Alex Ross on Wagner’s Complicated Influence on American Culture

How Will Cather Delighted in the "Strangeness and Loucheness" of the Composer's World

In 1906, McClure’s, the most culturally ambitious and politically outspoken American magazine of the day, hired Willa Cather as an editor. She moved to New York, settled in Greenwich Village, and began attending performances at the Met. Her position at McClure’s afforded access to leading artists, and in 1913 she published an article titled “Three American Singers,” profiling Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, and Olive Fremstad. Fremstad is by far the most interesting of the trio. She is a “great and highly individual talent” who floats far above the workaday opera business, in the “frozen heights.” Her singing deals not just in emotions but also in ideas. She is solitary, obsessive, elusive. She is quoted saying: “We are born alone, we make our way alone, we die alone.”

A native of Stockholm, Fremstad came to the United States with her parents when she was a child and spent part of her youth in the northern prairie town of Saint Peter, Minnesota—a shift hardly less abrupt than Cather’s to Nebraska. One passage of Cather’s McClure’s article reads more like oblique autobiography: “Circumstances have never helped Mme. Fremstad. She grew up in a new, crude country where there was neither artistic stimulus nor discriminating taste…She fought her own way toward the intellectual centers of the world. She wrung from fortune the one profit which adversity sometimes leaves with strong natures—the power to conquer.”

Fremstad’s father was a revival preacher, and as a budding musician she led congregations from the organ. In the early nineties, she made her way first to New York and then to Berlin, where she studied with Lilli Lehmann, a veteran of the 1876 Ring. Initially cast in lower-lying contralto and mezzo parts, Fremstad made her Bayreuth debut in 1896, as the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde and as the Valkyrie Schwertleite. (She may have met Luranah Aldridge, before the latter fell ill.) Returning to New York in 1903, she caused a sensation as Kundry in the Met’s Parsifal. She then made a tricky transition to soprano parts, becoming the Met’s reigning Brünnhilde and Isolde. She first sang the latter role under Mahler’s direction, and later with Toscanini. Those notoriously demanding conductors found a kindred spirit in Fremstad, who spent countless hours studying her parts and plotting how she would move onstage.

In discussing Fremstad’s performances, Cather divulges her own understanding of the Wagner heroines. On Kundry: “She is a summary of the history of womankind. [Wagner] sees in her an instrument of temptation, of salvation, and of service; but always an instrument, a thing driven and employed. Like Euripides, he saw her as a disturber of equilibrium, whether on the side of good or evil, an emotional force that continually deflects reason, weary of her activities, yet kept within her orbit by her own nature and the nature of men.” On Brünnhilde: “Mme. Fremstad’s idea is that the war-maiden in the first opera of the Ring is a girl, not a matron . . . The Valkyr music is restless, turbulent, energetic. The Valkyrs’ ride is the music of a pack of wild young things.” Cather is alert to gender ambiguity: Brünnhilde’s body is “straight and athletic, like a boy’s.” These interpretations cannot be described as feminist: Cather accepts at face value Kundry’s transition to mute subservience, Brünnhilde’s evolution toward a more contained womanliness. Still, the girlish-boyish wildness palpably excites her most.

American authors delighted in the strangeness and loucheness of the Wagner milieu.

For ordinary mortals, Fremstad was never an easy collaborator. In the 1913–14 season, she quarreled with the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who decided that she was worth neither the expense nor the effort. In the spring of 1914, she announced that she would leave the Met roster. Her final performance, in Lohengrin, was a legendary occasion, precipitating a twenty-minute ovation. No less fabled was the brief, enigmatic speech that she gave at the curtain. It ended: “My one aim has always been to give you of my best, my very best. May we meet again where there is eternal peace and harmony. Good-bye!” She was only forty-three and might have gone on singing at least for another decade. But the outbreak of the First World War ruled out a shift to Europe, and a Met comeback never materialized. The abruptness of her exit, and the curtness of her farewell, added to her aura of mystery.

Fremstad’s personal life was even more obscure. She married twice, but both relationships were dissolved after a few years. In interviews, she declared that serious artists should remain unattached. Her most stable relationship was with a woman: Mary Watkins, later Mary Watkins Cushing, who became enraptured by Fremstad while still in her teens.

Fremstad Fremstad in Maine.

Cushing was hired as Fremstad’s secretary, and soon became her live-in companion. In a memoir with the Wagnerian title The Rainbow Bridge, Cushing is candid about her crush on Fremstad. Describing her state of mind before the initial meeting, she says that she “felt like a medieval esquire in vigil on the eve of knighthood.” She served, above all, as a “buffer”—Fremstad’s word—against the outside world. Isolde now had a Brangäne at her side.

