Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Edelweiss: A Rumination on Rogers and Hammerstein's Underappreciated Classic

According to the liner notes for a CD I bought many years ago (when I still bought CDs), “Edelweiss,” Rogers and Hammerstein’s song about the Austrian flower, is one of the most moving songs ever.  Even without the hyperbolic wording, it is easy to scoff at such a thought.  The song seems like a sentimental side note within an even more sentimental musical and movie, a minor selection within the maudlin excess that is The Sound of Music.  At first glance, it doesn’t even seem to completely fulfill the definition of moving.  For most of the population, moving means grandiose declarations and copious weeping.  Undoubtedly, musical theatre has offered numerous songs with more outright passion and pathos; from the Rogers and Hammerstein canon alone, songs such as “We Kiss in the Shadows,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” offer considerable dramatic flair.  By comparison, “Edelweiss” is a short, simple, and somewhat repetitious love song to nature.  It lacks the tragedy of young lovers separated by circumstance, the exhilaration of falling in love for the first time, or the comfort in understanding that no one is truly alone.

However, to simply dismiss “Edelweiss” as a clichéd ode to flowers does a great disservice to the song and its composers.  One part of the song’s undeniable appeal and moving quality does have to do with its context within the film version of The Sound of Music. 

Alone in the spotlight, seeing the Nazi guards waiting to take him into custody so he can fight in the army, Captain Von Trapp starts singing this simple tribute to his homeland, a place that, according to the Nazis, no longer truly exists.  In the film version, Christopher Plummer’s purported dislike of the project makes it even more meaningful.  Even as he manfully sings and strums, Capt. Von Trapp’s voice cracks as he realizes the enormity of what has happened.  For just a moment, Plummer’s cynicism fades, and he allows the audience to see the vulnerability and sadness lurking beneath the stoic façade.  His family, led by the incomparable Julie Andrews, joins in and urges the audience to sing too.  I still remember my 8th grade teacher’s explanation of this moment – “It’s like singing the National Anthem in the face of defeat.

Despite the intense emotions associated with the scene, a close examination of the song reveals its considerable strengths without the context of Nazis, Austria, and Julie Andrews.  “Edelweiss” was Oscar Hammerstein’s final work before succumbing to cancer.  Unlike the obvious morality of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” offers a more restrained method of inspiration.  While time and life are fleeting, some things remain unchanged.  In this sense, “Edelweiss” is also one of the most Romantic (with a capital R) of Rogers and Hammerstein’s songs; nature remains constant and provides a sense of comfort within this ever-changing world.  The music takes a similarly understated and simplistic approach.  Stripped of histrionics and vocal gymnastics, the tune emulates traditional folk music.  This is not a song that lends itself to lush orchestrations or complicated choral arrangements; instead, it embraces the sincerity and spontaneity that usually only comes with impromptu singing.

As for its inclusion on the most moving songs of all times list, it is difficult to take a sale-priced CD at the bookstore as the world’s foremost authority on music.  However, in the case of “Edelweiss,” perhaps it is on to something…