30 August 2012

a wagner matinee: thinking of willa cather in nebraska

Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is on the radio—it's Saturday night and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion is featuring the St. Olaf Orchestra, and that's what they're playing.

Shostakovich. Just saying his name makes you sound like you're in the cultural know, as if you've taken in hundreds of concerts in hundreds of gold-edged halls from London to St. Petersburg and you can remember each of them with clarity that rivals the tone coming from the St. Olaf first-chair flute.

Shostakovich. I say it aloud in the car. I'm out on the edge of the prairie—Garrison Keillor reference there, don't know if you caught it—and heading east on I-80. I'm in Iowa but thinking of Nebraska and Willa Cather.

It must be the classical music: she wrote a short story called "A Wagner Matinee," and it's hard now for me to look at the prairie and not think of its main character—an old woman who years before gave up the music and culture and dances and high teas of Boston for a Nebraska farm and the man she loved. She returns to Boston in the story—leathery, work-worn hands, eyes that have squinted in the sun for too long, having heard no music since she left the East but splayed notes coming from an out-of-tune piano. Her nephew takes her to a Wagner concert, and it's no longer the prairie she hears and sees but the life she could've had.

The music crescendoes in the story, and I've always wanted to be sitting next to that old woman—no, more than that. Willa Cather makes you feel that you are that old woman: living and thankful for a life on the prairie that has its own richness, songs, color, and crescendoes, but at the same time, yearning {secretly, quietly} for the clash of the city, the hush of the concerts, and the beguiling knowledge that you're in the center of it all.

The concert ends. The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser are over, but Aunt Georgiana doesn't want to leave. Her nephew thinks, "I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seeldings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up the refuse about the kitchen door."

Out on I-80, I understood, too: with Shostakovich strains filling the car and abandoned barns and windmills, cows in their pasture, and dried out fields of corn {oh, the drought} filling the landscape, I understood.

The 5th Symphony became just the right soundtrack for that moment on the road. The swelling stings matched the swell of the hills, and I thought about what gumption, what daring, it must've taken to move out to the prairie and try to make a life here, as Aunt Georgiana did in the story and as my family did generations before me.

The piece ended and the audience at A Prairie Home Companion clapped. Wild applause for the orchestra, and I pretended it was a round of applause for all those who made the prairie a home so that years later, I could drive across it on a freeway and marvel at the orderly beauty of agriculture and hard work.

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