Willa Cather’s penultimate short story, “Before Breakfast” (1944), contains two brief musical references, one to Brahms’s Second Symphony and another to the sentimental ballad “Kathleen Mavourneen.” Few fictional settings could comfortably accommodate two such different references, but in Cather’s story, the two seem strangely at home. During a dinner discussion, Harrison Grenfell wonders how Serge Koussevitzky will conduct the second movement of the Brahms that evening while his mother, Margaret, asserts her preference for Karl Muck’s reading of years ago. The patriarch of the family, Henry Grenfell, dryly announces that he will attend a recital by tenor John McCormack and hear “Kathleen Mavourneen” instead. Margaret defuses the tension by reminding everyone that McCormack once sang Mozart, too, as if to defect Henry’s rebuke of his family’s esoteric, highbrow taste (ob 155–56).
Cather’s depiction of a house divided by allegiances to opposed artistic camps implies that distinctions between “high” and “low” art were important to her as late as 1944. Yet a careful reading of “Before Breakfast” and especially Cather’s late novel Lucy Gayheart (1935) shows that these distinctions had become illusory and even irrelevant to Cather. In “Before Breakfast,” Cather juxtaposed issues of the utmost complexity (the age and size of the universe and the puny role that humans play in it) with infinitely more subtle ones (Koussevitzky versus Muck, and McCormack’s tasteful rendering of popular songs) as if to suggest that, in the end, those who appreciate music whether “high” or “low” need not feud over details that only get in the way of enjoying it. And in shaping a sonic world for Lucy Gayheart, Cather drew on both “high” and “low” music to create a harmonious atmosphere in which such labels are no longer very meaningful. In both works, Cather effectively levels artistic barriers by drawing on music familiar to her from her earliest years and revisiting it using listening skills that, as they developed, enabled her to hear all music with a democratizing ear.
Lucy Gayheart (1935) has traditionally been read as evidence not of a bridging of opposed tastes but, in Richard Giannone’s phrase, of Cather’s gradual “refinement of taste in music” (Music 213). Giannone believes Lucy Gayheart shows that Cather’s “preference shifted from the dramatic and symphonic to the more intimate, lyrical forms, from the elaborate to the simple” (213). A love for the “simple” thus explains the “preponderance of German Lieder over operatic arias” in the novel and the structural resemblances between Cather’s novel and Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise (Music 215–20).
Giannone’s observations remain valid and highly useful, yet they do not explain the importance in the novel of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, a quasi-operatic work that is anything but “simple.” They leave unanswered, too, the question of why, late in life, Cather rethought her early contempt for Mendelssohn’s music. Even the idea that lieder had supplanted opera as Cather’s favorite genre deserves a second look, given that references to opera in Lucy Gayheart are nearly as frequent as references to lieder and other genres. Moreover, at the climax of Lucy Gayheart, Cather reaffirms her love of opera by granting not Schubert lieder but Balfe’s opera The Bohemian Girl the power to lif Lucy from her despair.
Cather’s taste in music did change but not in the way Giannone describes. Any change in taste evidenced by the music in Lucy Gayheart has less to do with Cather’s privileging certain types of music over others than in her having developed better listening skills with which to appraise all types of music—lieder, oratorio, and opera, both grand and popular, as well as sentimental ballads and instrumental music. As she aged, Cather began to hear music differently and, especially when rehearing familiar music, discovered things in it that formerly had escaped her as well as opportunities to use these discoveries in her writing.
Cather’s improved listening ability also explains her diminishing interest in melody as a source of pleasure and her increasing attentiveness to rhythm and meter. This attentiveness also made her less concerned with distinctions between music such as Schubert’s lieder and popular ballads and more attuned to subtleties found in all music. Clearly she questioned—in some cases corrected—her beliefs about certain music from her own past by “rehearing” it in her late fiction. Thus Lucy Gayheart and “Before Breakfast” show Cather testing her own memories of “the fine things of youth, which do not change” (lg 235), among which are youthful listening experiences. In testing these memories, Cather found that her response to remembered music had indeed changed because of her evolving ear. She realized, too, that a carefully trained ear, as hers surely became, responds not so much to anything that inheres in the music itself but to a performer’s seriousness of purpose, sense of rhythm, and respect for the words of a text, qualities that sensitive artists bring to any music, “high” or “low,” they play or sing.
