My Antonia: Escaping into the countryside

Big bluestem grass at the Willa Cather Memorial Park in Nebraska

I have always love, love, loved this book by Will Cather “My Antonia”!

This blog is meant as a source of inspiration for my little group of flute friends as we are sheltering in place during the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020. Our big spring concert has been postponed/canceled and we don’t really know what the future holds for us and so we have decided to read this book together and experience the music of Antonin Dvorak. Both of these great artists had a personal connection to the Bohemian immigrant population in American during the 19th century. (All are welcome to join us as we read and listen.) Here is a free source on Audible Books.

Nothing is ever a waste if we are mindful as we process and I believe with all of my heart that experiencing great works of literature can begin to help you paint pictures in your mind’s eye that in turn become essential to experiencing art and music to the fullest. All of which makes you a better musician! So let’s get started!!

This week we will focus on a few fun facts to give a bit of background to Willa Cather and her wonderful book My Antonia.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Winchester Virginia and later moved out to Red Cloud Nebraska. My Antonia is based on her experiences from age 8-15 living in this small town community. She never marries, but becomes one of America’s most beloved authors winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Other books by Cather: O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and The Professor’s House.

Her Style

Willa Cather writes during the time when the old frontier is fading away and the new modern world is just being born.

She is fascinated by the rich culture of her Danish, Norwegian and Bohemian (Czech) immigrant neighbors.

She writes strong female characters and the story of My Antonia is based on a real childhood friend.

Her novels magnificently paint the landscape of the American West.

The story

This is a story written without form that records a series of events in the life of Jim Burden and how he is deeply affected by the Shimerdas family who are struggling to survive on the prairie.

Cather creates interest by contrasting the peacefulness of life on the plains with several violent episodes. These episodes portray the fascination and feelings she had for the Immigrant families as they struggle through drought, frost, grasshoppers, prairie fires, flood, isolation and loneliness.

Willa Cather uses the central character of Antonia to symbolize everything that is good about the New World.

She writes “more than any other person…this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions , the whole adventure of our childhood.”

Illustration by W.T. Benda

Questions to Consider

  1. What was you favorite passage of the Nebraskan landscape? (make note as you read of 2 or 3 passage you would be willing to share as your favorites.)

for example this paragraph of Jim Burden’s first impressions:

“I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it…Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.” p. 8

2. Notice how Jim and Antonia enjoy small pleasures. Is there a scene you find impressive? Can you relate it to something in your life experience?

For example:

I remember Saturday mornings growing up when my mother would always make a fresh pan of buttermilk biscuits and the family would gather around to share with their favorite jams and jellies. I can see their faces and feel our contentment as we gobbled down each morsel. The combination of sweet and salty was a perfect match that melted in our mouths.

3. What are some of the common characteristics and experiences of Immigrants? and again do you have any experiences to share that these episodes remind you?

Is there someone you have met at your school that was from a different culture? Have you traveled to another country and felt the sudden stark differences between our country and theirs? Language, accents, foods, customs…

4. Begin to imagine the kind of music that would accompany your unique pictures of the landscape combined with the personality traits of the immigrants.

Take the adjectives we began to brainstorm in our last session and practice using them in combination with musical terms. “The peaceful melody contrasting with the bold colors of the brass created a collision of emotions in the music.”

Coming Soon

The Music of Dvorak.

Listen Here: Dvorak Slavonic Dances

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