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1. Pastoral Sounds
III/ Poetry, Fiction, Film

Modernist Shepherdess: Gertrude Stein’s Pastoral Sounds



Gertrude Stein représente des paysages campagnards « pastoraux », qu’elle associe à des thèmes de guerre. L’étude de ces associations révèle une mise en scène continue de la pastorale et la production des sons pastoraux. À sa façon, Stein devient la bergère moderniste d’un paysage sonore pastoral mécanisé. Cette étude démontre que, dans la langue exigeante de Stein, on entend des éléments pastoraux, tels que des sons spécifiques (cloches de vaches, musique de cascades, chant d’oiseaux, ou voix humaine), qui guident le lecteur à travers le paysage sonore évoqué par le récit. Pour comprendre les sons pastoraux chez Stein, nous analyserons d’abord ses influences pastorales, pour aborder ensuite ses productions pastorales, notamment celles qui impliquent des sons pastoraux, dans Four Saints in Three Acts, The World is Round, Paris France, et Wars I Have Seen. Enfin, on verra que les sons pastoraux présents dans ces textes invitent les lecteurs à participer à une promenade d’un après-midi à la campagne menée par la bergère elle-même.

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  • 1 The terminology is used frequently; the “Lost Generation” expression can be traced to the epigraph (...)

1Those of us who read Gertrude Stein, and enjoy it, have learned that it is best to do so with an open sense of humor. Moreover, Stein is one of those authors whose reading rewards are best appreciated in the long term. Her corpus is highly intertextual, and with each progressive reading or re-reading, we can start to laugh at Stein’s inside jokes. Yet, some of Stein’s works are not particularly humorous, notably those where she chooses to relate her life experience during wartime. While these themes of war do not usually rhyme with pastoral images, two works from Gertrude Stein’s corpus specifically couch descriptive images of the French countryside within the context of World War II: Paris France (1940), and Wars I Have Seen (1945). In these pieces, Stein pays particular attention to the war sounds as they interweave with more traditional pastoral sounds. In her own way, Gertrude becomes the modernist shepherdess of a mechanized pastoral soundscape. Applying this pastoral approach to Stein is possible through the lens of Terry Gifford, which enables us to consider the pastoral modes used outside of the traditional pastoral periodic definitions. Gifford suggests that: “[…] pastoral refers to any literature that describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban” (Gifford 2). Investigating this particular use of pastoral countryside with war themes sheds light on Stein’s continuous mise en scène of the pastoral, and her production of pastoral sounds. We might even go as far to say that Stein hides a few pastoral traps within her Modernists texts, where we would least expect to find them. To play the reader’s part in Stein’s pastorals, we must first identify her pastoral influences. Then, resting on these influences, we may turn our attention to her pastoral productions, notably those involving pastoral sounds, in the works Four Saints in Three Acts; The World is Round; Paris France; and Wars I Have Seen. This study will demonstrate that buried within the difficult Steinese language, pastoral elements, such as those of specific sounds of cowbells, tinkling waterfalls, and birdsong or human song, help readers find their way along the narrative through its soundscape. Ultimately, the pastoral sounds present in these texts invite the readers to join in a countryside afternoon promenade led by the shepherdess herself. Yet Gertrude Stein has been attributed the image of Modernist Shepherdess even outside of the context of pastoral studies. Stein is perceived as the mother of the “Lost Generation,”1 and there are numerous anecdotes of her guiding and helping up-and-coming modernist writers (Benstock 169-170; Hemingway Moveable 15; Cowley 119; Mellow 249). This image of Stein as literary coach is so prevalent that sometimes readers and critics forget Stein’s own literary corpus. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), Stein is presented in her role of salon hostess rather than as writer and creator herself. It is in part for this reason that an in-depth study of Stein’s pastoral influences and production is useful to reaffirm her leadership in early twentieth-century literature.

1. Pastoral Influences

2Identifying the general presence of pastoral elements in Stein’s corpus and her pastoral influences is useful to the understanding of the presence and function of pastoral sounds in the texts analyzed here. According to her own accounts as demonstrated below, Stein’s relationship to pastoral themes appears early on in her artistic development, when she was about twelve or thirteen. In two different works, she cites two explicit sources as inspirational, and they are undoubtedly linked to rural landscapes and experience. Rural experience in itself became a valued experience for Stein at the vacation home she shared with Alice in Bilignin. In this way, readers can recognize the development of Stein’s own pastoral mode.