In her review for the Nebraska State Journal of an 1896 Pittsburgh performance of Massenet’s oratorio Eve, the young Cather gave no hint of embarrassment that she “had no technical vocabulary or expertise to write about music” (Woodress 129). Instead, she filled her review with vivid “descriptions” of the work.“The music comes in long, clear waves of sound like the glittering waves that break shoreward. The freshness of the thing is indescribable; the music is as light as the mists on the hilltops. It is a new heaven and a new earth indeed” (W&P 377). As James Woodress observes,“Nice similes and imagery, but they hardly tell one much about the music” (129).
Even when her days as a journalist were behind her, Cather was still avidly attending concerts and occasionally writing unpublished music criticism. On December 5, 1937, she attended a recital at New York’s Town Hall by American pianist Beveridge Webster, and, a few days later, wrote Webster a brief letter praising his performance: That was the third time I had heard you play the Schumann [Fantasy in C Major, op. 17], and this week I thought there was a kind of larger freedom in your treatment and a careless care in shooting the rapids (a queer figure of speech, but if you’ve ever seen the Canadian canoe men shoot rapids, you will know that I mean something (not velocity) which I am unable to say in technical musical language). (Letter, 11 Dec. 1937) Clearly Cather’s ear has evolved. Webster’s playing has evoked for Cather sharper images (canoeing,“shooting the rapids”) than Massenet had in 1896. And not only has she become an informed listener through rehearing (“That was the third time I heard you play the Schumann”) but also her imagery describes not Schumann’s music but a particular performance of it. She admits that she lacks “technical musical language,” but nonetheless she has heard something new in Webster’s interpretation, something that Webster probably could have expressed whether he were playing Schumann or “Chopsticks.”
Cather’s changed listening skills can be understood by applying ideas from Leonard B. Meyer’s classic 1956 study, Emotion and Meaning in Music. Meyer identifies two types of listeners: the “referentialists,” those who believe music “communicates meanings which in some way refer to the extramusical world of concepts, actions, emotional states, and character,” and “absolutists,” who believe “musical meaning lies exclusively within the context of the work itself, in the perception of the relationships set forth within the musical work of art” (1). Meyer makes a further division of absolutist listeners into “formalists” and “expressionists.” The formalist believes that “meaning in music lies primarily in the perception and understanding of the musical relationships set forth in the work of art and . . . is primarily intellectual,” while the expressionist “would argue that these same relationships are in some sense capable of exciting feelings and emotions in the listener” (2–3).
The young Cather shows a strong identification with the referentialist camp. Her review of Eve betrays a need to go far beyond the music to explain it. In a September 1895 review of Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), she similarly praises the opera’s Intermezzo for “its bass that labors and fails and struggles, that suffers and protests in its black despair; its treble that never yields, never falters, dips sometimes toward the lower octaves like a bird that is faint with its death wound” (KA 162). And in early stories such as “A Wagner Matinée” (1904), Cather resorts to external events to describe “the battle between the two motives” of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. During “the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came . . . an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat” (YBM 242).
Although the descriptions of a dying bird and the world’s “waste and wear” show strong referentialist tendencies, they also indicate that Cather has begun to progress beyond “nice similes and imagery.” In fact, her explanation of how treble and bass lines move in the Mascagni Intermezzo is musically accurate and, by suggesting the emotional power created by the tension between these lines, she sounds like one of Meyer’s expressionists, that is, one for whom “musical relationships,” in this case, the clash between opposed musical lines, create “feelings and emotions.” And likewise, in her description of the Tannhäuser overture, Cather hears discrete musical themes while describing the emotional effect of their carefully crafted juxtaposition. The emphasis in these early writings, however, as it is in most of Cather’s early criticism and fiction, is on melody, an element that faded in importance to Cather as she matured. Witness the Beveridge Webster letter, which praises his “careless care” rather than, say, his singing tone.
