gently flowing ending when Harsanyi reminds her of the song’s setting: “It is the river.— Oh, yes, I get it now!” she says (213). What’s more, that river is the Rhine, the river so central to the Wagner operas in which Thea will later make her mark. And when Thea attends her first orchestra concert in Chicago, there are further discoveries, and further foreshadowings of her later career. She senses in Dvořák’s New World Symphony “first memories, first mornings long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world” (221–22). So absorbed has she been in this first part of the concert that the second half, consisting of music from Wagner’s Ring, largely passes her by, but it too is filled with significance—and with hints again of the Rhine: “So it happened that with a dull, almost listless ear she heard for the first time that troubled music, ever-darkening, ever-brightening, which was to flow through so many years of her life” (222).

If Song moves toward Wagner and discovery—including Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s of each other—Lucy moves toward winter and separation, and it is Schubert whose music sets the tone, a composer whose tragic early death Cather knew well from the book of Schubert letters that Knopf had published in 1928.[13] The program where Lucy first hears Sebastian sing begins with Schubert lieder, and the concert strikes Lucy as “a discovery about life, a revelation of love as a tragic force, not a melting mood, of passion that drowns like black water. As she sat listening to this man the outside world seemed to her dark and terrifying, full of fears and dangers that had never come close to her until now” (33).[14] Sebastian’s second concert is yet more ominous, a performance of Schubert’s greatest cycle, Die Winterreise, in which a wandering singer makes a “winter journey” to sites associated with long-lost love. Its barren, frozen world of loneliness, tragic memories, and failed hopes is precisely where Lucy and Harry will find themselves in books 2 and 3. Even Schubert songs that seem to bode well prove false. Sebastian’s first concert begins with a song that thanks the Dioscuri for protecting sailors (31–32)—but Clement will die when his sailboat capsizes in a storm. Lucy associates Schubert’s “Die Forelle” with “a joyousness which seemed safe from time and change” (81), but she ignores that Schubert’s trout gets snared in the water and dies, much as Sebastian will die locked in Mockford’s arms, and as Lucy will die snagged under the ice by a submerged tree.[15] It is fitting that in Lohengrin, the one Wagner opera Lucy and Harry attend during his Chicago visit, “the music [keeps] bringing back things [Lucy] used to feel in Sebastian’s studio; belief in an invisible, inviolable world” (111)—the world into which Harry has now intruded, and which Lucy will soon lose when Sebastian dies. In contrast, Thea’s singing of Elsa in this same opera is the first in the sequence of operatic performances which in the final book of Song climax in her triumphant musical homecoming as Sieglinde in Die Walküre: “this afternoon the closed roads opened, the gates dropped” (525).

AWAKENINGS

Both in these instances and elsewhere, Lucy Gayheart plays off The Song of the Lark in ways that highlight qualities that Thea possesses—and that Lucy lacks. Lucy has musical talent, and she responds warmly to Sebastian’s music-making, but never does she evince Thea’s passion for ideas and their catalyzing power; never does she set high musical goals for herself and show Thea’s stubborn drive to attain them; and when at last her ambition is sparked by the compelling performance of an aging soprano in The Bohemian Girl, circumstances and her own character conspire to prevent her from fulfilling that ambition.[16]

Ironically underscoring this final forking of the ways is the fact that the closest correspondences between the two novels are those that link their heroines’ reawakenings—Thea’s in Panther Canyon, Lucy’s following the aging soprano’s performance. Catalyzing both are scenes of nature in all its freshness: for Thea, the “high sparkling air,” the “rapid, restless heart” of the canyon’s stream, its “glittering thread of current” (Song 326, 334); for Lucy, “the feeling of wonder in the air” as she recalls the performance she has just heard, the “long-forgotten restlessness” it stirs, its memories of spring-times past (“It was there, in the breeze, in the sun”), the cold air she breathes as she throws open the window in her room (itself an act that recalls Thea; see Lucy 194).