Cather got to know Fremstad better than most. After the McClure’s article came out, the two women met many times during the singer’s final Met season. In June 1914, Cather visited Little Walhalla, Fremstad’s summer home in Maine. The novelist watched in amazement as her dream character—“the greatest artist of her time…and a Swede off the Divide”—acted exactly as she would have wanted a pioneer Wagnerian to behave. “She fished as if she had no other means of getting food; cleaned all the fish, swam like a walrus, rowed, tramped, cooked, watered her garden…It was the grandest show of human vigor and grace I’ve ever watched.” In a letter to Cather, Fremstad wrote of her pleasure in seclusion: “The woods are so strong, peaceful and quiet—so different from this chattering humanity around us.” Behind the diva façade, Cather saw a self-sufficient girl from a rural background, not unlike herself.

*

The Wagner singer, emitting ear-splitting sounds while inhabiting super-human roles, was irresistible to writers of fin-de-siècle fiction. For those of an idealistic bent, Heldentenors and dramatic sopranos represented a striving at the limit of human possibility. The heroine of George Moore’s Evelyn Innes makes a smooth transition from the service of Wagner to the service of God. Leonora Brunna, the Spanish Wagner soprano in Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1900 novel Entre naranjos (In the Orange Grove), casts a disconcerting spell on a handsome, callow young man: she is “the arrogant Valkyrie, the strong-minded and valiant female, ready to slap the slightest impudence and handle him like a little boy.” Satirists relished the notion of modern people walking off the streets of Berlin or New York and putting on winged helmets. Wedekind’s Kammersänger is a cynical egoist, leaving human wreckage in his wake. Henry Céard’s 1906 novel Terrains à vendre au bord de la mer (Land for Sale by the Sea) tells of a soprano who hopes to absorb Wagnerian vibrations in a town on the Breton coast, her attention drawn there by a journalist who has dubbed a local rock formation the Castle of Tristan.

American authors delighted in the strangeness and loucheness of the Wagner milieu, which allowed them to enter generally forbidden territory. Gertrude Atherton’s Tower of Ivory, published in 1910, describes the rise and fall of Margarethe Styr, who leads a life of prostitution before reinventing herself as a Wagner soprano. Styr has a doomed affair with a feckless young British diplomat, who, it is clear, has gay longings. Rather than face a life without her beloved, she arranges that her immolation at the end of a performance of Götterdämmerung be done with real fire. Although Tower of Ivory seems ludicrous today, Atherton was notable for creating independent-minded female characters, sometimes with lesbian overtones attached.

James Huneker, the flamboyant New York critic who christened Parsifal a Black Mass, wrote several singer-stories, one of them inspired by Fremstad. He first heard the singer at Bayreuth in 1896, and wrote in his review, “Our Olive deserved the crown.” His interest was not merely musical: that summer he and Fremstad either had a brief affair or were on the verge of one. He fictionalized the incident in a story titled “The Last of the Valkyries,” later republished as “Venus or Valkyr,” where he represents himself as a superficial Wagnerite torn between an American singer and a Romanian sophisticate. (The latter changes tables in a café to avoid having to sit next to an odd-smelling Joséphin Péladan.) In Huneker’s later novel Painted Veils, a soprano named Easter Brandes, bewitching to men and women alike, moves through a decadent milieu in which the names of Huysmans, Wilde, Nietzsche, and Wagner are dropped with numbing regularity. Although Brandes resembles Fremstad in a few ways—she studies with Lilli Lehmann, as does Kronborg in The Song of the Lark—her coldly ambitious personality, described as a composite of “harps, anvils, and granite,” is very unlike Fremstad’s.

Female figures in the arts have routinely been reduced to their first names, tethered as satellites to a male genius.

Marcia Davenport’s 1936 novel Of Lena Geyer, a late and sophisticated entry in the genre, portrays a Fremstad-like diva who approaches her art with almost comical seriousness. She, too, is a Lehmann pupil, and like Fremstad she puts her career ahead of any enduring physical relationship. The way she sings a certain phrase in Tristan reveals that “no human love could touch Lena Geyer; the woman had consecrated herself to a world of superhuman ideals.” She does, however, form a seemingly platonic attachment with a female devotee, Elsie deHaven, who trails Geyer from performance to performance. “The voice poured into me, and from that moment it became the one thing I cared to live for,” deHaven says of her first encounter with the singer. Eventually, she becomes Geyer’s live-in secretary, as Mary Cushing did for Fremstad. Speaking to the book’s narrator, deHaven feels compelled to clarify that this “strange, almost passionate friendship” was, contrary to rumor, a pure and innocent one. In what may be an esoteric inside joke, Geyer is seen weeping over a copy of Cather’s My Ántonia.