This is not to say that a strong grasp of melody was not useful to Cather. It enabled her not only to describe great singing but also to expose sloppy singers who, like Jessie Darcy in The Song of the Lark, substitute physical gestures, such as a raised arm, when they clearly have missed the correct pitch (SL 292). As she matured, however, Cather learned to appreciate artistry that went beyond merely hitting the right notes, and this new appreciation is apparent in a vivid episode in The Song of the Lark. After being summoned to the Metropolitan Opera to replace the Sieglinde who has become incapacitated after act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Thea Kronborg makes her entrance and suddenly has to think quickly to avoid a mishap. She tells Fred Ottenburg and Dr. Archie afterwards: ‘I thought it went pretty well. I was rather smart to catch [the conductor’s] tempo there, at the beginning of the first recitative, when he came in too soon, don’t you think? It’s tricky in there, without a rehearsal. Oh, I was all right! He took that syncopation too fast in the beginning. Some singers take it fast there— think it sounds more impassioned. That’s one way!’ (SL 484) Earlier Fred had worried, “The stuff she has to sing in there is a fright—rhythm, pitch,—and terribly difficult intervals” (SL 482). Yet the pitches of Wagner’s music and its melodic contour do not cause Thea or Cather any anxiety. Thea’s most serious challenge—the only one described in any detail in the whole episode—is rhythmic: uniting her sense of rhythm with the conductor’s meter in order to give the impression of a close collaboration among singer, conductor, and orchestra rather than of wildly opposed forces.
The episode in Song suggests that Cather understood the difference between musical rhythm and meter. Musicologist Jonathan D. Kramer distinguishes the two terms by using pulse to describe rhythm and beat to describe meter: Not only are metric and rhythmic accents different phenomena but also they are applied to different kinds of musical events. The two may or may not coincide, but they are conceptually— and experientially—distinct. A pulse is an event in the music, interpreted by a performer and directly heard by a listener. It occurs at a timepoint. A beat, on the other hand, is a timepoint rather than a duration in time. A pulse is movable with respect to a beat (this happens in expressive performances), but a beat is movable only with respect to absolute time (in a ritardando, for example) [Kramer’s emphasis throughout]. (97) Kramer’s discussion helps to explain Thea’s success in Die Walküre. Thea finds herself singing for a conductor with a flexible sense of meter who inserts an unwritten accelerando at Sieglinde’s entrance to make the music sound more impassioned. Thea quickly perceives what has happened, adopts the sudden metric change, and smoothly joins the orchestra. The conductor no doubt feels justified in moving a metrical timepoint so that it occurs sooner in absolute time, and Thea wisely avoids challenging him in the middle of a performance.
In Song, Cather thus shows that she knows how to think—and write—as a musician, and this expertise is even more apparent in Lucy Gayheart. Although she broke almost no new musical ground in Lucy Gayheart—except for Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano (lg 171), Schubert’s song cycles, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, every piece of music mentioned in the novel had already appeared in her fiction or journalism—she had grown significantly as a listener after Song. Her recycling, for example, of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Massenet’s Hérodiade for Lucy’s audition with Clement Sebastian and of Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl for a crucial scene in book 2 many years after first writing about them suggests that Cather had never stopped listening to them in the intervening years.
No doubt, too, her rich history of concert-going, together with enjoyable friendships with accomplished musicians such as Ethel Herr Litchfield, Olive Fremstad, Harold Bauer, Jan Hambourg, Josef Lhevinne, Dame Myra Hess, and Yehudi Menuhin, gave her many opportunities to expand her musical knowledge. It is reasonable to assume that, as her musical experiences multiplied and deepened, her youthful assessments would often need updating, especially when some aspects of music, such as metric and rhythmic complexities, could be grasped only through repeated hearings of a work. Some of these “updated” impressions clearly were exciting enough for Cather to incorporate them in her late fiction.
Both “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816) and the aria “Vision fugitive” from Massenet’s Hérodiade (1881) had once made strong albeit very different impressions on Cather. After hearing a performance of the Rossini opera in May 1900, she dismissed it in a review for the Lincoln Courier: “The Barber of Seville has held its own longer than any of Rossini’s operas. . . . Its vivacity and gaiety, its naive artifice of melody . . . have prolonged its popularity among singers and with the public . . . . [But] showy as it is, it is never truly brilliant, and its floridity is without richness. . . . It is a composition that can never be taken very seriously” (W&P 656).
