Willa Cather‘s A Wagner Matinée was collected in both her first book of stories, The Troll Garden (1905), and a subsequent compilation, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). One of Cather’s earliest collected stories, “A Wagner Matin e” anticipates the mature work of Cather’s novels and her later stories in both its themes and its techniques.
Most of the story takes place during an afternoon concert in Boston attended by the narrator, Clark, and his aunt Georgiana, who is visiting from her Nebraska homestead. Thirty years earlier, Georgiana had left her position as a Boston Conservatory music teacher, eloped, and moved to Red Willow County on the Nebraska frontier; she had not been 50 miles from the farm since. When a legal matter necessitates Georgiana’s going to Boston for a few nights, Clark is charged with looking after his aunt. Remembering her kindness to him when he spent childhood summers working on the farm, Clark decides to treat his aunt to a concert matinee. Although Georgiana seems out of place in Boston and out of touch with contemporary trends, she is profoundly moved by the experience; her deep emotions create ambivalence in her nephew, who knows the emptiness to which she must return.
The performance itself features an amalgam of particularly powerful selections from Wagner’s works. Designed for maximal impact, this montage lacks the characteristic movement, the give-and-take momentum of a single Wagner piece performed in its entirety; indeed, the matinee becomes an analogy for Georgiana’s experience in Boston. Because of severe motion sickness, which distills her journey from Nebraska to Boston into “a few hours of nightmare” (192), Georgiana is not just transplanted but catapulted into a oncefamiliar but now completely foreign cultural and geographical landscape. Hence her afternoon at the symphony—like the trip as a whole—is processed as an out-of-body experience. Whether she returns to reality enhanced or diminished by the interlude is left for the reader to decide.
Key structuring techniques that will retain importance throughout Cather’s canon are already evident in this early story, for example, significant or symbolic names. The narrator himself tells us that “the name of my Aunt Georgiana opened before me a gulf of recollection” (190). Indeed, Georgiana, a variant of Georgina, is the feminine form of George, deriving from a Greek word meaning “farmer” or “worker of the earth.” In addition to fitting Georgiana’s status as a farm wife, her name suggests St. George, the adventurer and dragon slayer who was martyred in Palestine. Certainly Clark sees his aunt as a martyr in the sacrifices she has made for her husband and family and in undertaking the journey to the new Promised Land of the frontier. Clark’s name, meaning “cleric” or “scholar,” suggests his role in the story, as well. His is the analyzing consciousness that mediates our perception of Georgiana and tries to impose meaning on his aunt’s experience. Indeed, during most of the concert, Georgiana watches the musicians (or later closes her eyes and presumably watches her own thoughts) while Clark watches—and attributes thoughts to— Georgiana. This use of a male observing consciousness trying to interpret or create the narrative of a woman’s experience will be fully fleshed out in novels such as My Antonia (1912) and A Lost Lady (1923). Finally, Cather employs the structural technique of using binary oppositions to create thematic tensions. These interrelated oppositions include sleep/wake, death/life, silence/sound, nakedness/lushness, and nature/culture. Clark conceptualizes Georgiana’s life in stark, rural Nebraska as a sleepwalking death in life, a state that is exacerbated by the contrast with the vibrancy of Boston’s cultural center.
Perhaps as a triangulating alternative to the binaries it proposes, the text offers dormancy, the idea that something that appears to be dead is, in fact, hibernating, capable of revitalization in the presence of the right stimulus. This concept applies equally to Georgiana’s appreciation of Boston’s rich cultural offerings and to the seasonal cycles of the farm she left behind in Nebraska, perhaps forging a bridge between the polarities. What remains uncertain, however, is whether the poignancy of the reawakening is worth the inevitable disappointment it yields.
As in all of Cather’s best work, setting is important in “A Wagner Matin e,” which takes up what will become a familiar theme in Cather, the effect of sensory deprivation on the artistic temperament. Nebraska’s fl at, monotonous landscape is contrasted with the colorful outfits and sharp dividing lines on display in Boston. Paradoxically, Wagner’s music makes both Clark and Georgiana think of Nebraska. It is almost as if the landscape itself has become the primary filter through which both experience their world. In the story’s final sentences, the lush concert hall is juxtaposed with the stark prairie, culminating in the parting images of blackness, nakedness, and “gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door” (196). Both before and after the concert, Clark reconsiders his decision to remind his aunt of the life she left behind, the pleasures to which she no longer has access, emphasizing another important thematic preoccupation, the relationship between love and loss, and the question of whether the sacrifices of love (in this case, Georgiana’s elopement with Howard Carpenter) are worth the costs (social isolation and cultural deprivation).
Georgiana’s pleasure in the concert takes the paradoxical form of tears and is followed by an almost childlike reluctance to leave the concert hall. Her reaction is primal; she is not familiar with Wagner’s work, so it is not specific memories or associations that the music recalls for her. Clark claims to understand her terror of returning to the bleak Nebraska landscape, but the nature of her unwillingness to leave is fundamentally ambiguous. And yet other than cautioning young Clark as he plays the piano, “Don’t love it so well . . . or it may be taken from you” (192), Georgiana never expresses unhappiness or regret. Indeed, it is only after the sensual awakening of the concert that the audience registers Georgiana’s ambivalence about her life choices. Cather—if not Clark— stops short of declaring these choices mistakes.
Cather, Willa. “A Wagner Matin e.” 1905. In Collected Stories. New York: Vintage, 1992.