The pitfall of the singer-novel is a tendency toward insiderish chattiness. Cather wrote: “I hate most musical novels—a compound of a story and a lot of musical criticism which never blend.” She cites Evelyn Innes as one such failure. Although she made no direct comment on Atherton or Huneker’s work, she presumably would have disdained their indulgence in potboiler melodrama and overripe decadence, respectively. Her aim was to give a full-length portrait of a singer as artist, and in so doing she accomplished something greater. Joan Acocella describes The Song of the Lark as the “first completely serious female Künstlerroman, the first portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-woman in which the heroine’s artistic development is the whole story, with sex an incidental matter.”

*

The remarkable thing about The Song of the Lark is the way Cather seamlessly interweaves Fremstad’s early life with her own story. Thea Kronborg, like Fremstad, is a preacher’s daughter of Scandinavian descent, who provides musical accompaniment for her father’s sermons. But the town of Moonstone is a replica of Red Cloud, down to the little attic room that Thea makes her own. Thea is musical and bookish, but, like the young Cather, she runs free in open land. On a trip to Wyoming, she sees the old trail of the Forty-Niners, the gold-seekers who went west to California in 1849, and finds herself on a virtual stage set for one of her future Wagner performances:

The road they followed was a wild and beautiful one. It led up and up, by granite rocks and stunted pines, around deep ravines and echoing gorges. The top of the ridge, when they reached it, was a great flat plain, strewn with white boulders, with the wind howling over it… To the west one could see range after range of blue mountains, and at last the snowy range, with its white, windy peaks, the clouds caught here and there on their spurs. Again and again Thea had to hide her face from the cold for a moment. The wind never slept on this plain, the old man said. Every little while eagles flew over.

This grand American prospect doubles as a premonition of Kronborg’s upward path.

The Song of the Lark Jules Breton, The Song of the Lark

Professor Wunsch is the first to recognize the extent of her gift—her “nature-voice . . . breathed from the creature and apart from language”—but for some time that gift remains a secret between them. When Wunsch departs, Thea takes over many of his duties, and she seems destined for a career of teaching and occasional performing. Then she has a stroke of luck: a freight train conductor who had hoped to marry her dies in an accident, leaving her money in his will. She uses this money to study piano in Chicago, where a pianist of Hungarian ancestry, Andor Harsanyi, guides her toward singing. Harsanyi proceeds to tell his friend Theodore Thomas about the promising talent he has found. An ordinary novelist would have staged a “star is born” moment, with Thomas crowning Thea the singer of the future. Cather lets the scene hang: the two men veer away to other topics, some of their dialogue drawn from Thomas’s memoirs. Thea is left to make her own way, step by halting step.

Enthralled by such places, Cather felt a surge of creative renewal.

Cather passes over the technicalities of Thea’s development—her studies with a Chicago voice teacher, further work in New York—and instead focuses on the social fabric of high culture that envelops her. She meets the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, who has inherited a love of Wagner from his mother, a bohemian personality with Continental connections. Mrs. Ottenburg is said to be “one of the groups of young women who followed Wagner about in his old age, keeping at a respectful distance, but receiving now and then a gracious acknowledgment that he appreciated their homage.” When Wagner died, she “took to her bed and saw no one for a week.” Fred is a regular at Bayreuth, although his Wagnerian inclinations are counterbalanced by a healthy heterosexual regimen of “ballgames, prize-fights, and horse-races.”

After two years in Chicago, Thea has failed to make any sort of breakthrough. She is on the point of giving up when Fred invites her to Panther Canyon, Arizona, where remains of Native American cliff dwellings can be found. Thea, having heard tales of the cliff dwellers back home, jumps at the chance. She first goes there alone, with Fred joining her later. She takes shelter in one of the ancient dwellings—“a nest in a high cliff, full   of sun.” By the end of the summer, a transformation has occurred: she has acquired personality, vision, confidence.