Cather was as enthusiastic about “Vision fugitive,” however, as she had been of the same composer’s Eve. Reviewing an 1897 performance of “Vision fugitive,” Cather wrote,“I had not heard it before, but it was like all Massenet’s music, full of that ever present sensuous spirituality of his, like Rossetti’s verses, hinting of the warfare between the flesh and the spirit . . . full of vague, delicious yearning” (W&P 520). Typically these reviews focus on the melodies of each composer rather than on other qualities. No wonder, then, that Cather had found Rossini’s “naive artifice of melody” less interesting than Massenet’s “yearning” tune.
Yet a cosmopolitan singer such as Clement would know that the Rossini and Massenet arias present difficult challenges for an accompanist, making them useful as audition pieces. Early in their collaboration, he tells Lucy,“What I want most is elasticity. You must learn to catch a hint quickly in the tempi. When I’m eccentric, catch step with me” (LG 44–45). The Rossini and Massenet arias, with their metrical challenges, require the skills of a highly disciplined, “elastic” pianist. On one hand, the accompaniment of the Rossini aria, marked allegro vivace (fast and lively) in 6/8 time, is full of chords and phrases repeated many times to comic effect in counterpoint to the rapid wordplay of the text, illustrating Figaro’s amusing ability to handle any situation. Yet were an accompanist to play it in an “inelastic” way, with no “bending” of any note’s time value, the effect would be deadly dull and fatal to the piece’s exuberant humor.
The Massenet work, on the other hand, marked andante (moderately slow) in languorous, hesitant 9/8 time, requires a pianist to avoid “holding back” an already dangerously slack beat. Like most Massenet arias, “Vision fugitive” sounds as if the singer is making the thing up on the spot. Its “unpredictable rhythmic surface . . . seemingly unprepared repetitions . . . and harmonic progressions that often unfold in metrically unexpected ways” combine to create an “effect . . . very close to musical prose” (Abbate and Parker 412). Depicting Hérode’s hallucinatory, lustful vision of Salome, the aria requires a pianist who can maintain a clear beat even though Massenet challenges performers to identify any beat at all. Cather’s reader learns that the otherwise dependable Lucy in fact “went wrong in the Massenet,” evidence that Lucy is being tested by Clement and that Cather is aware of the music’s pitfalls (LG 38). Cather’s growth in musical understanding is apparent in both instances. “Largo al factotum,” once “naïve” and “showy” to a youthful Cather, has become a musical touchstone. And “Vision fugitive,” which Cather once liked simply for its “delicious yearning,” is credited with distinguishing the nervous amateur from the calm professional.
That Cather allowed Lucy “very nearly [to be] saved” by hearing “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl (1843) implies she felt the aria had a redemptive power beyond mere tunefulness (LG 189). And Lucy clearly discovers something in its performance that she has missed in her studies with Paul Auerbach and rehearsals with Clement. She now hears the singer’s “pulse” clashing with the “beat” of the orchestra. The soprano whom time had ravaged, who “had lost everything: youth, good looks, position, the high notes of her voice” (179), can still move audiences. During “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,”“she glided delicately over the too regular stresses, and subtly varied the rhythm. She gave freshness to the foolish old words because she phrased intelligently” (179).
Richard Giannone believes—rightly—that the soprano’s performance has spiritual power and that Lucy’s response shows “a soul groping for bearings” (“Spirituality” 136). Yet there is something essentially musical about Lucy’s encounter, too. David Porter recognizes this aspect and suggests Lucy realizes that, “despite her own losses and musical limitations, she can still pursue a musical career” (303). Suddenly the world seems full of singers who need an accompanist such as Lucy, “who wanted to be up there on the stage with [the soprano], helping her do it” (LG 192).
Lucy’s epiphany resembles one that Cather surely experienced: that accomplished vocalists and accompanists can—and often must—alter an audience’s expectations of where the melody’s pulse and the accompaniment’s beat join and where they deviate from each other. In the case of “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” written in 3/8 time, the soprano sings three eighth-notes in each measure while in the accompaniment an arpeggio of six sixteenth-notes monotonously rises and falls in the same measure. Were the soprano to sing her notes in strict time—one note for every two in the accompaniment—and match her pulse unwaveringly to the accompaniment’s beat, the effect, although technically correct, would soon sound choppy and painfully predictable, spoiling the dreamlike mood of the aria. No doubt Cather had heard performances in which singers and accompanists had marched in close step with each other and had succeeded only in boring the audience. When she found a singer, however, who “glided delicately over the too regular stresses and subtly varied the rhythm,” thus making the words sound more important than the music’s beat, it was deeply satisfying. In Lucy Gayheart, Cather rehears her own pleasure on such occasions and invites Lucy to experience it as if for the first time.
