The Song of the Lark
"Song of the Lark" by Jules Breton
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The Song of the Lark is the third novel by American author Willa Cather, written in 1915. The title comes from a painting of the same name by Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, dating from 1884 in the Art Institute of Chicago. It is generally considered to be the second novel in Cather's Prairie Trilogy, following O Pioneers! (1913) and preceding My Ántonia (1918).
- 1 Plot introduction
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 4 Allusions to other works
- 5 Allusions to actual history
- 6 Literary significance and criticism
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Set in the 1890s in Moonstone, a fictional town located in Colorado, The Song of the Lark is the self-portrait of an artist in the making. The story revolves around an ambitious young heroine, Thea Kronborg, who leaves her hometown to go to the big city to fulfill her dream of becoming a well-trained pianist, a better piano teacher. When her piano instructor hears her voice, he realizes that this is her true artistic gift. He encourages her to pursue her vocal training instead of piano saying ... "your voice is worth all that you can put into it. I have not come to this decision rashly." [Part II; Chapter 7]
The novel captures Thea's independent-mindedness, her strong work ethic, and her ascent to her highest achievement. At each step along the way, her realization of the mediocrity of her peers propels her to greater levels of accomplishment, but in the course of her ascent she must discard those relationships which no longer serve her.
Part I: Friends of Childhood
In the fictional small town of Moonstone, Colorado, Doctor Archie helps Mrs Kronborg give birth to her baby son, Thor. He also takes care of their daughter, Thea, who is sick with pneumonia. Years later, she goes to the Kohlers' for her piano lesson with Wunsch (no one ever learns his first name). Later, she runs into Dr. Archie, who tells her to go to his garden and collect strawberries. When she is there, she becomes alarmed by his wife's meanness. The doctor goes to Spanish Johnny's when he is sick. Later, Ray Kennedy goes out to the countryside with Johnny, his wife, Thea, Axel, and Gunner. Although she is only twelve and he is thirty, he dreams of becoming rich and marrying her when she is old enough. They all tell stories of striking it rich in silver mines out west.
Before Christmas, Thea plays the piano at a concert, but the town paper praises her rival Lily which makes Thea angry. Tillie then turns down the local drama club's request to have Thea play a part in The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, pretending that Thea is too busy and would not accept the part. After Christmas, Thea goes to the Kohlers' for another lesson, where Wunsch tells her about a Spanish opera singer who could sing an alto part of Christoph Willibald Gluck. He also says she needs to learn German. Wunsch gets so drunk he passes out and gets hurt walking home one night. Ten days later, all of his students have discontinued their lessons with him, and he decides to leave the town. Shortly after, Thea drops out of school and takes up his students; at fifteen she begins to work full-time.
Later, Ray lets Thea and her mother go to Denver on his train. They stop at the fictional town of Wassiwappa, where they have lunch with the station agent. They travel past Winslow, Arizona and Mr. Kronborg insists that Thea should go to church meetings more often because Thea isn't as perfect as Anna. However, she becomes sad when she sees how a local tramp is ridiculed and made to leave, wondering whether the Bible wouldn't tell people to help him instead. Dr. Archie tells her that people have to look after themselves. On the way from Moonstone to Saxony, Ray's train has an accident and the next day he bids an emotional goodbye to Thea before he dies. After the funeral, Dr. Archie informs Mr. Kronborg that Ray has bequeathed six hundred dollars to Thea for her to go to Chicago and study there. Her father agrees to let her go despite her only being seventeen.
Part II: The Song of the Lark
In Chicago, Thea moves close to the parish of a Swedish Reformed Church with two German women; she also sings in the choir and in funerals for a stipend, and takes piano lessons with Mr. Harsanyi. At dinner with Mr. Harsanyi, she mentions that she sings in a church choir, and he asks her to sing and he is very impressed by her voice. Later, he meets with the conductor of the Chicago Orchestra and asks him who is the best voice teacher in the area and the conductor tells him that it is Madison Bowers. He then parts with Thea, explaining that her voice is her true artistic gift, not her playing. After several weeks of singing lessons, she takes a train back to Moonstone and she appears to have grown a lot. She goes to a Mexican ball with Spanish Johnny and sings for them. Back in her house, Anna reproaches her for singing for them and not their father's church. Her ambition takes her back to Chicago.