This material has little to do with Fremstad and everything to do with Cather, who had undergone a momentous experience on a trip to Arizona and New Mexico in 1912. The magnificence of the setting seized her at once: “The most beautiful country I have ever seen anywhere . . . The Lord set the stage so splendidly there.” The site she calls Panther Canyon in The Song of the Lark is actually Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, where the Sinagua people built cliff dwellings into the sheer rock walls of a deep and narrow gorge. Enthralled by such places, Cather felt a surge of creative renewal. She decided to quit the magazine world and give herself to fiction full-time.

For Thea, Panther Canyon is the gateway to a new understanding of her art. Music runs through her mind, but it is a wordless, formless kind of music—“much more like a sensation than like an idea.” She envisages the lives of the Sinagua and adapts to their rhythms. She thinks about their artistic efforts, their pottery and designs. Bathing in a pool at the bottom of the canyon, she realizes that art is an attempt to capture the flow of life: “In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.”

Thea’s almost occult awareness of the canyon’s silenced Native American voices affects her singing.

This emphasis on sensation is thoroughly Wagnerian. In Opera and Drama, the composer underscores the necessity of pure feeling in the intellectually overfreighted world of art. The cult of emotion, which stems from Feuerbach, is not the same as emotionalism; rather, it envisions an art that follows the free contours of human feeling, refusing to impose the strict controls of intellect. Poetry is liberated when it enters the musical ocean, finding itself reflected in ever-heaving melodic forms. Thea’s newly instinctive grasp of musical phrasing becomes the core of her future work. Almost in the same instant, her ambition revives: she forms the plan of going to Germany for further study.

When Fred arrives, they explore the canyon together, entering before sunrise to watch the light pour in: “In a moment the pine trees up on the edge of the rim were flashing with coppery fire.” As they eat breakfast, Fred almost jokingly brings up the idea of marriage—“a comfortable flat in Chicago, a summer camp up in the woods, musical evenings, and a family to bring up.” Thea answers: “Perfectly hideous!” Fred is undismayed; he knows better than to try to pin her down. They ascend the canyon, and after a while Fred tires and lies down under a pine tree. Thea goes clambering upward and appears in triumph at the top, waving her arm. Fred admires her “muscular energy and audacity,” exuding a “personality that carried across big spaces and expanded among big things.” He speaks to her, even though she cannot hear him: “You are the sort that used to run wild in Germany, dressed in their hair and a piece of skin.”

The image of fire on the canyon’s rim alludes to Walküre: Wotan placing Brünnhilde beneath a pine tree and igniting impenetrable flames. Fred is an urban Siegfried, breaking Thea’s proud solitude on her rock. Tellingly, he hears a woodpecker hammering while he lies by the pine, just as Siegfried listens to the Woodbird while reclining on what Gertrude Hall describes as a “mossy couch.” Thea’s greeting to an eagle high above also has a Wagnerian grandiloquence: “Endeavor, achievement, desire, glorious striving of human art! From a cleft in the heart of the world she saluted it.” The emphasis on will, on youthful ambition, makes one think of Professor Wunsch, whose name means “wish.” Wunsch had told her: “There is only one big thing—desire.” It has died in him, but he sees its glow in her. She is a “wish-maiden”—the old Icelandic name for a Valkyrie, as Cather noted in her 1899 review of Walküre. Wagner uses the words Wunschmaid and Wunschmädchen repeatedly in Walküre, making much of the idea that Brünnhilde fulfills what Wotan wishes but cannot achieve.

Thea’s almost occult awareness of the canyon’s silenced Native American voices affects her singing. Later, when she is performing Wagner at the Met, Fred thinks back to their time in Arizona: “You’re as much at home on the stage as you were down in Panther Canyon—as if you’d just been let out of a cage. Didn’t you get some of your ideas down there?” Thea nods. “Oh yes! For heroic parts, at least. Out of the rocks, out of the dead people.” She says that the cliff dwellers must have been a “reserved, somber people, with only a muscular language, all their movements for a purpose: simple, strong, as if they were dealing with fate bare-handed.” In a letter, Cather confirmed that the cliff dwellings had awakened Thea’s “historic imagination—so necessary to a great Wagnerian singer.” The composer who had once expressed sympathy for the sufferings of Native American peoples might have welcomed this association.