Although Cather always had a nostalgic attachment to The Bohemian Girl, such was not the case with oratorios (except, as we have seen, Massenet’s Eve). Cather’s opinion of oratorio was likely the same as Thea Kronborg’s: it was “a great opportunity for bluffers” (SL 287). In the case of Elijah, Cather’s opinion would have been aggravated by a lack of respect for all things Mendelssohn. In a review of an all-Mendelssohn concert in Lincoln in 1895, she dismissed most of his music: “There is always the exaggerated elaboration of an insufficient theme, always the same promise of something really great and the same recoil from the doing of it. Either a forced excitement which results in a series of technical tricks, or a simplicity which betrays a poverty of imagination” (W&P 177). Cather does not explain what she means by “technical tricks,” but references to “a simplicity which betrays a poverty of imagination,”“an insufficient theme,” and “the promise of something really great” suggest frustration with the same shortcoming she had once noted in The Barber of Seville: a lack of melodic interest.
A massive work for soloists, choruses, and orchestra requiring two hours to perform, Elijah (1846) pays homage to the great choral works of Bach and Handel that Mendelssohn so admired (Warrack 20). Although rarely performed today, Elijah could be heard frequently in New York concert halls and churches in the 1930s, and individual arias appeared in vocal recitals throughout the twentieth century. The oratorio’s absence from concert halls is regrettable, for Elijah is a rich blend of majestic choruses, elaborate ensembles, and tuneful arias that, like the songs of The Bohemian Girl, once fell easily on the ears of Victorian audiences. In fact, Obadiah’s aria “If With All Your Heart Ye Truly Seek Me” has much of the same lilting charm as Balfe’s “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls.” Both arias have arpeggio-laced accompaniments and easily remembered, deceptively simple melodies that can sound trite when sung by lesser artists.
That both Elijah and The Bohemian Girl had become old-fashioned by the end of the 1890s is due to some of the same developments. Lawrence Levine observes that “all forms of opera were deeply affected by the growing insistence that opera was a ‘higher’ form of art demanding a cultivated audience” (102). And for audiences who prided themselves on their sophistication, “more and more, opera in America meant foreign-language opera” (102). With their English texts, Elijah and The Bohemian Girl became second-class material relatively early in their histories. Mendelssohn’s case was more problematic. Leon Botstein observes that Mendelssohn’s music, “in part because of its affectionate refinement and the relative ease of performance and comprehension, had come to signify glib amateur music making” (6).
Cather knew Mendelssohn in her college days through his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Songs without Words, and it is unclear when she became acquainted with Elijah. A possible clue to her interest is a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday evening, February 25, 1934, conducted by Wilfred Pelletier and featuring singers from the Met’s 1933–34 season, including Lawrence Tibbett, Gladys Swarthout, and Richard Crooks. There is no evidence that Cather attended this performance, but she was living in New York at the time, deeply involved with Lucy Gayheart, and certainly would have been attracted by the program. The concert’s first half contained selections by Gounod, Massenet, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Bizet while the second half, entitled “Favorite Songs of Yesterday and Today Arranged for Voices and Salon Orchestra” (including a solo banjo), featured lighter music by Balfe, Stephen Foster, Victor Herbert, and Jerome Kern as well as several Scottish and English folk songs (“Met Concert/Gala”). During the first half of the concert, American tenor Richard Crooks sang the “Prize Song” from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, a great favorite of Cather’s, as well as Obadiah’s aria “If With All Your Heart Ye Truly Seek Me” from Elijah. In the second half, Crooks also sang Thaddeus’s aria “Then You’ll Remember Me” from The Bohemian Girl (“Met Concert/Gala”).
Even if this concert played no role in how Cather chose music for Lucy Gayheart, the appearance of vocal selections from Elijah and The Bohemian Girl on the same program featuring “favorite songs of yesterday” points to the nostalgic appeal of the two works for Depression-era audiences and to the fact that both works were decidedly “retro” by the time Lucy Gayheart was published. When Clement asks Lucy if she has ever heard Elijah “well given,” he wistfully implies that the oratorio usually came of poorly in performance, as it may have for Cather in her youth (LG 45). The same can be said of The Bohemian Girl, which, as Lucy knows, has already become “hackneyed” and “foolish” by 1901.