1.1 “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”

3In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a reference is made to the book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox, Jr. (1908), and its resulting song (1913). In this story set in the Appalachians, the conflict of rural vs. industrial life is present, as well as the themes of natural beauty and resources in the local young ladies and local coal. The book was often appreciated by the doughboys, and Stein, through Alice’s voice, summarizes it in these words: “It had practically no story to it and it was not exciting or adventurous, and it was very well written and was mostly description of mountain scenery” (Stein 239). On the same page, Toklas states that Stein preferred the song, written and composed by Harry Carroll and Ballard Macdonald, to the book, and its lyrics provide a summary of these mountain themes:

On a mountain in Virginia
Stands a lonesome pine
Just below is the cabin home
Of a little girl of mine
Her name is June, and very, very soon
She’ll belong to me
For I know she's waiting there for me
’Neath that lone pine tree

I can hear the tinkling waterfall
Far among the hills
Bluebirds sing each so merrily
To his mate in rapture trills
They seem to say
‘Your June is lonesome too’
Longing fills her eyes
She is waiting for you patiently
Where the pine tree sighs

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
On the trail of the lonesome pine
In the pale moon shine our hearts entwine
Where she carved her name and I carved mine
Oh, June, like the mountains I'm blue
Like the pine I am lonesome for you
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
On the trail of the lonesome pine

4The three stanzas of the song emphasize different aspects of the mountain scenery. The first stanza gives us a charming post-card like visual representation by evoking the mountain itself, the lonesome pine, and the cabin home. Elements from the third stanza, like the precise location of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the pale moonshine, complete the picture of a quaint home. The second stanza specifically appeals to our auditory senses: we can hear the tinkling waterfall, the bluebirds singing, and even the sighing of the pine tree. The very same types of sounds (tinkling, birds, and the trees) will reappear in Gertrude’s own writing. Finally, the third stanza layers emotions over the visual and sound representations: love is expressed as June and the narrator carve their names in a tree together. This memory makes the narrator nostalgic, and he states that “like the mountains I’m blue,” and “like the pine I am lonesome for you.” While on a first level this popular song (“ditty,” as Alice says) expresses a sentimental situation, it also provides Gertrude Stein with pastoral elements for her forthcoming writing.

Gertrude’s green garden at Bilignin

Gertrude’s green garden at Bilignin

© Amy Wells 2004

1.2 “Ground not country”

5From literature and music to the visual arts, the other pastoral work influencing Stein is the painter Jean-François Millet’s The Man with the Hoe (1860-1862). In Imagining Paris, J. Gerald Kennedy relates how Stein’s first year in Paris (1878-79) as a 4-5 year old stayed with her during her childhood in California. In addition to works by Balzac and the smell of hats and gloves, the Millet tableau was a visual mental marker representing Paris and France for Stein (38). This source predates The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, but it is evoked in a later work, Paris France. At the beginning of this novel, Stein is contextualizing her life within France and modernity:

Then there was Millet’s Man With The Hoe. I had never really wanted a photograph of a picture before I saw Millet’s Man With The Hoe. I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I had read Eugenie Grandet of Balzac, and I did have some feeling about what french country was like but The Man With The Hoe made it different, it made it ground not country, and France has been that to me ever since. France is made of ground, of earth. (6)

6Millet’s subject represents work rather than leisure in the rural setting, but as Millet’s own corpus of Normandy paintings indicates, the land is recognized and valorized by its artistic rendering. It is perhaps this element of “work” over “leisure” that makes France now seem to be made of “earth” rather than “country.” Not only can we identify these specific sources for pastoral creative inspiration, but, quite simply, Gertrude Stein was in love with the French countryside. Gertrude and Alice began spending their summers in the Ain department starting in 1924, and they moved into the house in Bilignin near Belley, in 1929 (Mellow 313; 332). It was their custom to receive guests during the season, and Bravig Imbs (who, according to Toklas participated in a rendition of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”) was such a guest who had the chance to see Stein in Shepherdess mode:

