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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Wagner, Place, and the Growth of Pessimism in the Fiction of Willa Cather

In 1925 Willa Cather honored Gertrude Hall, the author of an unexceptional and occasionally florid layman's guide to the operas of RichardWagner, by contributing a brief introduction to the re-publication of Hall's book, The Wagnerian Romances. In this essay, Cather briefly describes the difficulty of capturing the power of an operatic scene in narrative form. "I had to attempt it once, in the course of a novel, and I paid Miss Hall the highest compliment one writer can pay another; I stole from her (Preface 64-65).

This is a rather cryptic remark, though it has not always been read as such. Cather never tells us which novel contains her act of theft from Miss Hall, though the usual assumption is that it must be from The Song of the Lark. It is, perhaps, the performance of Lohengrin in which Thea Kronborg is revealed as the prairie girl once and forever transfigured by art, or the capstone scene in which she sings the role of Sieglinde from DieWalk4re. Indeed, in his biography of Cather, James Woodress paraphrases the essay in a way that simply assumes this passage refers to The Song of the Lark, although Cather never mentions the novel in her introduction, nor does she say that she was translating a particular operatic scene as a scene within a novel (Woodress 358). She says instead that she had to translate "the feeling of an operatic scene . . . in the course of the novel" (Preface 64), which leaves open several possibilities, including the enticing one that she may have crafted whole novels that are imaginative translations of operatic material. Given the date of Cather's introduction to The Wagnerian Romances—1925—it's not a given that she's referring to the ten-year-old The Song of the Lark, the novel in which she makes the most extensive reference to Wagner's music dramas. No less Wagnerian in its inspiration is the Pulitzer Prize—winning One of Ours (1922), a book that would have been fresh in her mind when she wrote her preface to Hall's book.

Cather's brief essay on Wagner says nothing about how her characters hear Wagner, or what Wagner's music represents in her fiction. But it offers insight into how she herself may have heard Wagner and, perhaps, enough evidence to speculate that, outside of the musical performances depicted in her fiction, she had an encounter with aspects of Wagnerism—worked out in a novel—that would influence her writing and world-view at a profound level.

Cather's access to the music of Wagner was extraordinary, especially given that through much of her lifetime, recording was inadequate to the acoustic demands of the composer's scores. The years at the very end of the nineteenth century were a boom period for Wagner's music in America. In February 1898, when Cather spent a week in New York City attending the opera and theater, the Metropolitan Opera had productions of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, all running the same month (Annals 82-83). These productions were star-studded: Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Lillian Nordica, Jean and Edouard de Reszke, and Anton Von Rooy all sang in New York that February, all legendary singers even at the time. The company performed in Pittsburgh during Cather's years there. Her reviews suggest an immediate and total capitulation to the music.

Wagner's music is rather idiosyncratically linked in Cather's mind to geographies of open space. Cather says of Hall's book, "I first came upon this book when I was staying in a thinly peopled part of the Southwest, far enough from the Metropolitan Opera House" (Preface 61). In the course of listening to music over a lifetime, strange and entirely personal associations are inevitable. That she came upon Hall's book in the Southwest is of course an accident of biography; but the connection ofWagner to landscape in the introduction to Hall's book is not exceptional for Cather. In her 1913 profile of theWagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad, she describes what seems almost a rupture in the confined, artificial space of the opera house, a fissure created by Fremstad's singing that returns the listener to a wild and natural space: "She is not praying or looking into herself; she is looking off at the mountains and the springtime. From the audience one seems to see the ranges of the Pyrenees, to feel suddenly and sharply the beauty of the physical world ("Singers" 47). Even when Cather drops a casual reference to Wagner, as she does when describing Carlyle as full of "Wagnerian flashes and thunders and tempests," it is in expansively, even violently naturalistic terms (Kingdom 222).

The music of Wagner, which broke with traditional phrase lengths, neatly limited repetitive structures, and many of the precedents of classical tonality, suggested boundlessness to many listeners besides Cather. Wagner's music was embraced, or assailed, for its "endless" melody and for an engulfing chromaticism that was widely considered sexually provocative. But this boundlessness is philosophical, or emotional; for Cather,Wagnerian boundlessness isn't just metaphorical but articulated in both geographical and architectural terms of place. The most notable example is the short story, "A Wagner Matinee," in which the composer's music paradoxically converts the confined space of the opera house into a place of infinite emotional possibility and renders the open space of Nebraska a place of claustrophobic confinement (Stories 495-96).

It's a mistake to assume that Cather listened exactly as her characters, or contemporaries, did. Thea Kronborg's first experience of Wagner's music is a lesson in mishearing. At a concert in Chicago, Wagner's music is preceded by Dvorák's New World symphony, a symphony trueWagnerites would have shunned for its stolid central European musical structure and its debt to the music of Brahms. Yet this is the music that Thea hears in scenic terms: "the grass-grown wagon trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles, that old man and the first telegraph message." Music from Wagner's Rheingold, to which she listens with a "dull, almost listless ear," however, leaves her "sunk in twilight; it was all going on in another world" (Song of the Lark 160). Thea is still a naïve listener; she hears the sublime in the wrong place. And to drive home the point, Cather has Thea get her Wagnerian operas slightly confused. Rheingold is not, as Thea believes, about "the strife between gods and men"; indeed, men do not appear in Wagner's mythological tetralogy until the second installment, Die Walküre.