Yet the Mendelssohn and Balfe selections work together on Lucy at the lowest point of her depression following Clement’s death to show her a way out of her paralyzed state. Significantly, the lingering emotional power of the Balfe aria in the novel is rhythmic, not melodic: “When [Lucy] awoke in the morning [after the performance], it was still there, beating like another heart” (lg 192). The soprano’s success with the aria’s lyrics—“she was tender with their sentimentality, as if they were pressed flowers which might fall apart if roughly handled” (LG 191)—speaks, too, of the singer’s highly developed rhythmic ability. The “wandering singer’s” bending of the melody’s pulse that gives “freshness to the foolish old words” signifies that, for Cather and her heroine, an intelligent singer can create friction between the melody and the accompaniment and thereby direct the listener’s attention to the text and not to the musical “scaffolding” supporting it.
Similarly, in the days following the performance of The Bohemian Girl, the rhetorical power of Obadiah’s aria finally becomes clear to Lucy nearly a year after she first heard Clement sing it: “Now she knew what it meant” (LG 195). Lucy rehears the aria with the words accentuated—no longer blurred or buried, apparently—by the piano accompaniment, as if the soprano in Balfe’s opera had shown Lucy the kind of artistry with words that Clement always had possessed in everything he sang but that Lucy never had really heard before. Now the text of the Mendelssohn aria inspires Lucy to embark on a search for life’s meaning: “She must have it, she couldn’t run away from it. She must go back into the world and get all she could of everything that had made him what he was. Those splendours were still on earth, to be sought after and fought for” (LG 195). Cather demonstrates that Elijah and The Bohemian Girl, although written of by many critics, still enable sensitive performers to move audiences deeply and memorably. Lucy’s rehearing of the two works after familiarity with them had dulled her musical and poetical sensibilities constitutes the novel’s emotional climax and echoes, too, Cather’s reconsideration of judgments she had once naively made before she became a well-trained listener.
Unfortunately, Lucy runs out of time before she can “go back into the world,” but, tragic as her final days are, Harry Gordon’s life after Lucy’s death is even harder. Harry muses, “Lucy had suffered for a few hours, a few weeks at most. But with him it was there to stay” (LG 232). Harry’s loneliness is emphasized by a silence that settles over the novel, a silence deepened by Cather’s withholding any reference to music from Book III. Giannone believes there is a spiritual purpose behind this silence: “Harry does not speak; he does not move. He does not have to. He acts with his soul. This kind of language puts spoken words and musical sound to rest” (“Spirituality” 147).
There is another way of understanding Harry’s situation in Book III, too. At the end of the novel, the writing of which had allowed her to enjoy again so much music from her past, Cather creates a world without any music. Because she suppresses it, the reader is left with a sonic world composed solely of “too regular stresses,” that is, the ticking of watches repaired by Jacob Gayheart that will define Harry’s remaining life. Set in November 1927, Book III begins on a Saturday at 4:00 p.m., the “unusual hour” of Jacob Gayheart’s funeral (lg 215), and it ends precisely twenty-four hours later as Harry leaves the vacant Gayheart home. Cather squeezes the twenty-five years of Harry’s life since Lucy’s death into twenty-six pages and twenty-four hours, after which the watches of Haverford’s citizens will stop beating and require rewinding. Not much else seems likely to happen. The reader, accustomed to hearing music throughout Books I and II, now listens uneasily and vainly for any music—any sound, even—that could bend the maddeningly regular meter of Harry’s desolation.
David Porter identifies the one sound, implied if not actually audible, that distracts Harry and the reader from time’s metronomic passage: the recalled sound of Lucy’s voice (LG 312–13). Significantly, however, this remembered sound lacks music’s power to alter the clocklike predictability of Harry’s movements, for the novel’s last image is of Harry as he leaves the Gayheart home,“paus[ing] mechanically on the sidewalk, as he had done so many thousand times,” to look at Lucy’s static footprints in the sidewalk (lg 242). A deadly repetitiveness—the same tedium from which Lucy was briefly rescued by a “wandering soprano” whose finely developed rhythmic skill cast a spell with Balfe’s aria—is the only rhythmic or metric pattern Harry will ever hear or feel. Cather seems to say that Harry’s remaining days are proof that no life is as cruel as one that lacks music to fill its emptiness.