Bravig Imbs reported, from a visit to Belley, that he had seen the writer at work, sitting on a camping stool in the middle of a pasture. Alice, on command, was driving a cow around the field. Gertrude’s inspiration often came from odd sounds and eccentric rhythms, and that day she had taken a fancy to the clunking of the cowbell as that ungraceful, ruminative animal was forced to jog, udders swaying, around the pasture. (Mellow 334)

7This anecdote captures perfectly the influence of pastoral settings and pastoral sounds on Stein, with Stein seeking out opportunities to write in the middle of the pasture and appreciating the clanking of the cowbell.

8Stein’s own conception of the Pastoral is demonstrated in Paris France, and it echoes Gifford’s in that it emphasizes the “implicit and explicit” contrast with the urban: city dwellers long for country life (Gifford 2). Stein aligns this back-and-forth city-urban movement with French culture:

[…] that is one of the characteristic things of the French, the city and country the country and city are not separated. Everybody in the city has relations in the country and everybody in the country has relations in the city and everybody in the city expects to return to something in the country all the employees of the state all policemen all workmen of all sorts, in fact practically everybody even the shopkeepers do expect to retire eventually to the country, that is where inevitably you live when you no longer have to work for a living, when you have a pension when you have saved some thing and you grow vegetables and you build yourself a little house and you hope that money won’t change so much but that you can live on what you have. Anyway you can always have vegetables and rabbits and chickens and that is always something. (103)

  • 2 Published just a few years prior to Paris France, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men puts forward a s (...)

9This passage describes a comfortable country retirement, where you can “live off of the land,” a literary motif often repeated in American literature to represent comfort and independence.2 This passage equally describes how Stein herself would live during World War II, when she refused to leave France despite the war and her own Jewish heritage. The countryside, rural life, and pastoral-like tableaux hold a major place in Stein’s artistic realm. With Stein, the inspirational sources she cites explicitly, together with her own nascent love for country living, would coagulate into a pastoral framework into which she would set a variety of modernist themes.

2. Pastoral Production, Pastoral Sounds

  • 3 Stein and Thomson further collaborated on the opera The Mother of Us All in 1947. This opera is not (...)

10The particular attention attributed by Stein to the sounds of her beloved Belley, and its little Bilignin that we will see later, may be the result of her previous musical endeavor, Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-1928), for which she wrote the libretto in collaboration with composer Virgil Thomson. Stein met Thomson in late 1925, and at the onset of the New Year, he set Stein’s poem “Susie Asado” to music for piano and voice. This gift is considered to be the starting point of their artistic collaboration, as not only did Thomson set other Stein works to music (Preciosilla, The Portrait of F.B., Capitals Capitals), he invited her in turn to write the libretto (Mellon 300-302).3 It took some time for the artists to establish the subject of their opera: early projects included Joyce and Stein holding court in their respective Parisian salons and an idea from Stein on the topic of George Washington. Finally, Spanish saints were agreed upon as the story line for the opera. After three months of writing, Stein sent her work to Thomson, encouraging him to “Make it pastoral. In hills and gardens” (Mellow 303). Stein defines her idea of a pastoral setting here, which should include “hills and gardens.” Therefore, despite the misleading title of Four Saints in Three Acts (the opera evokes more than four saints and consists of more than three acts), and notwithstanding its thematic complexity, it is consistently grounded in these pastoral elements. Through Alice B. Toklas’ voice, Stein has also designated the opera as “describ[ing] the landscape that so profoundly moved me,” directly referring to their time in Avila, Spain (Stein 116).