With Fred’s encouragement, Thea embarks for Germany. Cather drafted a section of the novel describing this period, but set it aside, believing that it would “destroy the composition.” (She may have been hampered by the fact that she had never been to Germany.) A few glimpses of Thea’s time abroad remain: other students are said to have been “mortally afraid” of her rough ways, calling her “die Wölfin” (the “she-wolf”). The novel’s final chapter leaps ahead a decade, to the singer’s first years of stardom. Dr. Archie, the fondly supportive Moonstone town doctor, is struck by the splendor of her voice but disturbed by the sense that the plucky girl he knew exists no longer. “Thea” has become “Kronborg.” Fred assures Archie that the master singer-actor they see onstage is the natural extension of the Thea of old. He cites lines of Wagner to convey her force: “Wie im Traum ich ihn trug, / Wie mein Wille ihn wies.” These are Wotan’s words on seeing Valhalla: “As in my dream I conceived it, / Just as my will decreed it.”

The Song of the Lark is heavily weighted toward Kronborg’s childhood and youth.

Kronborg reaches the apex of her art. When a soprano singing Sieglinde is indisposed, she steps in. On the first night, she “came into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long.” It is not merely a musically or theatrically excellent interpretation but an embodiment of the music’s spirit. “She was conscious that every movement was the right movement, that her body was absolutely the instrument of her idea.”  None other than Mahler is heard to say, “She seems to sing for the idea.” Or, as Cather wrote in her profile of Fremstad, “The idea is so intensely experienced that it becomes emotion.” Wagner’s mandate in Opera and Drama has undergone a further modification, almost an inversion. The idea now takes precedence, except that it is indistinguishable from emotion. Kronborg cannot be merely an unthinking conduit of Wagner’s music: she must reverse the compositional process, working backward from the level of technique to the inner realm of psychology and myth. Cather thus establishes the fundamental might of the singer’s art.

This is also the moment at which Kronborg’s understanding of her artistic persona, of her “second self,” falls into place. She had long sensed another persona within her: “It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it.” As that self comes forward, Cather’s story draws to a close. In the wake of the Walküre triumph, the narrator announces: “Here we must leave Thea Kronborg . . . The growth of an artist is an intellectual and spiritual development which can scarcely be followed in a personal narrative.” A brief epilogue gives glimpses of Kronborg’s subsequent career—including her triumphant Isolde—but Cather’s attention turns back to the ordinary folk in Moonstone, who marvel that such a phenomenon arose in their midst.

The Song of the Lark is heavily weighted toward Kronborg’s childhood and youth. Some critics preferred the first part to the second. The critic H. L. Mencken—who considered Wagner’s operas “the most stupendous works of art ever contrived by man”—said as much in his review. Cather responded that the air of anticlimax was deliberate.  As an artist develops, the personality is consumed by the art, and “arrives at the vanishing point.” Kronborg has gone from the “personal to the impersonal.” Cather compares her to Dorian Gray: the person onstage is self-renewing, the person offstage is spent.

Later, though, Cather came to believe that the novel was flawed, and in 1937 she heavily revised it. As Jonathan Goldberg has noticed, Kronborg became a more conventional feminine character in the process. What had formerly been a “virile” voice is now said to be “warm,” and the moniker “die Wölfin” is dropped. Originally, Fred is heard to say: “No, that voice will never betray. Treulich geführt, treulich bewacht” [“Faithfully guided, faithfully guarded”—lines from the Lohengrin Bridal Chorus]. That remark, suggestive of a woman wedded to her art, disappears; so does the reverberant observation “Fricka knows.” Most oddly, Cather cuts references to Kronborg as Isolde and Brünnhilde. To some extent, these changes can be explained as aesthetic choices: Cather is bringing the novel in line with her more oblique later manner. But Goldberg argues that Cather may also be suppressing a fraught relationship of fandom. The changes make Fremstad less recognizable as a model.

Cather’s one mistake may have been the title. She wanted people to think of Jules Breton’s painting The Song of the Lark, in which a peasant girl stares into the distance as a blood-red sun rises behind her—“a young girl’s awakening to something beautiful.” Unfortunately, many readers took the phrase as a description of Kronborg’s vocalism. “Her song was not of the sky-lark order,” Cather snapped. A better title might have been Kronborg—the single word that stands at the head of the final chapter. In Swedish, the name means something like “mountain fortress.” Female figures in the arts have routinely been reduced to their first names, tethered as satellites to a male genius. Such was the fate of Cosima Wagner, earlier Cosima von Bülow, née Cosima Liszt. Thea’s surname becomes monumental, equal in weight to those of the masters. We can picture a poster from a tour later in life: kronborg sings wagner.

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Excerpted from WAGNERISM: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 15, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Alex Ross. All rights reserved.

Alex Ross
Alex Ross
Alex Ross has been the music critic for The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, the international bestseller The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. His second book, the essay collection Listen to This, received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2015.





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