At first glance, Lucy Gayheart and “Before Breakfast” have little in common, yet the latter explores the malaise of someone very much like Harry Gordon. When we meet Henry Grenfell—even his name recalls Harry’s—we are strangely reminded of book 3 of Lucy Gayheart. Both Harry and Henry have their retreats—Harry his study at the bank and Henry his cabin on a Canadian island—and both are glad to escape there from their wives and comfortable lives. Both men have loyal companions, Harry’s cashier, Milton Chase, and Henry’s servant, William. Both reflect on impulsive actions in the past that have circumscribed their lives. Both talk to themselves and, in Henry’s case, to planets and fallen trees. Both contemplate the sky and ponder enormous distances of time and space and their own mortality. Moreover, the rigorous time constraints of book 3 of Lucy are tightened even further in “Before Breakfast,” creating the shortest narrative time span of any Cather work, the hours between sunrise and breakfast, and suggesting that Cather was performing a much more difficult experiment than she had attempted in book 3 of Lucy Gayheart.
“Before Breakfast” also gave Cather another opportunity to rehear her past. In 1925 she had used the third movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony (1877) as the source of a vocal arrangement by Valentine Ramsay (“Uncle Valentine” 24), but she surely had encountered Brahms’s exultant showpiece several times in concert. Moreover, Cather would have had opportunities to hear Karl Muck (1859–1940) during his tenure in Boston from 1906 to 1908 and again from 1912 to 1918 (Schonberg 217). And not only did she hear Serge Koussevtizky (1874–1951) and the Boston Symphony during their appearances at Carnegie Hall but she also was a regular guest at the annual receptions Alfred and Blanche Knopf hosted for the conductor during his New York engagements (Brown 328).
In “Before Breakfast,” Margaret Grenfell rehears musical experiences from the distant past—Muck’s reading of the Brahms—and uses these memories to assess a performance she is about to hear, echoing how Cather engaged with her own past while writing Lucy Gayheart. In comparing Muck and Koussevitzky, Margaret would be aware, too, that the conductors pursued opposite musical approaches. Muck “kept his rhythms in order, refused to go in for fluctuations of tempo, took very few liberties” (Schonberg 216). Koussevitzky, on the other hand,“[took] liberties—slowing before climactic moments, for instance—that no one would get away with now” (Denby). Cather’s gesture to both Muck and Koussevitzky is evidence not only of her own pleasure in “rehearing” their concerts but also of her awareness that there is no single valid performance style for Brahms’s Second or any other orchestral work.
Cather’s insertion of the parlor song “Kathleen Mavourneen” (1840) in her story immediately after mentioning Brahms’s Second is practically bathetic and seems an unlikely choice to round of a distinguished career of exploring music in her fiction. But Cather does not ridicule the song or Henry because he likes McCormack’s singing of it or is hearing it probably for the umpteenth time. Cather had no cause to rethink her 1896 opinion that “Kathleen Mavourneen” was “not a great song,” yet it was an inescapable part of her deep past nonetheless (KA 168). In fact, it is hard to imagine that Cather would not have known the song very well during her childhood in Virginia, given that it was “one of the best-loved antebellum American parlor songs and was familiar on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line” (Kelley and Snell 175). It once enjoyed the same popularity as did songs from The Bohemian Girl and Elijah, and it shared the same fate as “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls” and “If With All Your Heart Ye Truly Seek Me,” becoming trite and quaint before the end of the nineteenth century.
The great Irish tenor John McCormack (1884–1945) was one of the few serious singers who kept “Kathleen Mavourneen” alive. Well known in Italy and England before his New York debut at the Manhattan Opera in November 1909, McCormack had only a brief career in opera—he was a poor actor—but he was a hugely popular recitalist, toured extensively until the late 1930s, sang programs that always mingled lieder, art songs, and popular ballads, and left a legacy of distinguished recordings (Pleasants 328–31). That he continued to feature “Kathleen Mavourneen” on his recital programs and recorded it twice for Victor while continuing to sing “high art” songs, too, is evidence not only of his unusually wide repertoire but also of his faith in the song’s enduring appeal.