11In addition to Stein’s own pastoral take regarding the visual aspects, we can also take into consideration the parameters of the pastoral music genre. In his musical dictionary from 1883, Joseph Bottomley defines pastoral as:

The name originally applied to vocal compositions, the words of which were descriptive of rural life. The style of music adapted to pastoral poetry has been transferred to instrumental composition, which, notwithstanding the exclusion of words, supports the original name. The pastorale is sweet and simple, containing six to twelve quavers in each bar. (Bottomley 37)

12The pastoral musical genre rests on the textual component, but there are also some indications as to the technicalities of the composition, in that it is “sweet and simple” with “six to twelve quavers in each bar.” Julian Rushton suggests: “Pastoral music […] is a well-identified topic throughout the history of opera. The application of a pastoral topic sets a scene, evokes an atmosphere. When a character sings in a pastoral manner, that person is typecast, perhaps as a peasant” (336). This definition reminds us of Gifford’s own definition of the pastoral mode, whose particular atmosphere is largely due to the presence of predictable roles (7). The two aspects of pastoral text with pastoral atmosphere culminate in the tradition of pastoral opera. Eugène de Montalemebert’s and Claude Abromont’s Guide des genres de la musique occidentale cite additional examples of early twentieth-century pastoral operas, which are useful for contextualizing Stein’s opera: The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, Ralph Von Williams (1921); La Favola d’Orfeo, Alfred Casella (1932); and Les Santons, Henri Tomasi (1939) all appear in chronological proximity to Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. These titles indicate that the pastoral musical genre is far from being obsolete in the first part of the twentieth century.

2.1 Four Saints in Three Acts

13Regarding Four Saints in Three Acts, it appears as an evident example of Stein’s pastoral production, due to the obvious pastoral elements present in both Stein’s libretto (as far as pastoral genre and poetic sound patterns) and Thomson’s musical composition. Although critic Robert Haas has described Stein’s word portraits as “Literary Music” for the sonority of the verses as patterns (81), Thomson is also to be praised for his metrics. In their lengthy analysis of Four Saints in Three Acts, Hitchcock and Fussell point to Virgil Thomson’s musical origins (33-36). He had only been composing for about seven years when he began this score. His composition experience had been mostly through the church (by age 12, he was a paid organist at a Baptist church) and the Harvard Glee Club (Wittke np). Thomson was a great admirer of French music, Satie’s in particular, and his composition of Four Saints in Three Acts follows the French, rather than German and Italian traditions. Analysts cite Jean-Baptiste Lully as a major source of inspiration for Thomson, as well as Rameau, Gluck, Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Debussy and Poulenc. From a technical perspective, the four elements that distinguish this “French” style, which Thomson would aim to render “American”, include: declamation, tableau-like sequences, choreographed music within the opera, and a chorus that participates in the action. Each of these elements features in performances of Thomson’s opera. In addition to these European references, John Mellow has suggested that it may be Thomson’s own religious education that influenced the score, suggesting it was: “[…] the hymns and Sunday School ditties that provided a perfect foil for Gertrude’s strange but plain-spoken text” (Mellon 308). This interest in inspirational sources was also expressed by musician and critic John Cage, who, given the quirky nature of the opera, in addition to tonal analysis, also paid attention to the text. In his statistical analysis of the opera, he finds 111 tonic-dominants, 178 scale passages, and 632 sequences, but also 38 references to nursery rhymes, and one to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (Hitchcock and Fussell 33-36). It would seem, therefore, that Thomson followed pastoral conventions in the composition as much as Stein took up pastoral literary themes in her libretto, the two working in harmony to bring Americanized elements to the production.

14Numerous traditional elements of pastoral settings can be identified within the libretto, although there are some unexpected intruders: pigeons and magpies are not usually depicted in pastoral tableaux. The inclusion of fouler fowl into the pastoral frame is certainly part of Stein’s humor. Notwithstanding this slight adjustment, a pastoral setting is established in the prologue:

Commère: We had intended if it were a pleasant day to go to the country it was a very beautiful day and we carried out our intention. We went to places that we had been when we were equally pleased and we found very nearly what we could find and returning saw and heard that after all they were rewarded and likewise. This makes it necessary to go again.

15In keeping with her role as a busy body, the mezzo-soprano Commère evokes a cycle of pastoral retreat to enjoy the countryside, drawing the audience into the pastoral performance. In Act I, there are several tableaux in which natural elements create a pastoral atmosphere. For example, in Tableau III, the troubadour serves his lady as St. Ingatius kneels to St. Teresa, playing his guitar:

Tableau III St. Teresa II seated. St. Ignatius, kneeling; plays guitar.
St. Teresa I: Leave later gaily the troubadour plays his guitar.

