This time in the Really Like This Book’s podcast script catch-up, I’ve gone west, to Willa Cather’s beautiful novel The Song of the Lark from 1915. If ever there was an advertisement for idyllic American settings, this novel is it. The descriptions evoke desert life near the Mexican border, clean and tidy Scandinavian-immigrant town life in Colorado, and the railroad life in mining towns on the edge of the mountains: all in the late nineteenth century. City life in Chicago and New York is, in contrast, seen from confined rooms and vehicles. Cather’s heroine, Thea Kronborg, an aspiring musician and singer, travels to Chicago for two winters to study, and it seems to be raining there all the time. New York, where she sings important parts from Wagner for the first time in public, is a lot more glamorous, since we see her there in hotels, restaurants and theatres, but it always seems dark, and is also wintry. The sun is in Colorado, where Thea grew up, and that is the heart of the novel.
Thea is a woman who really works hard for her career. We first meet her as a young girl lying ill in bed with pneumonia while her mother is giving birth to the seventh child of the family. Thea’s talent as a musician is obvious, and her mother has to protect Thea from the jealousy of her siblings in a rather crowded house. Thea takes piano lessons from an itinerant German musician, Herr Wunsch, who lives with the Kohlers, an old German couple at the edge of the Swedish settlement of Moonstone, where Thea’s father is a rather lazy pastor in the Swedish church. Thea also sings in the church choir and at funerals, but only because these are the only church-related duties that she can stomach.
Thea likes Moonstone, but she doesn’t like the people much, except for her particular friends, who are all older than her, and understand her musicianship. Dr Archie is the most respectable of these friends – respectability matters in Moonstone – but even he is gossiped about because of his dreadful stingy wife, and his habit of sitting for long hours in his office late at night rather than going home. Ray Kennedy is also respectable, but he’s a working man, a brakeman on the freight railroad, who has plans to marry Thea when she’s 20. Thea doesn’t know this, of course, and scarcely thinks of Ray except as a means of seeing the country around the town when she can travel with him in short trips to Flagstaff or further afield. The kind Kohlers, whom Thea sees every time she takes her lesson from Wunsch, are semi-respectable, but they don’t live in town, they live in a little house surrounded by a garden on the edge of the desert, and grow German trees and flowers, and keep doves in a dovecot, to remind them of home. Wunsch is not respectable, but he has talent, so the town tolerates him, and let him lead the town orchestra and give their daughters piano lessons. But when he goes on a drinking binge, and starts to chop down the dovecot, and is found in a stupor lying under the railway bridge, he loses his pupils, and he leaves town to go travelling again, all respectability lost. The fact that he is a musician worth nurturing and protecting means nothing to the town. Thea’s least respectable friends are the Mexicans in their community outside the town. The townsfolk are smugly superior about the Mexicans, calling them dirty and lazy, but they can’t appreciate what Thea hears in their music. Thea sings and dances with the Mexicans, and learns songs from Johnny Tellamantez, who is as big a binge drinker as Wunsch, and a passionate wanderer.
Thea grows out of Moonstone. She leaves school at 15 to teach piano, and earns money from extra singing at funerals, but she is trapped. She doesn’t know what she can do to release the talent inside her. Her horizons are very limited: she only knows about the local towns of Flagstaff, and Denver. Wunsch’s eccentric teaching has missed out important areas of musical theory and the great composers, but even though she isn’t aware of these gaps, she knows that music is her life. Ray gives her the way out, by leaving her his life insurance. His six hundred dollars, the price of a man’s life, gives Thea a winter in Chicago where she expects to learn a little more piano, enough to set her up as a professional music teacher. She works like a demon at her lessons with Andor Harsanyi, a concert pianist of great kindness and perception, and is so focused on piano that she forgets she has a voice. Harsanyi discovers her voice when she casually mentions that she sings in a church choir in Chicago to pay her rent. Her lessons with him become part voice, part piano, until Harsanyi can do no more with her and sends her to Bowers, an unpleasant man but the best voice teacher in Chicago. Again, Thea works like a demon, playing accompaniments for Bowers’ rich society pupils to pay for her own lessons. She takes no care of her appearance, she is too naïve to understand how to dress or where to buy things, so she looks like a scarecrow when she meets Fred Ottenburg, the rich son of a brewing dynasty. He is also a passionate devotee of music, and makes sure that she eats properly, sends her flowers when she’s ill, and introduces her to the great music-loving Jewish families in Chicago. He shows Thea how to enjoy life as well as work. Not that she stops working: Fred’s care doubles her energy, but she’s still lost, looking for a way to express her talent.
After a long second winter being ill and still struggling with her voice, despite Fred’s nurturing, Thea spends two summer months in Arizona. She’s staying at Fred’s family farm, and recovers her health and interest in life by simply soaking up sun and playing among the rock caves in a long double-sided canyon. Fred comes down to visit, they explore, they play, they grow and they are quite aware that they are in love but that’s not important. The important thing is that Thea’s music is getting a sense of direction: she knows now what she must do. But the love thing complicates matters. They want to marry, but Fred urges Thea to keep considering her options, to not rush into anything, and suggests that they go down to Mexico and live together to see if he suits her. For a novel set over a century ago, this is an outrageous modern suggestion, but in the context of being a music student, and as a mighty contrast to the demand of respectability, Cather pitches the reader into a dilemma. Fred is from a very rich family, but also a musical one. Thea’s comparative poverty might be a drawback, but Fred’s German mother would embrace her talent. Why don’t they just get married?
I’ll skip over that bit: the upshot is that Thea asks Dr Archie for three thousand dollars to allow her to study singing in Germany: it’s time for her to take music more seriously than Chicago can allow her to. She disappears from sight for a while, and we only hear about her successes and unexpected triumphs through Dr Archie’s reminiscences, ten years on, and his conversations with Fred, now a close friend. Thea has become a vibrant emerging operatic talent, and she’s singing in New York. Fred and Dr Archie see her performance, and the next evening are about to take her out to dinner, when a phone call comes through to her hotel room. Mme Gloeckler has been taken ill and cannot complete her performance: could Miss Kronborg take over the part of Sieglinde for the final acts of Die Walküre? Thea has an hour before she would have to go on stage: she has never sung Sieglinde in public though she’s rehearsed the part in Germany. She’s in the cab in seven minutes, with her wig and shoes, and she studies the part in the twenty minutes it takes to get to the theatre. And, of course, she is a triumph.
This is the moment that all her work has led up to: to show American audiences what an American singer can do after many sacrifices a life of continual hard work. Her performance makes her one of the new stars, ready to displace the old and ailing divas, if they will only make room for her, and if the management of the New York will offer Thea a contract for forty performances. The epilogue to the book shows Thea ten years later, through the eyes of Moonstone and her eccentric aunt Tillie. Thea is now touring with the New York company, she is married, she is a great American opera singer. She never stops working, throughout the whole novel, but the definition of her work is completely misunderstood and underestimated by Moonstone. Is Moonstone the only community that matters? Thea never returns there, she has no interest in its people, because Dr Archie has moved, and her mother and the Kohlers are dead. But Moonstone opinion is small-town American opinion: they admire hard work when they see it, but they don’t often understand what it means.
Thea is a marvellous character. She’s a nerd until she matures, she’s prickly, focused and blinkered about music, so that her life is unbalanced and uncultivated until Fred takes her in hand. We might like her, but would she like us? I don’t like Wagner’s music so it’s often surprised me that I love this book so much, when I have so little appreciation for the music at its heart. Thea’s passion for working hard at the one thing that really matters is what resonates with me most.