Inchoate expectations soon fill both women: “[I]t was as if [Thea] were waiting for something to catch up with her Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind—almost in her hands” (329– 30). “It was long before Lucy got to sleep that night. The wandering singer had struck something in her that went on vibrating; something that was like a purpose forming. . . . When she awoke in the morning, it was still there” (192). Living in the canyon leads Thea to recall Ray Kennedy’s belief “that one ought to do one’s best” (337, cf. 332); the Bohemian Girl soprano inspires Lucy at once to return “to a world that [strives] after excellence” (192).

Both women experience sudden revelations about the evanescent sweetness of life and the need to seize life at once. As Thea stands one morning in her bathing pool,“something flashed through her mind The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?” (334–35; emphasis added). As Lucy thinks back on the soprano’s performance, “everything in her was reaching outward, straining forward. . . . Suddenly something flashed into her mind What if—what if Life itself were the sweetheart? It was like a lover waiting for her in distant cities—across the sea; drawing her, enticing her, weaving a spell over her Those splendours were still on earth, to be sought after and fought for” (194–95; emphasis added). For once, Lucy even sounds like Thea! Soon thereafter, Lucy writes Auerbach about returning to study in Chicago: “The only way for me, is to do the things I used to do and to do them harder” (196). Thea makes a similar decision to go at once to Germany: “One’s life was at the mercy of blind chance. She had better take it in her own hands” (339).

FUGITIVE GLEAMS

That these awakenings—even their words—are so similar renders the more painful that after them Thea’s and Lucy’s journeys once again diverge. From Panther Canyon, Thea will press forward to Germany and New York, while even at its peak Lucy’s ambition is to go back to Chicago. For Thea, Panther Canyon is a reawakening to the musician and person she had almost lost in Chicago, and the gateway to the greatness she will attain in “Kronborg.” For Lucy, the reawakening and enlarging of her musical ambitions prove as illusory as the joy and safety she had naïvely associated with Schubert’s “Trout.”

The soprano’s performance leads Lucy’s thoughts back to Clement Sebastian: “[He] had made the fugitive gleam an actual possession. . . . She must go back into the world and get all she could of everything that had made him what he was” (194–95). She recalls the Mendelssohn aria with which their music-making had begun: “If with all your heart you truly seek Him, you shall ever surely find Him. He had sung that for her in the beginning, when she first went to him. Now she knew what it meant” (195).[17] But as with the “Trout,” this seemingly positive musical augury also proves false— before long Lucy is headed not back to the world but to the river and her death, and finding has become losing. Indeed, Sebastian’s “fugitive gleam” precisely describes the delusory hopes that keep arising in Lucy’s mind in this last section—and plays once again off the remembered backdrop of Thea, who manages throughout to turn her dreams and ambitions into reality.

It is no accident that a repeated motif in Lucy Gayheart is that of a briefly brilliant sunset sky—a fugitive gleam. Such a sky appears as Lucy and Harry skate to the distant island early in book 1 (11–12); it appears again as Lucy after Christmas anticipates returning to Chicago to resume her studies (“before sunset an unaccountable pink glow appeared in the eastern sky. . . . On sunny afternoons it was sure to be there, a pink rouge on the hard blue cheek of the sky” [198–99]); and it appears one last time at the very end of the book, this time to Harry: “[A]t the south window streaks of orange sunlight made a glow like candlelight in the dusky chamber. . . . When he came out of the house the last intense light of the winter day was pouring over the town below him, and the bushy treetops and the church steeples gleamed like copper. After all, he was thinking, he would never go away from Haverford. . . . What was a man’s ‘home town,’ anyway, but the place where he had had disappointments and had learned to bear them?” (242). The way in which this “fugitive gleam” lights up Harry’s town but then fades into darkness and disappointment exactly reprises the motif’s first appearance, where Lucy and Harry watch the sun send “quivering fans of red and gold over the wide country” as they sit on the island “in a stream of blinding light; it burned on their skates and on the flask and the metal cup. Their faces became so brilliant that they looked at each other and laughed. In an instant the light was gone; the frozen stream and the snow-masked prairie became violet, under the blue-green sky. Wherever one looked there was nothing but flat country and low hills, all violet and gray. Lucy gave a long sigh” (10).