16Both the stage directions and the direct speech reinforce the troubadour and lady scene, implying both sound and image. In the next tableaux, there are flowers: “Does she want to be neglectful of hyacinths and find violets.” According to Victorian florigraphy, this retort could suggest refusing to play in order to remain modest. These floral references are followed in a later tableau by pear trees, cherry blossoms, pink blossoms, and late apples yet, there does not seem to be a direct interaction between their use as setting and the meaning of the text:

Tableau VI St. Teresa II in ecstasy, seated, with an angel hovering.
St. Ignatius: “A scene and withers. Scene Three and Scene Two. How can a sister see Saint Teresa suitably. Pear trees cherry blossoms pink blossoms and late apples and surrounded by Spain and lain. Why when in lean fairly rejoin place dismiss calls.”

17The run-on list of fruits and flowers is equated with Spain. Ultimately, the setting is a romanticized pastoral countryside.

18While Act I relies on these landscape descriptions to set the pastoral scene, Act III shifts its focus to the presence of birds (and their related songs/cries) in the scenery. A scene entitled “Vision of Holy Ghost,” relies on the banal statement “Pigeons on the grass alas.” The different characters and the chorus sing on at length about the pigeons, and then a magpie:


Vision of Holy Ghost

St. Ignatius: Pigeons on the grass alas.
Men’s Chorus (Tenors & Basses): Pigeons on the grass alas.
St. Ignatius: If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they.
Compère: He had heard of a third and he asked about it
Men’s Chorus: It was a magpie in the sky.
St. Ignatius: If a magpie in the sky on the sky cannot cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
Tenor Solo: He asked for a distant magpie as if they made a difference.
Tutti (Men’s Chorus): He asked for a distant magpie as if he asked for a distant magpie as if that made a difference.
Tenor Solo: He asked as if that made a difference.
Tutti (Men’s Chorus): He asked for a distant magpie.
Tenor Solo: As if that made a difference he asked for a distant magpie as if that made a difference.
Tutti (Men’s Chorus): He asked if that made a difference.
Tenor Solo: A distant magpie.
Tutti (Men’s Chorus): He asked for a distant magpie.

19This pigeon-magpie passage offers a chance to consider the relationship between these birds and the pastoral mode. When we read the subtitle, “Vision of Holy Ghost,” with the first line, “Pigeons on the grass alas,” we might wonder if these pigeons are a manifestation of the Holy Ghost, and this alignment is humorous. Nonetheless, pigeons and magpies are not necessarily considered pastoral birds; yet technically speaking, pigeons and doves belong to the same family. For some cultures, the birds are interchangeable; for others, the dove represents purity, and the pigeon is a pest. The pigeon’s pesky reputation comes in part from its determined character, notably when access to food is concerned. For its part, the magpie’s chatter has been described by ornithologist John J. Audubon as “[…] an incessant clatter of short hard notes, scarcely resembling any thing else in nature, but withal not unpleasant” (Audubon np). In this way, the magpie’s presence reinforces the sonority of the opera, which is unusual, but “not unpleasant.” Repetition of the bird species—7 uses of “pigeon” and 10 of “magpie”—brings a rhythm to the text, and it is a recognizable Stein poetic strategy. The pigeons and magpies also contribute to spatializing the scene, as the pigeons are with the chorus on the grass, but the magpie is at a distance in the sky. Bearing in mind the notion of theatrical bienséance and the opera setting, it is obvious that this contrast takes viewers outside of the set stage frame. According to the passage, the pigeons are crying, but not the magpies, despite their vocal nature. Determining a singular, precise reading of this pigeon-magpie scene may not be possible, or even necessary: while they make us laugh, the lines are also impressive—Thomson and Stein have rendered a silly discussion over a banal observation in a rural setting, into something acoustically beautiful. The pastoral mode is met here as the rural setting leads into the request for a “distant magpie.”

20The pastoral mood of the opera is clearly established by the framework of a “pleasant day to go to the country”. The rural setting of flowers and fruit trees, and the “pigeons on the grass alas.” episode are the most obvious pastoral examples from Four Saints in Three Acts, and even from the Steinien corpus in its entirety. However, other, subtler examples exist in Stein’s prose.