The opera house is a very strange place to go if one is looking for an experience of the sublime in nature. Part of the charm of Hall's book for Cather may well be that it frees her from the opera house, from what would have been a rather flat, poorly lighted, and stylized depiction of place. But even if the appeal of Hall's book is that it allows Cather to respond toWagner in terms of purely imagined spaces or spaces of her own choosing, this is still an uncommon and quirky way to hear Wagner, especially at the time. It definitely sets Cather apart from the wider body of Wagnerian appreciation and from contemporaneous authors who takeWagnerian themes as inspiration for literary treatment. European writers who take up Wagner as a subject for fictional treatment—Thomas Mann most prominent among them—are concerned with the composer as a political figure, or a sociological problem, even as a psychological illness. For Mann, Wagner is an inspiring problem, a mix of primitive and premodern ideology with powerful music; in his fictional treatment ofWagnerian themes, especially the short story "Blood of the Volsungs," one senses the author wrestling primarily with Wagner's most unsavory sexual and racial ideas.[1]

And then we have Cather, who responds viscerally to something that seems at first glance almost irrelevant to Wagner: the place where his dramas transpire. Yet there are real insights into Wagner's operas to be had from serious engagement with the composer's depiction of natural spaces. Never mind the rafts of Jungian and Freudian analyses; if we want to understand the motivations of Wagner's characters, we have to get them outof- doors. Parsifal's understanding of Christian charity and forgiveness is, in large part, an epiphany from the natural world, depicted in the Good Friday music; Siegfried's intimation that there is more to his life and destiny than confinement with an avaricious dwarf is an epiphany from the forest. Cather is the rare Wagner listener to be particularly alert to the power of these encounters.

In the same year that Cather wrote her introduction to Hall— and praised Hall for capturing the power of "particular rivers, particular mountains, even" (Preface 62)—the avant-garde German director and designer Adolph Appia produced the first two installments of the Ring cycle for the opera company of Basel: the stage design consisted entirely of platforms, steps, and curtains, all reference to an actual landscape entirely abstracted (Muller 516).

This was the direction of the Wagnerian Zeitgeist in 1925, toward a complete suppression of the scenic in favor of the intellectual and internal landscape; Cather is definitely heading against the wind. Indeed, the introduction to Hall's book also makes Cather seem naïvely unaware of the political and philosophical debates that surrounded Wagner's music. This certainly isn't true. From her criticism of the 1890s, it's clear that Cather had read, and apparently much disliked, Max Nordau's Degeneration, which contained some of the strongest and most cogent anti-Wagnerian pages since Nietzsche's The Case of Wagner. She also says, in the Wagner essay, that Hall's book is one "of only two books in English on the Wagnerian operas that are worthy of their subject" (60). The other book is George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite.

The bulk of Shaw's book elaborates a vast allegory of the Ring cycle, a socialist allegory so compelling that it continues to influence productions of the cycle to this day. One might imagine that its overt politicization of the cycle would have been anathema to Cather, but Shaw's commentary can be read not just in political and economic terms, but as a kind of meritocratic class struggle. And in those terms, it begins to seem almost Catheresque, especially given the Cather of 1922, the author who wrote One of Ours.

Shaw describes the characters in Wagner's Ring cycle, an elaborate epic depicting a mythological world in its final era, this way: "Really, of course, the dwarfs, giants, and gods are dramatizations of the three main orders of men: to wit, the instinctive, predatory, lustful, greedy people; the patient, toiling, stupid, respectful, money-worshipping people; and the intellectual, more talented people who devise and administer states and churches" (Shaw 29). Among the supernumerary characters in Cather's novels, there's hardly one that doesn't fall neatly into or another of these categories.

There is also a fourth category in the Shavian analysis. "History," he writes, "shows us only one order higher than the highest of these: namely, the order of Heroes" (Shaw 29). Cather's attempt to explore this particular order in the creation of Claude Wheeler yielded what is often regarded as the weakest of her mature novels. If One of Ours is read only as a war novel, it's easy to dismiss. But if taken as an effort to "translate" her own experience of Wagner "in the course of a novel," we can turn away from chiding her, as Louis Auchincloss does, for not getting the battle scenes quite as right as Erich Maria Remarque did, and consider instead what role the war plays in her mélange of Wagnerian imagery (Auchincloss 107).

The connection of the novel to Wagner has been remarked on before, especially the link to the composer's final opera (Woodress 328; Song of the Lark xii). There are compelling reasons for this comparison: Like Wagner's Parsifal, Claude Wheeler is a holy fool, uncomprehending, inarticulate, only vaguely aware of his role as a redemptive hero. Auchincloss asks, "Why must she make Claude so sluggish, inert, dead?" (108). It's tempting to answer, because that's the wayWagner made him. Cather also flirted with overtly connecting the novel to Parsifal and considered naming the last section of the novel, "The Blameless Fool by Pity Enlightened," a reference to the Parsifal of act 3, the Parsifal who has already had his epiphany (Lee 178).

