Making short response to following the question on painting by Jules Breton

Making short response to following the question on painting by Jules Breton

The title of Cather’s novel takes its name not only from a painting by Jules Breton depicting a peasant
girl in a field, but also from a moment Thea, the novel’s clear protagonist, experiences as she stands
before the painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. Last week, you ably discussed some of the features of
this painting, especially as visual art strives to capture auditory art in its depiction of birdsong, or, more
specifically, the song of the lark. As Thea stands before the painting, Cather juxtaposes the two girls, the
two subjects of art. The possibility of metaphor emerges through this juxtaposition, but if Thea is the
metaphor tenor, just what in or about the painting is the metaphor vehicle? Is it the scene itself? Is it
the peasant girl? Is it the lark? Is it the song?
I imagine you might have many vivid, thought-provoking responses to this prompt as you had with
identifying what we can assume about the song the lark sings. Instead of comparing Thea and her life to
this painting, we are going to explore another work referred to multiple times in the novel: Christoph
Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice," a 1762 operatic recounting of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In Chapter X of Part I of The Song of the Lark, Thea presents to Wunsch the sheet music to an aria from
the opera:
Thea, loitering on the stool, reached for a tattered book she had taken off the music-rest when she sat
down. It was a very old Leipsic edition of the piano score of Gluck’s “Orpheus.” She turned over the
pages curiously.
“Is it nice?” she asked.
“It is the most beautiful opera ever made,” Wunsch declared solemnly. “You know the story, eh? How,
when she die, Orpheus went down below for his wife?”
“Oh, yes, I know. I didn’t know there was an opera about it, though. Do people sing this now?”
“Aber ja! What else? You like to try? See.” He drew her from the stool and sat down at the piano.
Turning over the leaves to the third act, he handed the score to Thea. “Listen, I play it through and you
get the rhythmus. Eins, zwei, drei, vier.” He played through Orpheus’ lament, then pushed back his cuffs
with awakening interest and nodded at Thea. “Now, vom blatt, mit mir.”
“Ach, ich habe sie verloren,
All’ mein Gluck ist nun dahn"
Wunsch sang the aria with much feeling. It was evidently one that was very dear to him.
In the same scene, Wusch expresses some of his fascination with a particular aria from the opera, one
written for the male part of Orfeo but for an alto, a voice range usually assigned to a female. A contralto
was sometimes assigned to such a role.
He took the book from her and looked at it. “Yes, that is not so easy, there. This is an old book. They do
not print it so now any more, I think. They leave it out, may-be. Only one woman could sing that good.”
Thea looked at him in perplexity.

Wunsch went on. “It is written for alto, you see. A woman sings the part, and there was only one to sing
that good in there. You understand? Only one!” He glanced at her quickly and lifted his red forefinger
upright before her eyes.
Thea looked at the finger as if she were hypnotized. “Only one?” she asked breathlessly; her hands,
hanging at her sides, were opening and shutting rapidly.
Wunsch nodded and still held up that compelling finger. When he dropped his hands, there was a look
of satisfaction in his face.
“Was she very great?”
Wunsch nodded.
“Was she beautiful?”
“Aber gar nicht! Not at all. She was ugly; big mouth, big teeth, no figure, nothing at all,” indicating a
luxuriant bosom by sweeping his hands over his chest. “A pole, a post! But for the voice—ach! She have
something in there, behind the eyes,” tapping his temples.
Thea followed all his gesticulations intently. “Was she German?”
“No, Spanisch.” He looked down and frowned for a moment. “Ach, I tell you, she look like the Frau
Tellamantez, some-thing. Long face, long chin, and ugly al-so.”
“Did she die a long while ago?”
“Die? I think not. I never hear, anyhow. I guess she is alive somewhere in the world; Paris, may-be. But
old, of course. I hear her when I was a youth. She is too old to sing now any more.”
“Was she the greatest singer you ever heard?”
Wunsch nodded gravely. “Quite so. She was the most—” he hunted for an English word, lifted his hand
over his head and snapped his fingers noiselessly in the air, enunciating fiercely, “kunst-ler-isch!” The
word seemed to glitter in his uplifted hand, his voice was so full of emotion.
Wunsch rose from the stool and began to button his wadded jacket, preparing to return to his half-
heated room in the loft. Thea regretfully put on her cloak and hood and set out for home.
In chapter XIII, after a ten-day illness, the first thing Wunsch requests is the score to the opera:
As soon as Wunsch was strong enough to sit about in his slippers and wadded jacket, he told Fritz to
bring him some stout thread from the shop. When Fritz asked what he was going to sew, he produced
the tattered score of “Orpheus” and said he would like to fix it up for a little present. Fritz carried it over
to the shop and stitched it into pasteboards, covered with dark suiting-cloth. Over the stitches he glued
a strip of thin red leather which he got from his friend, the harness-maker. After Paulina had cleaned the
pages with fresh bread, Wunsch was amazed to see what a fine book he had. It opened stiffly, but that
was no matter.