Given the many ties between Lucy Gayheart and Schubert’s Winterreise, it is revealing that one of the later songs in that cycle is titled “Täuschung” (Delusion) and that the song’s words prefigure those just quoted: “A light dances invitingly in front of me, I follow after it hither and thither. . . . Ah, one as wretched as I gladly surrenders to the beguiling gleam/bright deception [bunten List], which gives him promise of a bright warm house, and of a loved soul within it. For me delusion is the only prize!”[18]

Disappointment, darkness, and loss filled Willa Cather’s life too in the years leading up to Lucy Gayheart, and undermined her artistic efforts—just listen to her letters. May 1928, soon after her father’s death: “For this year, my family concerns, father’s death and mother’s consequent breakdown have simply wiped out everything else. . . . Sometimes the difficulties of life are just too much for one, and then it is best to keep away from the desk” (Letters 409–10). April/May 1929, on caring for her mother in California: “[T]here is nothing to write, nothing to say or do . . . except to stand until one breaks, and the quicker that happens the better, if only one can break clear in two, and not just half-way. That’s why I’ve not written, because I’ve lost my bearings and can’t write except as bitterly and desperately as I feel” (415). March 1930: “The trouble is one can’t think of much but the general futility of existence” (427). September of the same year, to Dorothy Canfield Fisher on her mother’s death: “these vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect on those of us who are left—our world suddenly becomes so diminished—the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead” (433). November 1932, just as Cather was starting to write Lucy Gayheart: “after one is 45 it simply rains death, all about one, and after you’ve passed fifty, the storm grows fiercer” (474).

There is no precise equivalency between Cather and Thea Kronborg, and the same is yet more true of Cather and Lucy Gayheart. That said, two contiguous and indisputable facts—that Cather had written much of herself into Thea Kronborg, and that so many aspects of Lucy Gayheart so clearly play off the template of Song—make it impossible not to suspect that Lucy’s story too contains much of Cather. The letter excerpts just cited lend credence to this suspicion, as does Edith Lewis’s poignant description of how, from 1928 on, the malignancies of fortune gradually took their toll on Cather’s spirit and energy (including a passing comment that “the old heroic days of opera seemed to have gone forever” [Lewis 172]). As Cather looked back during these years on Thea Kronborg, whom in 1915 she had created in part as an image of herself and her own emergent artistry, Thea’s brilliant career must ever more have seemed a fugitive gleam, a mocking delusion, and in 1928 she projected against that backdrop a young singer, Marguerite Thiesinger, whose truncated career reflected the cruel diminishments Cather was experiencing in her own life. In 1932 her new preface to Song took a step further in its implicit conflation of Thea’s closeted, wraithlike existence with Cather’s own. Lucy Gayheart represents the end point of this trajectory in the contrasts Cather created between its tragic heroine and the triumphant Thea of 1915. Here too one senses the impact of the composer whose music fills her new novel, who also had seen the brightest of futures prove a fugitive gleam. In 1824, the year Schubert recognized that his disease and decline were irreversible, he described himself to a friend as “someone whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, someone to whom love and friendship are at most a source of bitterness, someone whose inspiration . . . for all that is beautiful threatens to fail” (Deutsch xii–xiii). It was the fading of just such beguiling hopes that Franz Schubert wove so deeply into Die Winterreise, Willa Cather into Lucy Gayheart.[19]

