A Wagner Matinee Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 22-page guide for the short story “A Wagner Matinee” by Willa Cather includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Physical and Spiritual Deprivation and The Power and Limits of Art.
“A Wagner Matinée” opens in Boston, where its narrator—a young man named Clark—has moved to, after growing up in Red Willow County, Nebraska. Clark has recently received a letter from his uncle, Howard Carpenter, informing him that his Aunt Georgiana will soon be coming to Boston to claim an inheritance. Howard asks Clark to pick up Georgiana at the train station.
The letter sparks strong emotions for Clark, transporting him from his current life to his previous existence as a “gangling farmer-boy” playing his aunt’s parlor organ, “fumbling the scales with stiff, red fingers, while she…made canvas mittens for the huskers.”When he picks up Georgiana the following day, however, she is dazed and decrepit and hardly seems to recognize her nephew.Clark nevertheless views her with love and admiration, explaining to the reader that Georgiana had at one point been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory before eloping with Howard, who is described as an “idle, shiftless boy” from rural Vermont. The couple moved to the Nebraska frontier where, for the last thirty years, they have led a hard life, living in a dug-out and drinking water “from the lagoons where the buffalo drank.” Still, in between doing household chores and raising six children, Georgiana found time to devote to her nephew’s education; while Clark was “riding herd” for Walter, Georgiana supervised his study of Latin, literature, and, above all, music.
Clark had initially hoped to repay Georgiana for her many kindnesses by taking her to a Wagner concert the next day. After seeing how ill and tired she looks after the draining train ride, however, he begins to have second thoughts. Clarks asks her whether she ever saw any of Wagner’s operas, and when she responds that she has not, he wonders whether “it would be best to get her back to Red Willow County without waking her.”
Ultimately, however, the two do go to the concert hall, where Georgiana immediately becomes more animated and alert, apparently unconcerned with how out-of-place her “queer, country clothes” are among all the glamorously-dressed ladies. The arrival of the orchestra heightens her excitement, and Clark thinks about how refreshing he himself found his first concert after arriving in Boston, “fresh from ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change.”
As the first piece (the Tannhauser overture) begins, Georgiana is so moved she grabs hold of Clark’s sleeve, and Clark thinks sadly about how empty his aunt’s life has been for the past thirty years. When the piece finishes, he struggles to imagine what Georgiana has made of the performance, though he notes that she was a “good pianist in her day.” In particular, he remembers her singing Verdi to him once, when he was feverish and homesick.
The concert continues with pieces from Tristan and Isolde and The Flying Dutchman, and Clark continues to wonder what Georgiana is thinking as her fingers mime playing the piano in time to the music.Later, he sees her crying and realizes that his earlier doubts about her ability to appreciate the music were misplaced. During the intermission, he learns that the song that moved her—”The Prize Song”—was one that a German migrant who passed by the farm used to sing. Clark jokes that they have “come to better things than the old Trovatore,” and Georgiana tearfully asks whether he has been “hearing this ever since .”