When Thea begins her lessons with Andor Harsanyi, it is only when she sings the aria from this opera
that he recognizes the gift he has to work with:
“Don’t you know anything—pleasant?”
Thea shook her head ruefully. “Im afraid I dont. Let me see—Perhaps,” she turned to the piano and put
her hands on the keys. “I used to sing this for Mr. Wunsch a long while ago. It’s for contralto, but I’ll try
it.” She frowned at the keyboard a moment, played the few introductory measures, and began:

Ach, ich habe sie verloren;
She had not sung it for a long time, and it came back like an old friendship. When she finished, Harsanyi
sprang from his chair and dropped lightly upon his toes, a kind of entre-chat that he sometimes
executed when he formed a sudden resolution, or when he was about to follow a pure intuition, against
reason. His wife said that when he gave that spring he was shot from the bow of his ancestors, and now
when he left his chair in that manner she knew he was intensely interested. He went quickly to the
“Sing that again. There is nothing the matter with your low voice, my girl. I will play for you. Let your
voice out.” Without looking at her he began the accompaniment. Thea drew back her shoulders, relaxed
them instinctively, and sang.
When she finished the aria, Harsanyi beckoned her nearer. “Sing ah—ah for me, as I indicate.” He kept
his right hand on the keyboard and put his left to her throat, placing the tips of his delicate fingers over
her larynx. “Again,—until your breath is gone.—Trill between the two tones, always; good! Again;
excellent!—Now up,—stay there. E and F. Not so good, is it? F is always a hard one.—Now, try the half-
tone.—That’s right, nothing difficult about it.—Now, pianissimo, ah—ah. Now, swell it, ah—ah. —Again,
follow my hand. —Now, carry it down.—Anybody ever tell you anything about your breathing?”
“Mr. Larsen says I have an unusually long breath,” Thea replied with spirit.
Harsanyi smiled. “So you have, so you have…”
The famous opera has been translated into many languages and even turned into a ballet. Here is the
most famous aria, referred to through the novel, in German:
Christoph Williband Gluck (1714 – 1787 ) isn’t the only artist to depict the famous myth. Many artists
have vied to capture the story in their own medium, including Carl Goos’s "Orpheus and Eurydice" of
1826, Frederic Leighton’s "Orfeo ed Euridice" of 1864, and Emil Neide’s "Orpheus and Eurdyice" of 1876

Carl Goos’s "Orpheus and Eurydice" (1826)
In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus, a son of Apollo and the most talented musician on earth
at the time, played the lyre so beautifully that even the rocks were captivated by his melodies. Orpheus
fell in love with the beautiful maiden Eurydice and married her. They remained in love and happy until
one day, Eurydice, who, depending on which version of the myth you read, was either running from a
man who had made advances on her or who was dancing with the nymphs, stepped on a coil of snakes,
was bitten, and died. Orpheus played such mourning songs that the earth and the heavens pitied him.
Unable to live without his wife, he decided to reclaim her and journeyed into the underworld in search
of her. His enchanting lyre playing lulled the three-headed guard dog of the underworld, Cerberus, to
sleep, and he entered Tartarus. He played for Hades and Persephone, so taken by his playing and so
moved by his plight that they granted his request of leaving the underworld with Eurydice—under one

condition: as he led her out, he was not to look back at her. Orpheus accepted this term and began his
exit, only, growing fearful that the gods had played a terrible trick on him by replacing his wife with a
shade or a ghost of her, steps before emerging from the underworld, he looked back to make sure it was
the “real” Eurydice. She vanished before him, leaving him to lead a mournful life without her. While the
myth continues with Orpheus’s death, the opera ends with his utter despondency and desolation over
the second loss of his wife.
Although Thea does not stand before this oeuvre the way she stands before Breton’s painting, a
juxtaposition surfaces, certainly as this opera–and particularly this aria whose title translates to “I have
lost her"–visits and revisits Thea.
In what way(s) might this opera be a metaphor for Thea and/or her life as we see it? Please express one
point of parallel, explaining how the myth and/or the opera reflects something of Thea and her
development as an artist

Answer preview:

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