Willa Cather, as Joseph Epstein recently wrote in these pages, was the most cultured American novelist of the 20th century. One aspect of Cather’s culturedness was her knowledge and love of music, a subject about which she often wrote. As a young critic for the Nebraska State Journal, Cather stringently reviewed performances by visiting singers and pianists. Musical characters abound in such short stories as “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” (1900) and “A Wagner Matinee” (1904), fruits of her decade in Pittsburgh working as a journalist and teacher. Thea Kronborg, the heroine of Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), is an operatic soprano. The form of The Professor’s House (1925), Cather held, “was very much akin to the arrangement followed in sonatas” albeit “handled somewhat freely.” In short, music was a pigment on Willa Cather’s imaginative palette, one she used to render her characters vivid and memorable.

Willa Cather, circa the late 1920s
Willa Cather, circa the late 1920s. Fotosearch / Getty

Cather’s best-known work, My Ántonia, was first published in the fall of 1918; it remains required reading for many high schoolers today. The novel’s centenary is a fitting occasion to consider one of its underappreciated qualities: its musical hues, values, and intensities.

My Ántonia is the story of Ántonia Shimerda and her transformation over more than 30 years from a poor immigrant child to a prosperous farmer and mother. The narrator is her admirer Jim Burden. Having at the outset of the story lost his parents, Jim has been sent from Virginia to live with his paternal grandparents on their farm outside Black Hawk, Nebraska (a fictionalized version of Red Cloud, where Cather grew up). The Shimerdas are the Burdens’ neighbors.

The novel’s first distinctly musical character is Ántonia’s father, a violinist. Life has been hard on him. At the behest of his domineering wife, he moved his family from Bohemia to America, buying land at an inflated price, having been told that prosperity awaits him in the new world. His oldest child, Ambrosch, is disagreeable and small-minded. His other son, Marek, is cognitively impaired and suffers from a congenital malformation of the limbs. In spirit, Mr. Shimerda is closest to the elder of his two daughters, Ántonia, who alone perceives his quality and divines his temperament.

Unfortunately, Mr. Shimerda is old, weak, and ill suited for farm work. His “well-shaped” hands look somehow “skilled,” not hardened by the field. His face is one “from which all the warmth and light had died out.” If Alexandra Bergson, the heroine of Cather’s O, Pioneers! (1913), looks to the barren Nebraska country with “love and yearning,” foreseeing a bright and prosperous future, Mr. Shimerda looks to it with regret and in utter defeat. Back in Bohemia, he earned extra money playing his violin for weddings and dances. His dearest friend was a trombone player, and the two of them talked and played music endlessly. But in his new country, Mr. Shimerda refuses to play his violin, even when begged to do so by his favorite child. Perhaps its sound would remind him too poignantly of the role he once played and the fellowship he has lost.

Mr. Shimerda’s sorrow soon overwhelms him and during an obliterating snowstorm he obliterates himself. Ántonia redoubles her efforts to make the family farm a success—and she keeps alive his memory, recalling especially his intelligence and refinement. His presence, like a recurring theme in a musical composition, hovers over the novel.

The most intensely musical chapters of My Ántonia occupy the middle of the book. A few years after her father’s death, Ántonia goes to Black Hawk to work for the Harlings, a prosperous family living next door to Jim, who has himself moved to town along with his grandparents. At the center of the Harling household is the matriarch, Mrs. Harling. However busy she is, she finds time each day to play the piano. She plays not to impress others (as does the title character in Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima) nor to get what she wants (as does Emma in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). Rather, Mrs. Harling plays for her own benefit and as a way of cultivating herself and entertaining her family and friends. She takes music so seriously that Jim has learned not to disturb her in the middle of a practice session, when her fingers are “moving quickly and neatly over the keys” and her eyes are “fixed on the music with intelligent concentration.” In Mrs. Harling’s piano playing, we perhaps see a reflection of Willa Cather’s own patient and steady self-cultivation.

Better than any modern writer,” Joseph Epstein wrote, Cather “appreciated human dignity and understood what lay behind it.

The four Harling daughters are musical, too, which makes their house a lively place. “On Saturday nights,” Jim reports, “Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for us—‘Martha,’ ‘Norma,’ ‘Rigoletto’—telling us the story while she played. Every Saturday night was like a party.” One imagines her presiding at the keyboard, playing arrangements of thickly orchestrated operas, pausing between numbers to set the scene for her spellbound audience. How real the stories of these operas must have seemed, stories that acquire life and light through melody and harmony.

Immediately following the chapters about the Harlings is a chapter that Richard Giannone, in Music in Willa Cather’s Fiction, calls the book’s “pulsating center.” “Occurring as it does in the very middle of the novel,” he writes, “it gives off the emotional—the musical—impulse which reverberates throughout.” The chapter tells the story of Samson d’Arnault, a prodigiously talented blind African-American pianist. Blind d’Arnault, as he is known, is staying for a few days at a hotel in Black Hawk as he barnstorms through the Plains. When he was a boy, growing up on the d’Arnault plantation in the South where “the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted,” Samson would run away from home, always in the same direction—to the plantation house where Nellie d’Arnault practiced piano. When she took a break, Miss Nellie sometimes spotted him at her window, listening intently, wearing a look of positive “rapture.”