2.2 Rose and The World is Round

  • 4 Hurd was well known for his illustrations of Goodnight Moon (1947), another children’s story.

21From a chronological perspective, the first example lies in The World is Round (1939), a “children’s story,” accompanied by illustrations from Clement G. Hurd.4 The text itself carries the sonority of a modernist prose poem. The first part is very much like a musical, or the Four Saints in Three Acts opera, in that characters burst into song every few lines. Sadly, singing provokes crying in the protagonist Rose, who is indeed responsible for “a Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose.” The story is set in the countryside, and reaching the top of the mountain is Rose’s main objective. The sound-scape is equally one of the objectives of the text, as many sounds are evoked to accompany the story. The two main pastoral sounds employed in the text are that of Rose’s singing to the mountain or from the mountaintop, and the sound of a bell.

Stein’s service bell at Bilignin--one of her many “pastoral” bells

Stein’s service bell at Bilignin--one of her many “pastoral” bells

© Amy Wells 2004

22The chapter entitled “A Chair on the Mountain” offers an example of an idealized dialogue between humans and nature. Rose sings about the mountain:

She sang a song of the mountain.
She sang
Dear mountain tall mountain real mountain blue mountain yes mountain high mountain all mountain my mountain, I will with my chair come climbing and once there mountain once there I will be thinking, mountain so high, who cares for the sky yet mountain no mountain yes I will be there. (49)

23Readers hear Rose’s rhythm as she sings and breathes, especially through the repetition (12 occurrences) of the word “mountain.” The first part of the song addresses the mountain, and the second part expresses Rose’s plan to climb it. While wanting to conquer it by reaching its summit with her chair, the little girl also expresses praise and admiration for the mountain; Stein herself will echo this same jubilation in Wars I Have Seen. While high in her mountain adventure, Rose hears a bell. This particular sound is part of the pastoral cliché of a cowbell or a sheep’s bell. But Rose is not exactly sure which type of bell she heard:

“Rose and the Bell”

Well anyway she was climbing away she and the chair and she almost thought that she was almost there and then was it that she fell but anyway she did hear a bell, it was a tinkle and she heard it clearly it might be that a stone had stumbled and hit the garden chair, it might be that the chair had hit something right there or it might be that it was a cat that had a bell or it might be that it was a cow that had a bell or a sheep or a bird or even a little dog that might be running there chasing a low flying crow, or it might be a telephone, not very likely but it might, or it might be a dinner bell, or it might not be a bell at all it might be just a call, or it might be a lizard or a frog or it might be dear me it might be a log, rolling over rocks and water, but no it was a bell how can you tell if a bell is a bell. […] That is the way it was. It made her feel a little lonesome, until then she had been busy climbing but now she was beginning beginning hearing everything and it was a little lonesome. (78-79)

24This passage echoes the lyrics of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” and to some extent, Four Saints in Three Acts. We recognize the sound of “a tinkle,” though in this case, it is not a waterfall, but a bell (maybe) of some sort. Rose, “hearing everything,” which might include the “sigh of the lonesome pine,” is feeling “lonesome,” as repeated twice. A crow flies across the passage, joining the pigeons and magpies of Stein’s aviary. Neither Stein, nor Rose, nor readers know whether it is a mechanical phenomenon or an animal that is responsible for the sound of the bell. This tinkling could be a classic pastoral bell or a mechanized modernist bell from the telephone. It is especially the mention of the latter that prepares us for the mechanized pastoral soundscape present in Paris France and Wars I Have Seen. Of particular interest to us in these two latter texts is the ways in which Stein pairs war and music.

2.3 War and music in Paris France and Wars I Have Seen

25What is striking about this combination is the tension between the two, with us imaging music as the “harmony” and war as the “discordance.” Yet in Paris France, Stein finds a way to find music within the war:

War is more like a novel than it is like real life and that is its eternal fascination. It is a thing based on reality but invented, it is a dream made real, all the things that make a novel but not really life.
And that makes one think a great deal about music, war naturally does make music but certainly this war with everybody really everybody listening to the radio, there is nothing but music. There used to be a song that was sung called Music in the Air, but when that song was written nobody really thought that there would be music in the air.
After all really civilised countries do not continuously make music, and that is the reason that France and England are the most civilised countries. They are not everlastingly making music. (38)

  • 5 Stein was born in 1874.