But there is far more than a Parsifal motif at play in this novel. Cather is cagey about making explicit reference toWagner or his characters, and when she does, they seem deliberately overdetermined: A character named Tannhäuser dies on the voyage to Europe, muttering a snatch of German that might be something Siegfried or Parsifal once said, "Meine arme mutter" (My poor mother). But through an accumulation of subtle references, some of them mediated by references to Shaw's interpretation of the Ring, Claude emerges more a Siegfried than a Parsifal, and his death becomes the central emotional effect that she is trying to translate into narrative form.

And at least one of her references seems almost comically in- flected to avoid the obvious problem of writing aWagnerian novel about the FirstWorldWar:Wagner was German and aggressively contemptuous of Cather's beloved France. And so Claude's first glimmer that there is a larger, more heroic world of action beyond the confines of Nebraska comes to him through the character of Joan of Arc: a French woman who dies just as Wagner's Brunnhilde dies, by immolation (One of Ours 53-54).

The creation of Claude is also carefully controlled to mute the worst aspects of Wagner's Siegfried—his impetuous amorality— into something more American and curiously nurturing, but no less driven to heroic action. This is, perhaps, the source of some of the odd and distracting contradictions in Claude's character.He is able to cast off some yokes—his mother's religion, for instance— but remains strangely passive in the face of his father's demands, no matter how senseless and humiliating. But Siegfried's emergence as a heroic figure comes only with the forging of a sword, to which Claude's enlistment is the obvious analog. And if Claude at his most revolutionary seems pallid in comparison to Siegfried, who directly and brutally attacks the powers that confine him, it's because Claude's revolutionary sentiments are expressed with Shavian decorum: "It was strange that in all the centuries the world had been going, the question of property had not been better adjusted. The people who had it were slaves to it, and the people who didn't have it were slaves to them" (68). This is the essence of Shaw's allegory of Wagner's Ring.

But it is in his death that Claude's life most diverges from the Parsifal motif, and it is his death for which Wagner's Ring cycle offers the most compelling explanatory power. Parsifal doesn't die, and he does, in fact, succeed in redeeming the community of Grail knights; Siegfried and Claude, however, both die and neither of them redeems a thing. The strange hollowness of Claude's death, usually accounted a failing on Cather's part, reflects closely the strange and pessimistic twist that Wagner's Ring cycle takes in its final installment, Gotterdämmerung. That twist—in which the vigorous young hero is literally knifed in the back and the Gods who once controlled the world will their own destruction—is typically attributed to Wagner's soured political beliefs, his rejection of youthful revolutionary ideals, and perhaps his growing interest in Schopenhauer's idea of the renunciation of will.

The year that One of Ours was published, 1922, is a watershed year for Cather, the year that the world seemed to break in two. Despite the Pulitzer Prize, the poor critical reception of the novel may contribute to her increasing pessimism; but One of Ours was already a deeply pessimistic novel, even before it met its fate with the critics.[2] "One by one," Cather tells us of the returning veterans, "they die quietly by their own hand" (370). Cather's encounter with Wagner's pessimism, his almost casual dispatch of a hero he had spent three operas, and decades, gestating, seems to affect her own treatment of Claude. Through Shaw and Wagner, Cather may also be grappling with the ideas of Schopenhauer, in particular, his pessimism and the notion of the renunciation of will; like Wagner's Ring, One of Ours feels like a final outburst of heroic energy tempered by the author's own growing resignation about the ugliness of the world.

If One of Ours is indeed a translation of Wagner into narrative, it is a different kind of translation than The Song of the Lark. It is no mere interpolation of a Wagnerian scene into a story; there is none of Cather's exuberant hearing of landscape in the music. It is, instead, a Wagnerian world worked out in American terms. But in its working out, the power of Wagner as literary inspiration seems to have been either exhausted or internalized to such a degree that it would remain sub rosa in most of Cather's subsequent work. Wagner disappears from her novels after One of Ours, and when he recurs in her stories, such as the 1925 "Uncle Valentine," there is a marked valedictory tone. Indeed, "Uncle Valentine" is about the parceling away of the landscape—a landscape that is explicitly tied to the composer's Rheingold—and its Wagnerian title character meets an even more absurd death than Claude Wheeler (Stories 235, 246-47). The story was published the same year Cather wrote her introduction to Hall; perhaps with Hall's book to recall to her Wagner's music, she had taken what she needed from the composer and would move on to other landscapes, "far enough from the Metropolitan Opera."


 1. See Thomas Mann's Pro and Contra Wagner (New York: Faber, 1985) and "Blood of the Volsungs" in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (New York: Vintage, 1989). (Go back.)
 2. See Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000) 19. (Go back.)


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