Part III: Stupid Faces
Back in Chicago, Thea keeps moving from one home to another. She grows tired of Bowers' shoddy students until she meets Fred Ottenburg, a rich young man. He takes her to meet the Nathanmeyers, a rich family, and they like her well enough to give her a job singing in a show that they are having. Fred suggests that she spend the summer on his friend's ranch in Arizona because his family owns the whole canyon.
Part IV: The Ancient People
Thea gets off the train at Flagstaff, Arizona, close to the San Francisco Peaks. Back in the wilderness, she starts relaxing. Ottenburg joins her and they kiss but then get stranded outside in a storm. They decide to get married but Ottenburg says that they should live in Mexico City. Ottenburg doesn't tell her he is already married, even though he and his wife have been estranged for many years.
Part V: Doctor Archie's Venture
Dr. Archie goes to Denver to look over some silver investments. He receives a telegram from Thea summoning him to New York City and asking him to lend her money so that she can study singing in Germany. In New York she tells Fred, who has by now informed her that he is already married, the she will be leaving and will not accept his financial help. Archie goes to dinner with Ottenburg and Thea. Later, Fred goes away to his dying mother, who is in a coma after falling from a carriage. When he returns, Thea ponders the futility of her ambition, but comes to the conclusion that it is worth giving it a chance.
Part VI: Kronborg Ten Years Later
Ten years later, Dr. Archie has moved to Denver after his mining investments went up and his wife has died. Despite this, his life is better. He has helped get Governor Alden elected, although Fred and he admit the politician's double talk has proved to be disappointing. Archie attends Thea's operatic performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and later he talks to her at her hotel, they meet again at four the next day. Later they meet again with Fred; she performs the end of an opera at the last minute but performs very well. Thea then takes the time to talk both to Archie and Fred about what she has been up to. She gives she another performance and two other people from her past are in the audience — Harsanyi, her former music teacher, and Spanish Johnny, the Mexican mandolin player from her hometown. The novel ends with Tillie, the only remaining Kronborg who still lives in Moonstone.
- Doctor Howard Archie, the young town doctor in Moonstone. A life-long friend of Thea's, and, after he becomes rich from investing in silver mines, her greatest financial supporter.
- Mrs Archie, Doctor Archie's wife. Her maiden name is Belle White and she is from Lansing, Michigan.
- Larry, Doctor Archie's errand boy.
- Mr Peter Kronborg, the Methodist minister. He has eight children including Thea. He was born in a Scandinavian colony in Minnesota, and went to school in Indiana
- Mrs Kronborg, Peter Kronborg's wife and Thea's mother.
- Thea Kronborg, the protagonist. She is eleven years old at the onset of the novel. After studying in Chicago, she becomes a renowned opera singer in Dresden.
- Professor Wunsch, a music teacher with a drinking problem. He lives with the Kohlers. He has taught in St Louis and Kansas City.
- Spanish Johnny, a harness maker. He used to be a painter in Trinidad. He plays the mandolin. Real name Juan Tellamantez.
- Mrs Tellamantez, Johnny's wife.
- Famos Serrenos, Spanish Johnny's cousin. He worked in a mine in Moonstone.
- Thor Kronborg, the baby son at the outset of the novel. Later, he works as Doctor Archie's chauffeur.
- Tillie Kronborg. She is the remaining Kronborg in Moonstone at the end of the novel.
- Mrs Paulina Kohler. She comes from the Rhine Valley and speaks little English. She likes to take care of her garden.
- Mr Fritz Kohler, the local tailor.
- The Kronborg's children, namely Axel, Gunner, Anna (the eldest daughter), Gus, (a local clerk in a drygoods store), and Charley.
- Mrs Smiley, a millinery shop keeper.
- Billy Beemer, an old drunkard who died while playing with a switch engine.
- Ray Kennedy, a train conductor and a friend of the Kronborg family. He wants to marry Thea, but dies in a train wreck before she is old enough.
- Mrs Livery Johnson, a Baptist and a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She is the wife of the owner of the livery stable, hence the nickname, and president of a committee in the Moonstone Orchestra. She learned to play the piano in Grinnell, Iowa.
- Lily Fisher, Thea's rival in Moonstone.
- Upping, a jeweller, the 'trainer' of a drama club.
- Joe Giddy, Ray's brakeman.
- Mr Carsen, a local carpenter.
- Anna, Thea's sister and a devout Methodist.
- Reverend Lars Larsen, a friend of Mr Kronborg's in Chicago.
- Hartley Evans, a friend of Dr Archie's, a throat specialist.
- Andor Harsanyi, a piano teacher. His wife is in her thirties. They have a daughter, Tanya, and a son, Andor.
