Music in Willa Cather's Writing
While not a musician herself, Willa Cather was an avid musical consumer! She frequented the opera, developed acquaintances and friendships with the leading musicians of her day, and wrote them into her novels, short stories, and reviews. Thus, it seemed only fitting to begin developing playlists as a backdrop to Cather’s writing. It should be noted, however, that in utilizing a 21st-century music stream for literary works generated over a century ago, it is not possible to literally re-create the musical performances or the scenarios as presented in each Cather writing. Rather, the playlists help capture the essence of each setting in addition to offering enlightenment relative to the author’s heightened musical awareness. The selections included in each playlist are referenced in some manner in Cather’s writing, although playlists are not necessarily all-inclusive of the music Cather mentioned.
In order to facilitate a fluid listening experience, the music within each playlist is not always organized in the chronological order presented in the literary work. In addition to serving as a resource to help better understand Cather and her world, the playlists work well as background music to help make your daily tasks or commute more pleasant. We hope you enjoy!
The Song of the Lark
Part I: "Friends of Childhood"
The playlist developed in conjunction with Part I of The Song of the Lark reflects the colorful people and cultures in which the irrepressible young Thea Kronborg immerses herself as she is growing up in Moonstone, CO, a fictional community based on Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, NE. From Spanish Johnny and the Mexican settlement to Thea’s well-intentioned piano teacher with a penchant for alcohol; from her pastor father’s Swedish Reformed congregation to her staunch friend and admirer, railroad worker Ray Kennedy: These individuals, along with many others in her small community, help nurture Thea’s spirited talent. The friendship, the encouragement, and even the judgmental and repressive attitudes, all become a springboard for her move to Chicago to pursue a formal music education.
Click the link below to listen to Playlist I:
Part II: "The Song of the Lark"
The playlist for Part II of The Song of the Lark portrays Thea Kronborg’s coming of age amidst continued piano study, church music work, and transition to vocal music. As she enters the world of formal study in the urban Chicago landscape, her musical parameter shifts to a classic, academic focus, while the tapestry of diverse styles experienced in Part I of the novel fades into the background.
Click the link below to listen to Playlist II:
Part III: "Stupid Faces"; Part IV: "The Ancient People"
The music serving as backdrop to Part III of The Song of the Lark mirrors Thea’s decisive shift from piano to vocal studies, although her work as an accompanist and church musician continues as a means of financial support. The frenetic pace of work and study lead the young artist to the brink of defeat, as her sensitive, artistic spirit is overshadowed by an innate drive to perfect her musical skills. Part IV finds Thea fleeing the relentless pressure of her professional pursuits. She travels to the canyons of northern Arizona, relishing time spent in the natural beauty of the ancient cliff dwellings, where she begins to recover her once-indomitable spirit. Scarce mention is made of music in Part IV; figuratively speaking, Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, referenced elsewhere in the novel, seems especially fitting for this season of Thea’s life.
Click the link below to listen to Playlist III:
Part V: "Doctor Archie's Venture"; Part VI: "Kronborg"; Epilogue
The playlist for Parts V and VI of The Song of the Lark highlights Thea Kronborg’s ascent to the height of her musical career. By default, she lands the plume role of Sieglinde in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. In the audience for her stunning performance are friends from her childhood days in Moonstone, as well as the teacher who discovered her vocal talents. Two musical renderings of the Scottish folk song, “Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes” light the way for Cather’s epilogic re-visit, years later, to Thea’s small hometown in Colorado. These, along with a final folk ballad may seem an incongruous pairing with the great operatic music of Parts V and VI, but they bring full circle the story of Thea's triumphant success. The diverse tapestry of Thea Kronborg’s early life and personhood re-emerge with these closing numbers. The rendering of “Casey Jones”, with its haunting train whistle, calls to heart’s memory the loyal railroader Ray Kennedy, whose stricken life ultimately gave wings to a young artist.
Click the link below to listen to Playlist IV:
One Of Ours
Symbolism of Music in the Shadows
Willa Cather’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel One of Ours is based on the life of her cousin Grosvenor Phillips Cather, who perished in 1918 at the Battle of Cantigny, France, during World War I. One of Ours is divided into five books, with music conspicuously absent from the first three, according to Richard Giannone, author of Music in Willa Cather’s Fiction. Giannone maintains that the dearth of music symbolizes the lack of fulfillment in the life of Claude Wheeler, the fictional version of Cather’s cousin. Claude’s young adulthood is devoid of satisfaction in education, work, place, spirituality, and family and marital relationships.
In developing a playlist for this portion of the book, minor liberties had to be taken. For example, in Book I, Chapter X, Madame Schroeder-Schatz sings for Claude and the Ehrlich family, although Cather makes no mention of a specific musical number. Since it is known that the prototype for Madame Schroeder Schatz was the enigmatic opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a recording of Schumann-Heink singing “Wiegenlied” from the novel's time period was chosen. Likewise, the beginning of Chapter IV, Book Two, depicts Claude’s friend “whistling an old German song” without naming the tune. Thus, out of the choices available on the music stream, the folk song “Alpenglühn” seemed most fitting.
Novel's Progression Brings Music to Foreground
Music emerges from the shadows in Book IV, “The Voyage of the Anchises,” as Claude embarks on military service that takes him across the Atlantic Ocean to France. This segment is both jubilant, as Claude breaks from his unhappy surroundings; and grim, as influenza and loss of life beset his troopship. In Book V, “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On,” Claude stands on the threshold of new vistas: He embraces the nobility of his purpose as a soldier; France, its people and culture; and camaraderie with an internationally acclaimed violinist-turned-soldier. Claude’s love of music is finally free to find expression as well.
Ultimately, the hero of One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, gave his life in service to his country, as did Cather’s cousin Grosvenor. Of the fictional soldier, Cather wrote, “He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with.” To her aunt Frances, mother of Grosvenor, Cather consoled in a letter, he “died a glorious death in a great cause.” Grosvenor was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Despite the Cather family’s desire for France as his final resting place, Grosvenor’s widow arranged to have his body returned to the states for burial at East Lawn Cemetery in Bladen, Nebraska.
Click the link below to listen to the playlist for One of Ours:
Companion Playlist Highlights Musical Event in Cather's Life
Internationally renowned violinist David Hochstein (1892-1918) was the prototype for the fictional David Gerhardt, friend of Claude Wheeler, in Cather’s One of Ours. “I wanted my red-headed soldier from a prairie farm to 'get some of his back,' . . . through a fine friendship,” Cather said in a New York Herald interview published December 24, 1922. During the course of the interview, Cather spoke of having met Hochstein on three occasions, the first taking place in 1916 when a group of musician friends gathered at an apartment in New York's Wellington Hotel. “They played a lot of chamber music that afternoon, Schubert's Death and the Maiden among other things, but what I particularly remember was their beautiful playing of Schubert's Die Forelle (The Trout) . . .” said Cather. Our second playlist is built around Cather's memorable afternoon of music with Hochstein and friends. Tragically, the violinist was killed in the Battle of Argonne while serving with the United States Army.
Click the link below to listen to music played during a memorable afternoon Cather spent with acclaimed violinist David Hochstein: