Connections with the Phonograph


By Doug Boilesen, 2020

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather has only one phonograph in its story, however, there are multiple phonograph connections because the prototype for Cather's heroine Thea Kronborg was opera star Olive Fremstad and because other songs of the period are referenced that were made into phonograph records.


The Phonograph

The following text from The Song of the Lark identifies the phonograph in the parlor which could "let Thea speak for herself."

There, in her parlor, was the phonograph that had come from Mr. Ottenburg last June, on Thea's birthday; she had only to go in there and turn it on, and let Thea speak for herself.


Olive Fremstad, Prototype for Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark

Willa Cather interviewed Olive Fremstad in 1915 for her McClure's Magazine article "Three American Singers" and the two became friends and exchanged letters for nearly a decade. (1)

Besides starring on the opera stage Fremstad made phonograph records and appeared in phonograph advertisements which added her celebrity status, artistic reputation, and the prestige of opera to promote the early phonograph and its records.

As the prototype for Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark Fremstad provides phonograph connections that can be made with Cather's story (even if some are two-degrees of separation connections).

A 1911 Columbia advertisement exemplifies what the phonograph industry was saying about recorded music of the time comparing an opera star's voice like Fremstad's and the quality of the phonograph's recorded sound. The conclusion was clear: Fremstad's records are "a revelation of the amazing manner in which the perfected Columbia process of recording reflects the individual powers of the singer."


First records of Fremstad's voice ever made exclusively for Columbia, Scientific American, 1911 (PM-1830)


In contrast to Columbia's 1911 promotion of Fremstad's recorded voice and "the amazing manner in which the perfected Columbia process of recording" was reflecting "the individual powers of the singer," Fremstad herself apparently was not happy with her recordings. The Cather Scholarly Edition for The Song of the Lark includes in Explanatory Note 1006 a brief history of the phonograph and Fremstad's disappointment in the quality of recorded sound according to her long-time secretary Mary Watkins Cushing.

1006. phonograph . . . lines on metal disks: Invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1877, the first phonograph employed cylinders covered in tinfoil on which indentations had been made with a stylus. In the late 1880s Emile Berliner patented a process by which sound grooves, or lines, were traced by a stylus onto a flat disc. In early recordings the original soft wax master disc was electroplated with metal to produce a negative master that could be used to produce more copies, or records, which were then played on a Gramophone. These commercial discs, initially made of hard rubber and later of shellac resin and cotton or other fiber, were turned by hand or a spring, and sound was increased by flared horns. Fremstad made fifteen recordings for Columbia in 1911 and 1912 but was so disappointed by the quality of the reproductions that she refused to make additional recordings even after techniques improved (Cushing 259-62). (2)


The Discography of American Recordings (DAHR) identifies 23 recordings made by Fremstad for Columbia Records between January 21,1911 and October 1, 1915. (3)


"Die Walkure," Sung by Olive Fremstad, Columbia Record No. A-1451 Recorded October 28, 1913


"Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" Sung by Olive Fremstad, Columbia Record No. A-876, Recorded April 1912


For examples of Olive Fremstad as a phonograph recording artist as seen in phonograph advertisements and other popular culture ephemera see Olive Fremstad - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Prototype.


Other Phonograph Connections

Most of the other phonograph connections in The Song of the Lark are referenced music. Music wasn't being played by phonographs in the story but some of those referenced songs were at the time being made into phonograph records (which can be heard on this page by clicking LISTEN).

At the end of this page a Spotify Playlist of "Music in Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark" created by the National Willa Cather Center can be used to hear contemporary recordings of the book's referenced music.


Referenced Songs that were made into phonograph records

'La Golondrina'

As Thea and the doctor approached the 'dobe houses, they heard a guitar, and a rich barytone voice—that of Famos Serreños—singing "La Golondrina."

Recording history of "La Golondrina."

“The earliest known recording is probably that made by the U.S. Marine Band in either 1896 or 1897 on a two-minute brown wax cylinder for the Columbia Phonograph Company, cylinder number 407,” according to a blog devoted to a history of the song. The earliest vocal recording, the author asserts, was made in 1898 by Arturo Adamini on Edison cylinder 4234. Adamini, an Italian tenor, later recorded the song as a 7-inch, 78-rpm disc for the Berliner label. (4).

For an interesting 100-year history of recording this song see Strachwitz Frontera Collection 'La Golondrina': A Song that Soars Across Centuries and Crosses Cultures.


LISTEN to 1926 HMV Record "La Golondrina" sung by bartione Emilio de Gogorza (Courtesy Internet Archive)


'Just Before the Battle, Mother'

This popular song was a "popular song during the American Civil War, particularly among troops in the Union Army."

Upping, the trainer, talked to one and another: "Lily's all right for girl parts," he insisted, "but you've got to get a girl with some ginger in her for this. Thea's got the voice, too. When she sings, 'Just Before the Battle, Mother,' she'll bring down the house."


Just before the Battle, Mother by Geo. F. Root, Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1868 (Courtesy Giovannoni-Sheram Collection)



LISTEN to Just Before the Battle, Mother sung by Macdonough and Bieling, Victor Record 16418-A, circa 1909



'Come, Ye Disconsolate' and 'The Ninety and Nine'

Thea sings "Come, Ye Disconsolate" and "The Ninety and Nine."

When the clock struck nine, Thea said she must be going home.

Harsanyi rose and flung away his cigarette. "Not yet. We have just begun the evening. Now you are going to sing for us. I have been waiting for you to recover from dinner. Come, what shall it be?" he crossed to the piano.

Thea laughed and shook her head, locking her elbows still tighter about her knees. "Thank you, Mr. Harsanyi, but if you really make me sing, I'll accompany myself. You could n't stand it to play the sort of things I have to sing."

As Harsanyi still pointed to the chair at the piano, she left her stool and went to it, while he returned to his chaise longue. Thea looked at the keyboard uneasily for a moment, then she began "Come, Ye Disconsolate," the hymn Wunsch had always liked to hear her sing. Mrs. Harsanyi glanced questioningly at her husband, but he was looking intently at the toes of his boots, shading his forehead with his long white hand. When Thea finished the hymn she did not turn around, but immediately began "The Ninety and Nine."


LISTEN 'Come, Ye Disconsolate,' Choir Record, Victor Record A-719, Recorded March 11, 1901 (Courtesy



LISTEN 'The Ninety and Nine,' Edison Royal Purple 4-minute cylinder record 29016 sung by Christine Miller, Recorded November 3, 1916 (Courtesy





Rock of Ages, Composed by George W. Warren, Published by Firth, Pond & Co., New York, 1851. (Courtesy The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University)



Rock of Ages, Edison Mixed Quartet, 4-minute Edison Blue Amberol Record No. 1633, recorded September 23, 1912 (Courtesy



Music in Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark

National Willa Cather Center

Spotify Playlist





"The Song of the Lark," oil on canvas by Jules Adophe Breton, 1884 (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago and Henry Field Memorial Collection).


For an overview of six Cather prototypes who made phonograph records visit Willa Cather’s Prototypes Who Were Recording Artists.