- Mrs Lorch, a German parishioner in Chicago.
- Mrs Irene Andersen, Mrs Lorch's daughter. She sings in the Mozart society in Chicago. She has married a Swedish man.
- Oscar Andersen, Irene's late Swedish husband.
- Mr Eckman, one of Mrs Lorch's lodgers. He works in a slaughterhouse in Packingtown.
- Theodore Thomas, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
- Madison Bowers, a singing teacher in Chicago.
- Maggie Evans, a girl from Moonstone who died. Thea nearly refuses sing at her funeral.
- Miguel Ramas, a Mexican from Moonstone. He has two cousins, Silvo and Felipe.
- Mrs Miguel Ramas, Miguel Ramas's mother.
- Famos Serrenos, a bricklayer.
- Miss Adler, 'Bowers's morning accompanist, an intelligent Jewish girl from Evanston, Illinois'.
- Hiram Bowers, Bowers's father, a choirmaster in Boston.
- Mrs Priest
- Jessie Darcey
- Mr Philip Frederick Ottenburg or Fred Ottenberg, the scion of a beer magnate. He went to Harvard and is Thea's main romantic interest.
- The Nathanmeyers, a family of rich Jews, friends with the Ottenburgs.
- Katarina Furst, Fred Ottenburg's mother.
- Henry Biltmer. He lives on Ottenburg's ranch in Arizona.
- Mrs Biltmer, Henry Biltmer's wife. She cooks meals for her husband, Thea and Ottenburg.
- Dick Brisbane, a friend of Ottenburg's from Kansas City.
- Edith Beers, Ottenburg's wife. She now lives in Santa Barbara. She was originally engaged to Dick Brisbane.
- Alphonse, the hansom driver for Ottenburg and Edith in New York City.
- The financier from Denver
- Thomas Burk, Dr Archie's assistant.
- Jasper Flight, an undaunted prospector.
- Pinky Alden, the governor that Doctor Archie helped get elected.
- Tai, Doctor Archie's Japanese servant.
- Therese, Thea's maid.
- Mr Oliver Landry, an accompanist. He grew up in Cos Cob and later helped Thea whilst in Germany.
- Madame Necker, a successful opera singer.
- Nordquist, a singer Thea nearly married.
Allusions to other works
- Literature: Nikolaus Lenau's Don Juan, Lord Byron ('My native land, good night', 'Maid of Athens', 'There was a sound of revelry', Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), Virgil-Ovid, Honoré de Balzac's A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hugh Reginald Haweis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Walter Scott's Waverley Novels, Washington Irving, Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, Robert Burns, William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis, William Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Jules Verne.
- Music and the performing arts: Fay Templeton, Carl Czerny, Jenny Lind, Claudia Muzio, Clementi, Carl Reinecke, Maggie Mitchell, Johann Strauss II's The Blue Danube, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonín Dvořák, Henriette Sontag, Clara Morris, Helena Modjeska, Charles Gounod's Ave Maria, John Philip Sousa, Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser and Der Ring des Nibelungen, Ignacy Jan Paderewski; Gluck's Orfeo "Che faro, senza Euridice" (Italian); "Ach, ich habe sie verloren" (German)
- The Bible: Tower of Babel, Noah's Ark, Jephthah, Rizpah, 'David's lament for Absalom', and Mary Magdalene.
- The visual arts: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Barbizon school, Dying Gaul, Venus de Milo, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Henri Rousseau, Édouard Manet, and Anders Zorn.
[Weber and Field's Music Hall]
Allusions to actual history
- Historical figures such as Napoleon III, George Washington, William H. Prescott, Robert G. Ingersoll, Julius Caesar, and Cato the Younger are mentioned.
- Lars Larsen's parents are said to have moved from Sweden to Kansas thanks to the Homestead Act.
- Fred Ottenberg speaks to Gustav Mahler after he conducts an opera in which Thea sings the part of one of the Rhinemaidens.
Literary significance and criticism
- The novel was inspired by the story of soprano Olive Fremstad.
- Christopher Nealon has argued that Thea is more boyish than girlish. In the Panther Canyon episode, he links her rapport with Fred to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theory of homosociality.
- Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, Gay Men's Press, 1994, page 87
- Christopher Nealon, Foundling: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001, page 73
- The Song of the Lark at the Internet Movie Database
- The Song of the Lark at Project Gutenberg
- E-Book From the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
- First Edition at the Willa Cather Archive