NOTES

 1. This essay complements my Historical Essay in the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition of Lucy Gayheart. Although at times it touches on material covered there, it approaches Song from a very different perspective and consists largely of insights spawned by the writing of that essay that were interpretative rather than “historical.” I thank the other editors of that edition, Guy Reynolds and Kari A. Ronning, for their helpful comments on these materials and for their encouragement to pursue them in this different format and venue. (Go back.)
 2. See the Professor’s discovery of the structure for his history in the Sierra Nevadas he sees from the Mediterranean: “St. Peter lay looking up at them from a little boat riding low in the purple water, and the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through” (105). (Go back.)
 3. Landry comments also on the period in Germany when Thea was working on the role of Elizabeth in Tannhäuser while her mother was dying at home—and how Thea’s grief kept informing the part so as eventually to render her interpretation of the last act “heart-breaking. might be any lonely woman getting ready to die” (493–94). (Go back.)
 4. The icy roads of Lucy’s last walk were much on Cather’s mind as she put the finishing touches on Lucy Gayheart. On 10 June 1934, just weeks before completing the novel, she wrote Louise Guerber Burroughs,“In these days one has to squeeze one’s memory hard to remember just what it was like to walk over frozen country roads in certain weathers. this morning I sat down and made myself remember” (Letters 495). (Go back.)
 5. Those alert to Lucy’s counterpoint on Song may notice how the Platte’s changing sands and currents destroy Lucy and her dreams, whereas at the end of Song, Cather’s image of the shifting sands and currents of the Venice lagoon evokes the tidings of children that “bring to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams” (539). (Go back.)
 6. References given are to Youth and the Bright Medusa, the first half of which Cather in 1920 devoted to these four stories (albeit with some changes—for example, “Coming, Eden Bower!” becomes “Coming, Aphrodite!”). For fuller discussion of these works and others from 1916 to 1925, see my Historical Essay in Lucy Gayheart. (Go back.)
 7. For discussion of these two scenes and their undercurrents of loss and separation, see my Historical Essay in Lucy Gayheart. (Go back.)
 8. See Skaggs’s “Another Look” on Cather’s friendship with Louise Guerber as a possible catalyst for the writing of Lucy Gayheart—and Louise as one more prototype for its heroine. (Go back.)
 9. Although “Double Birthday” first appeared in the February 1929 issue of Focus, Cather refers to completing a first draft of it in a letter of 15 February 1928 (Calendar, #1828). (Go back.)
 10. The most striking echo relates to “Thus Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven’s famous description of the first movement of his Fifth Symphony (Sullivan 143). Sullivan describes how fate struck in what Beethoven called “the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection” (110). Contrast Cather’s description of Marguerite’s cancer: “But Fate struck, and from the quarter least under suspicion—through that blooming, rounded, generously molded young body, from that abundant, glowing health which the Doctor proudly called peasant vigor” (51). See fuller discussion in my Historical Essay in Lucy Gayheart. (Go back.)
 11. See Porter, On the Divide 37. The language virtually duplicates that in Houghton Mifflin’s 1915 advertising brochure for Song, much of which Cather herself wrote (see On the Divide 11). (Go back.)
 12. Sebastian seeks subordination even in his concert accompanist. Although he admires James Mockford’s artistry, when Mockford suggests that he be listed on programs as “assisting artist” rather than “accompanist,” Sebastian tells Lucy, “I won’t have it” and alludes to Mockford as someone whose job is to “play second fiddle” (97); soon after, he informs her that Mockford will not be returning for the next season (128). (Go back.)
 13. For evidence that Cather drew on Deutsch’s book of Schubert letters in writing Lucy Gayheart, see my Historical Essay, where also I discuss the abundance of Schubert performances—including of his song cycles—that filled both the 1928 centennial of his death and the following years. For a full discussion of the extensive role played by Schubert lieder throughout Lucy Gayheart, see Lee 341–43 and my Historical Essay. (Go back.)
 14. In addition, the words of Sebastian’s encore, a setting of Byron’s “When We Two Parted,” strike her as an “evil omen”—as they prove to be for both Sebastian and herself (Lucy 34). (Go back.)
 15. On the role of “Die Forelle” in the novel, see Porter, “Schubert’s ‘Trout’” 3–6. (Go back.)
 16. On the stark contrasts between Lucy and Thea, see Skaggs, After 151ff., esp. 156: “The real charge Cather levels against Lucy in this novel is her lack of high seriousness, her lack of ambition.” (Go back.)
 17. John Murphy has suggested that the “Him” in the aria may suggest “Life itself”—which Lucy has just compared to “the sweetheart” and to “a lover waiting for her” (Lucy 195). (Go back.)
 18. The translation is from Schubert: 200 Songs, p. xiii, with minor editing by David Porter. With this passage compare both the home Harry imagines sharing with Lucy (“You shall have the kind of house you like” [Lucy 116]) and the advice Mr. Auerbach gives Lucy: “A nice house and garden in a little town, with money enough not to worry, a family—that’s the best life” (142). (Go back.)
 19. In her early 1936 essay “Escapism,” Cather wrote of “the seeming original injustice that creatures so splendidly aspiring should be inexorably doomed to fail” (On Writing 22). Her words uncannily recall the novel she had published the previous year, and its contrasts with Song: with “creatures so splendidly aspiring,” compare the young Schubert, Cather in the early teens, and Thea Kronborg; with those “inexorably doomed to fail,” compare Schubert after he is stricken in his mid-twenties, Cather in the early 1930s, and Lucy Gayheart. (Go back.)

