Music in Willa Cather's Fiction

Music in Willa Cather's Fiction

Music in Willa Cather's Fiction

Music in Willa Cather's Fiction

Excerpt

"Seen from a balloon, Moonstone would have looked like a Noah's ark town." Willa Cather's description of the town of Moonstone in The Song of the Lark, the hometown of Thea Kronborg, the most sophisticated of the musician characters that inhabit her fiction, doesn't convey much visual information. What exactly does an ark look like? But that's not the point. With this odd image Cather connects Moonstone, its people, and their habits to a familiar Old Testament story, and we understand immediately that it is a town filled with just enough of the Old World to propagate a new one. It also suggests that between there and here, between the remembered civilization of Europe and the newly forming "civilization" of America, something catastrophic has happened; something is always lost in these projects of transplantation. Something always darkens our imagination of new and better worlds.

Of all the old habits transported on that ark, music is perhaps the most precious to Cather. Few authors write so consistently about musicians, and none writes with greater sensitivity to the power of music to nurture and destroy. Cather's musicians are very much American musicians, and this native quality distinguishes them from all others. Music is almost always a foreign place that they make their own; some seek out this world elsewhere for refuge, others for escape and yet others for growth and transcendence. The closest metaphorical cousin to music in Cather's writing is the garden: a space set against the wilderness, created yet bounded by cultivation, an ambiguous space that is both an act of defiance and an act of love.

There is a very odd character who wanders through James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), a musician with the Old Testament name of David. He is one of the prototypes of the musician in American fiction, a psalmist who trusts absolutely, if a bit foolishly, in the power of music to protect him. He lives both an enchanted and a dangerous life: music brings him into peril, and it rescues him. There is something utterly foolish and incongruous about his singing in the iniddle of the wilds, yet he is one of the first of Cooper's Europeans to make contact with the primeval forest. For Cooper, music is the advance guard of civilization. For Cather, many generations later, the musician is still out in front of the American project, a little exposed and a little foolhardy but still a prerequisite to the making of a new world.

In the more than three decades since Richard Giannone Music in Willa Cather's Fiction was first published, Cather studies have grown immeasurably in depth and . . .

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