Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Song of the Lark

I’m finally reading Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which was recommended to me this summer by my generous hosts in Santa Fe. (B&N are currently en route to Yonkers, where they’ll be visiting their grandchildren – and daughter – for a couple of weeks; I plan to go up and visit for a day, and I am looking forward to seeing them again.) I read a passage last night that made me think, “I should blog about that,” only to come upon another passage a few pages later that made tears well up in my eyes for its direct relevance to my life. I expect that I’ll be posting quite a few quotes as I read the remaining 300 pages…

Here is the first:

In winter this loft room of Thea’s was bitterly cold, but against her mother’s advice – and Tillie’s – she always left her window open a little way. … Thea asked Doctor Archie about the window, and he told her that a girl who sang must always have plenty of fresh air, or her voice would get husky, and that the cold would harden her throat. The important thing, he said, was to keep your feet warm. – The Song of the Lark, Chapter VIII

I concur, Dr. Archie! Give me a cracked window any night of the year, no matter how cold it is outside. I love to feel cool air on my face while I sleep, just so long as the rest of me is warm, my feet especially. Whether it makes my voice stronger or not, I’m not sure, but I do know I sleep better in the cold, and a good night’s sleep is directly related to one’s general health which is directly related to vocal health. Sound enough reasoning to me!

The second passage requires a bit of background. Thea has been taking piano lessons for years from an old German gentleman, Herr Wunsch; she is also known to possess a lovely singing voice, and she dreams of going to Europe to study music so she can be “a good music teacher.” On her thirteenth birthday, as they walk in the garden under the linden trees (symbol of marriage and femininity), he teaches her a poem: “Im leuchtenden Sommermorgen,” by Heine. His reason behind teaching it to her is to teach her more German so she can learn Lieder (songs) and vice versa. (This poem is most famously set by Robert Schumann, as part of his song cycle, Dichterliebe, “The Loves of a poet.”) After he teaches Thea the words, Herr Wunsch starts to grill her on the poetic meaning. Why the flowers, why is the man sad, what does this mean, why, how, etc.. Thea gets frustrated:

“You are just trying to make me say things. It spoils things to ask questions.”
Wunsch bowed mockingly; his smile was disagreeable. Suddenly his face grew grave, grew fierce, indeed. He pulled himself up from his clumsy stoop and folded his arms. “But it is necessary to know if you know some things. Some things cannot be taught. If you not know in the beginning, you not know in the end. For a singer there must be something in the inside from the beginning. I shall not be long in this place, may-be, and I like to know. Yes” – he ground his heel in the gravel – “yes, when you are barely six, you must know that already. That is the beginning of all things;
der Geist, die Phantasie. It must be in the baby, when it makes its first cry, like der Rhythmus [the steady beat], or it is not to be. You have some voice already, and if in the beginning, when you are with things-to-play, you know that what you will not tell me, then you can learn to sing, may-be. … Something they [the silly American girls] can learn, oh, yes, may-be! But the secret – what makes the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love – in der Brust, in der Brust it is, und ohne dieses gibt es keine Kunst, gibt es keine Kunst!” - The Song of the Lark, Chapter XI

What does that mean? “The Secret… is in the breast, in the soul it is, and without this there is no art, there is no Art!”

Wunsch was testing her instincts, delving under the surface to see if she had the heart of an artist. He already knew that she had the talent – and the dedication and drive and discipline. But did she really have the heart, that thing that separates the Talented from the Great?

I was reminded of various music theory or art song literature classes, when the teacher would prod us to find a reason behind the composer’s use of a certain chord or the poet’s choice of a phrase or symbol. How many times did we cry, “Oh, come on! Dissecting the piece like this takes all the poetry out of it! Just let it be beautiful because it is beautiful!”

Did we protest because we didn’t know the answer? Was the teacher testing us, as Wunsch tested Thea, to see who among us had the artist’s heart? Did any of us past the test? We might have gotten A's, but in the grander scheme of things, did we get it? I’ll have to finish the book to know for sure, but I think Thea passed.

Will I?

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