One day as he listened, Samson heard her shut the lid of the piano and leave the room. Something overcame him. He began to climb in through the window. Fearful he might be caught, he almost lost heart, but he was too close to turn back. He felt his way to the instrument, sat down, acquainted himself with the geography of the keyboard—and discovered he could repeat what he had heard while standing at the window. In a flash, he realized that music “was to piece him out and make a whole creature of him.” If suffering and deprivation were holes in the garment of his life, music was the mending patch. He was soon taken into the home of the d’Arnaults to develop his gift. So relentlessly did he practice, Cather writes, “he wore his teachers out.”

The portrait of Samson d’Arnault illustrates a point made by Joseph Epstein. “Better than any modern writer,” he holds, Cather “appreciated human dignity and understood what lay behind it.” Consider Samson’s entrance at the Black Hawk hotel: “The door from the office opened, and Johnnie Gardener [the proprietor] came in, directing Blind d’Arnault—he would never consent to be led.” The last clause is rich in implications. He would consent only to be directed—one would think from behind. He must have thought himself too substantial a man, too dignified, to be led by the hand, as though he were a helpless child. In overcoming the obstacles of blindness and racism, he exemplified the motto of John William “Blind” Boone, one of the pianists on whom Cather based the character of Samson d’Arnault: “Merit, not sympathy, wins.”

For Jim Burden, now in high school, summers in Black Hawk can be so dull that silence seems “to ooze out of the ground.” This is why the arrival of the Vannis, a couple from Kansas City, provides such welcome relief. The Vannis establish a pavilion where they lead dances and give dance lessons to the children of the town’s “ambitious mothers.” The pavilion is soon “the most cheerful place in town”; it attracts young people from miles away, drawn by the music and the promise of a good time.

None is drawn more than Ántonia. Dancing appeals to her elementally; it is her spirit’s way of responding to the music she associates with her father. Soon she is considered the best dancer in town. Jim grasps part of the reason why: Her moves on the floor are a sign of spontaneity (“she had so much spring and variety, and was always putting in new steps and slides”) and hearty physicality (“When you spun out into the floor with [her], you didn’t return to anything”). The more she dances, the more she enjoys herself:

Ántonia talked and thought of nothing but the tent. She hummed the dance tunes all day. When supper was late, she hurried with her dishes, dropped and smashed them in her excitement. At the first call of the music, she became irresponsible. If she hadn’t time to dress, she merely flung off her apron and shot out of the kitchen door. Sometimes I went with her; the moment the lighted tent came into view she would break into a run, like a boy. There were always partners waiting for her; she began to dance before she got her breath.

Ántonia’s great enthusiasm is a sign of her need for freedom and expression. Inspired by music, she finds in dancing a temporary release from the drudgery of her constant toil.

Her enthusiasm, however, sometimes clouds her judgment. One of her dance partners, Larry Donovan, falls in love with her, proposes marriage, and then abandons her. It is not clear whether he leaves before or after realizing she is pregnant with his child.

In the coda of My Ántonia, Jim picks up the thread of Ántonia’s story 20 years later. On a visit to Nebraska, he learns that she has flourished. She is happy, successful, full of purpose, her family rooted deeply in the soil Mr. Shimerda found so foreign. One evening, Jim, in the company of Ántonia and her husband, Anton Cuzak, is treated to a musical performance by some of their children:

After supper we went into the parlour, so that Yulka and Leo could play for me. Ántonia went first, carrying the lamp. There were not nearly chairs enough to go round, so the younger children sat down on the bare floor. Little Lucie whispered to me that they were going to have a parlour carpet if they got ninety cents for their wheat. Leo, with a good deal of fussing, got out his violin. It was old Mr. Shimerda’s instrument, which Ántonia had always kept, and it was too big for him. But he played very well for a self-taught boy. Poor Yulka’s efforts were not so successful. While they were playing, little Nina got up from her corner, came out into the middle of the floor, and began to do a pretty little dance on the boards with her bare feet. No one paid the least attention to her, and when she was through she stole back and sat down by her brother.

This passage is full of echoes. The strings of Mr. Shimerda’s violin are at last sounding again. The name of Ántonia’s daughter Nina recalls Nina Harling, Ántonia’s favorite among the Harling girls. Nina’s “pretty little dance” shows she responds easily and naturally to what moves her—and suggests that daughter is very much like mother, possessed of the same potential for goodness, liveliness, and love.

The music in My Ántonia binds the characters across the generations and, for us readers, endows them with vividness and depth. Revisit Willa Cather’s subtle and imperishable story as it begins its second century and you may find yourself taking its characters into your being much as you remember a favorite song.