In fact, McCormack’s recitals always featured two groups of songs: the first composed of works by “Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf,” and the second featuring “sentimental Irish ballads” (Pleasants 329). McCormack remains one of the very few modern vocalists who successfully straddled “high” and “low” cultures. Almost forty years after McCormack’s death, critic Donal Henahan recalled his own childhood memories of how, in the tenor’s recording of “Kathleen Mavourneen,”“McCormack enunciated the delicious word Kathleen and pierced my heart most painfully” (Henahan). Yet despite this ability, McCormack “was regularly condemned in his day for his lowbrow repertory and his willingness to entertain popular audiences with frivolous ditties and sentimental ballads. That he was also a masterly interpreter of . . . lieder merely made his immersion in the popular repertory all the more annoying to his sternest critics” (Henahan).
Two of McCormack’s greatest strengths were in fact the identical skills Cather attributes to the soprano in Lucy Gayheart: an attention to words and a highly effective “rhythmic deviation,” particularly in English-language songs (Ledbetter 154). His “immaculate enunciation, with an immaculate melodic line,” enabled him to excel “in music of an inferior order, where the melody, however compellingly voiced, was not sufficiently communicative to stand alone” (Pleasants 330). Like Cather’s soprano, McCormack was aware, too, of the importance of words, and “it was to rhythms of speech that McCormack gave priority The result was that he sang the language as he might have spoken it, and his melodic line continually deviated rhythmically, while he yet maintained its essential shapes” (Ledbetter 154). The resemblance between McCormack and Cather’s description of the singer in Lucy Gayheart who “glided delicately” over the meter is striking evidence of how much Cather had learned about vocal artistry.
By 1944 Cather’s evolving ear could hear not only rhythmic beauties in many kinds of music but also the more subtle rhythms of the cosmic machinery that is the backdrop of “Before Breakfast.” Rhythmic cycles appear throughout the story, whether the ocean’s tidal energy (the Atlantic “was thick and dark, indigo blue—occasionally a silver streak, where the tide was going out”) (ob 142), or the music of the spheres (the planet Venus, like Thea Kronborg in Die Walküre, “had come in on her beat, taken her place in the figure”) (OB 144). Even the comic collision of bicycles through which Henry met his future wife and then “married that only daughter one year after she coasted into him” (OB 151) seems the product of Henry’s adaptability to unexpected, overriding beats that resembles Thea’s ability to catch step with a conductor’s baton.
After depicting Henry as hemmed in by pressures that stifle him— “What was the use . . . of anything?” (OB 146)—Cather frees him from them as McCormack freed an old song from its strict rhythm and stale history. Henry’s sight of Fairweather’s daughter’s morning swim, like Lucy’s hearing “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” is, in David Stouck’s phrase, nothing short of a “reaffirmation of living” (236). In much the same way that the swimmer’s “careless care” and disregard of cold and danger shock Henry (“Crazy kid! What does she think she’s doing? This is the North Atlantic, girl, you can’t treat it like that!” [OB 164]), Canadian canoe men’s shooting the rapids causes disbelieving onlookers’ hearts to skip beats. Likewise, pianists, singers, and conductors, more subtly but no less thrillingly for many, push audiences beyond their expectations and startle them with new sonic possibilities. Basking in the afterglow of such experiences, audiences resemble Henry and Lucy in their sudden eagerness to rejoin a refreshed world: “something had sharpened his appetite. He was hungry” (OB 166).
It is appropriate, then, that in “Before Breakfast,” a story celebrating the imponderable questions of geologic and human time, Cather reminds us of our need to escape from the things we cannot grasp and to find replenishment in the microcosmic yet highly satisfying temporal spaces that a brave swimmer or a musical performance occupy. And perhaps, Cather seems to say after a lifetime of listening and wondering, we can more readily find solace in performances of The Bohemian Girl, “Kathleen Mavourneen,” the Brahms Second, or any other music than in interrogating a cosmos whose deepest rhythms are beyond our ability to hear, let alone comprehend. Certainly the comfort that Cather denies to Harry Gordon at the end of Lucy Gayheart she bestows lavishly on Henry Grenfell as he returns to his cabin,“chuckling to himself” and hungrily anticipating his much-needed breakfast (OB 166). Henry’s amusement should not surprise us. After all, unlike Harry Gordon, Henry Grenfell still listens to music.