26Stein asserts that war itself makes music, but also that in wartime everyone is listening to the radio. She is contrasting the noise of destruction with the sounds of creation, questioning the very possibility of the creation of music in wartime. The mention of “Music in the Air” is a potential pastoral trap. While there is no specific song titled “Music in the Air”, she could be referring to two different sources. There is a song entitled “There’s Music in the Air” by George Root which dates from 1857.5 Those lyrics evoke morning, noon, and night across the three stanzas, with romantic descriptions of the light at each time of day in a variety of colors. There is even a harp, and of course, “loved ones gone”:

There’s music in the air,
When the infant morn is nigh,
And faint its blush is seen
On the bright and laughing sky.
Many a harp’s ecstatic sound,
With its thrill of joy profound,
While we list, enchanted there,
To the music in the air.

There’s music in the air,
When the noontide’s sultry beam
Reflects a golden light
On the distant mountain stream.
When beneath some grateful shade,
Sorrow’s aching head is laid,
Sweetly to the spirit there
Comes the music in the air.

There’s music in the air,
When the twilight’s gently sigh
Is lost on evening’s breast,
As its pensive beauties die.
Then, oh, then the loved ones gone
Wake the pure celestial song,
Angel voices greet us there,
In the music in the air.

27The “mountain stream” from this song could distantly echo “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” and Rose’s song. Stein may also be referring to the musical comedy, “Music in the Air,” by Hammerstein and Kern, dating from 1932, just two years prior to the production of Four Saints and eight years prior to the publication of Paris France.

28This musical is about two young country bumpkins who come to the city and get entangled with another couple involved in the showbiz industry. Cornelius, a bird-seller, warns Sieglinde that she and Karl are country people, and that it would not be a good idea to stay in the big town. So, the story line of “Music in the Air” reverses the pastoral theme of the country retreat. One of the major songs, “And Love Was Born”, even includes a shepherd boy blowing his horn:

A warm spring night was stirred by a breeze,
And love was born.
A moon in flight was caught in the trees,
And love was born.
A lark sang out,
And through the mist
There came a sigh
Upon a sigh,
And two young lips were gently kissed
And two young hearts learned to fly....
A shepherd boy awoke from a doze
And blew his horn,
The sun came up and smiled on a rose,
And love was born. (

29Here, we can again identify the repetition of some key motifs: birdsong, moonshine, and a rose (Rose). While there are no specific references to this particular musical piece in Stein’s work, as was the case for the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” the latter seems to be the one to which she is referring—not only for the date, but also because of its pastoral theme which would best fit the Bilignin landscape. By dropping the refrain of this song into her description of the war, Stein stratifies the soundscape, literally putting “music” in the war-ridden air.

30Stein continues to work the pastoralized war theme throughout Paris France. In a later passage, she couples nature sounds with war. To do so, she describes the listening of another little girl, Helen:

When she woke she did not get up, it was war-time and nobody just said to her get up but bye and bye she did get up and she went out. After a while she stood perfectly still and listened.
She thought she heard it but did she.
She listened and listened. It was war-time and so she listened and listened.
She heard weather, she heard water she heard snow, she heard water everywhere, it was that kind of weather.
She heard snow around she very nearly heard the moon and she heard the rain and she heard the mountains. (90)

31The passage does not contain a specific war sound such as a gun or airplane, but the context of war is seemingly important to the listening going on. Helen hears the weather: water, snow, rain, but also nature: the moon and the mountains. Helen’s “listening” is very similar to Rose’s “hearing” from “Rose and the Bell” above. The natural sounds are seeping through the war.