WORKS CITED

Cather, Willa. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather: An Expanded, Digital Edition. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout. The Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. Web.
—. “Katherine Mansfield.” Borzoi 1925. New York: Knopf, 1925. 47–49. Print.
—. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. Print.
—. Letter to Blanche Knopf. 24 July 1932. Barbara Dobkin Collection, New York, New York.
—. Lucy Gayheart. 1935. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. David Porter, Kari A. Ronning, and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2015. Print.
—. My Mortal Enemy. New York: Knopf, 1926. Print.
—. One of Ours. 1922. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Richard C. Harris, Frederick M. Link, and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006. Print.
—. The Professor’s House. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress, Kari A. Ronning, and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
—. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
—. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Ann Moseley and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012. Print.
—. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1973. Print.
—. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies of Writing as an Art. Intro. Stephen Tennant. 1949. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. Print.
—. Youth and the Bright Medusa. 1920. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Mark J. Madigan, Frederick M. Link, Charles W. Mignon, Judith Boss, and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. Print.
Deutsch, Otto Erich, ed. Franz Schubert’s Letters. New York: Knopf, 1928. Print.
Harris, Richard. “Willa Cather, J. W. N. Sullivan, and the Creative Process.” Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 37 (1993): 17, 21–24. Print.
Hindemith, Paul. A Composer’s World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953. Print.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989. Print.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. 1953. Intro. John J. Murphy. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000. Print.
Porter, David. “Following the Lieder: Cather, Schubert, and Lucy Gayheart.” Cather Studies 10: Willa Cather and the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Anne L. Kaufman and Richard H. Millington. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2015. 328–48. Print.
—. Historical Essay. Cather, Lucy Gayheart 251–347. Print.
—. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. Print.
—. “Schubert’s ‘Trout’ and Lucy Gayheart: A Rainbow of Reflections.” Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 57.2 (2014): 2–6. Print.
Schubert: 200 Songs. Ed. Sergius Kagen. Vol. 1. New York: International Music Company, n.d. Print.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963. Print.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990. Print.
—. “Another Look at Lucy Gayheart and Another New Lucy.” Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 57.2 (Summer 2014): 12–15. Print.
Sullivan, J. W. N. Beethoven: His Spiritual Development. New York: Knopf, 1927. Print.