Stein’s view over Bilignin

Stein’s view over Bilignin

© Amy Wells 2004

32This same sonority is captured and pushed even further in the later Wars I Have Seen, as the passages include specific mentions of war noises. Readers must recall the setting of this war memoir: Stein and Toklas had to move from Bilignin in 1943, and they rented a home in “the mountain village of Culoz” (42). Despite advice and urgings to leave France, Stein and Toklas remained in the French countryside, where there was plenty to eat: as suggested earlier, the country life proves to be a good one, and this element in and of itself reinforces the pastoral experience, despite the difficult circumstances (118, 145, 160). The majority of Stein’s text relates daily life under Nazi occupation. While her narrative gives ample examples of war in the country, on two occasions, the bombing and airplane sounds are combined with the natural sounds of birds singing:

And now it is the end of April and today I heard the first nightingale twittering they first twitter in the daytime before they sing in the night time. And of course there are the bombardments. (171)

[…] to be sure the birds are singing, and every night and every day the airplanes come over our heads but you get used to everything. (177)

33According to these passages, which correspond to the spring of 1944, the traditional pastoral oral markers of birdsong have been altered to include the sounds of war machines. The soundscape of the countryside now encompasses bombardments. These extracts from Paris France and Wars I Have Seen are examples of Stein’s pastoralized war “music.”

34By adopting a large pastoral lens that examines rural/urban and city/country tensions, we have read a variety of Steinien passages to understand how and why rural scenes are valorized in her work. From the age of four, Stein was impressed by France, and as she matured, pastoral influences exerted themselves on her imagination: “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” and Jean-François Millet’s The Man with the Hoe, are two examples she designates herself. The pastoral influences would lead Stein into a process of pastoral production: Four Saints in Three Acts provides visual and oral cues relating to pastoral modes. The pastoral lingers on chez Stein, in part because she herself enjoyed living in the country half of the year. The soundscapes of prose works like The World is Round, Paris France, and Wars I Have Seen are adapted to include pastoral sounds—the cowbell, the tinkling of water, and birdsong. Stein was well placed to write these tonalities into her works, as they are the results of observations on her daily 12-kilometer walks near Culoz. But the pastoral sounds are not alone; in the context of military conflict, bombardments and flying planes enter the soundtrack of the texts. It is in this way that the warzone integrated her landscape. Readers can recognize pastoral sounds across the Stein corpus if they listen carefully. From Alice’s tinkling cowbell to Rose’s tinkling bell, to the “Music in the Air”, these very sounds may prove to be a pathway to the understanding of Stein, the Modernist Shepherdess.

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1 The terminology is used frequently; the “Lost Generation” expression can be traced to the epigraph of The Sun Also Rises (1926) and on page 29 of A Moveable Feast (1964).

2 Published just a few years prior to Paris France, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men puts forward a similar concept of material comfort from independent living. “Live off the land” becomes the catch phrase for the character Lennie, representing his American dream: “An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted (Steinbeck 16). “George, how longs it’s gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’—an’ rabbits?” (Steinbeck 56). Both Stein’s narrator and Steinbeck’s characters project a type of pastoral retirement or retreat as an ultimate happiness.

3 Stein and Thomson further collaborated on the opera The Mother of Us All in 1947. This opera is not discussed here as its subject, Susan B. Anthony, does not present pastoral elements. Paul Wittke has suggested that The Mother of Us All “is even more American” and that it takes into consideration the “ruder world” of post-war period of 1947 (Wittke np).

4 Hurd was well known for his illustrations of Goodnight Moon (1947), another children’s story.

5 Stein was born in 1874.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Gertrude’s green garden at Bilignin
Crédits © Amy Wells 2004
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Stein’s service bell at Bilignin--one of her many “pastoral” bells
Crédits © Amy Wells 2004
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Stein’s view over Bilignin
Crédits © Amy Wells 2004
Fichier image/jpeg, 754k
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Amy WELLS, « Modernist Shepherdess: Gertrude Stein’s Pastoral Sounds »E-rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 26 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Caen Normandie, Equipe ERIBIA
Amy Wells is Associate Professor of English at the Université de Caen Normandie. Her research interests involve modernism, women’s studies, and craftivism. Recent publications include “Sugary Celebrations and Culinary Activism: Sugar, Cooking, and Entertaining during World War I” (Palgrave 2015), “From Literary Myth to Literary Tourism: Cashing in on Expatriates’ Metaphorical Paris” (Cambridge Scholars 2016), and “Feminist Geocritical Activism: Natalie Barney’s writing of women’s spaces into women’s places” (Routledge 2017).

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