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Mark Steyn

Request of the Week

Edelweiss

The SteynOnline Request of the Week was a regular midweek feature at this site for 11 years until the beginning of 2012, since when it's been on hiatus. However, we do still get requests. For example, Greg Toomey of Hamilton, Ontario:

It's not strictly a Christmas song, but can you please repost your Song of the Week for "Edelweiss"?

I'm not sure about bringing back our Request of the Week department as a weekly feature, but, having made it back from the hell of the DC courts to northern New Hampshire by the skin of my scraggy turkey neck in time for Thanksgiving, if you're one of the many readers around the world who've swung by the Steyn store to help prop up my end of the upcoming Mann vs Steyn trial of the century and you'd like a reprise of a favorite column, by all means drop us a line and we'll do our best to oblige.

The piece Greg asks for first appeared here over five years ago upon its 50th anniversary. Greg is right that "it's not strictly a Christmas song", although Elisabeth von Trapp sings it beautifully on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show. But it is a song about love of homeland (and, indeed, loss of homeland) and therefore not inappropriate for this season of Thanksgiving:

One night in September 1959, Oscar Hammerstein II came home late for dinner to his house on 63rd Street in Manhattan. He'd been for a doctor's appointment, and been told he had a stomach ulcer. His new show, The Sound Of Music, was just about to begin its out-of-town tryout in New Haven, but Hammerstein would have to miss it and go in for an operation. On the big day, Dorothy Hammerstein and his sons William and James went to the hospital, and afterwards were given the bad news by the surgeon. They had removed three-quarters of Hammerstein's stomach but had been unable to get all the cancer cells. He had six months to a year to live.

What to do? "Because of the kind of person he was," said William Hammerstein, "and the super-positive attitude he had towards life, we decided not to tell him. Because it wouldn't have done him any good." But they did tell his composing partner Richard Rodgers. In New Haven that week, Rodgers knew but Hammerstein didn't that the most successful team in theatre history was trying out its last show. As always, the composer was business first. After getting the news, he called in his daughter Mary, a talented writer in her own right - she's the author of, among other confections, Freaky Friday, and back then she was busy working on her own first musical, Once Upon A Mattress. In the event that Oscar was too sick, her father wanted to know, would Mary be available to handle rewrites and extra lyrics?

In mid-October the production moved on to Boston, and Hammerstein was well enough to take the train up from New York. As usually happened on an R&H show, everything was going smoothly with just a few little peripheral matters to be attended to here and there. But, after watching the show in Boston and with only a week and a half till they moved on to Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein felt there was something lacking in the score. The plot of The Sound Of Music is often mocked - captain meets nun in Nazi Austria - but it works if you get the underlying emotions right. Baron von Trapp, whose family has lived on this land for generations, is facing a terrible decision: The Anschluss is transforming his country, and he has no choice but to leave it. But for that to have any impact on an audience you have to understand that this man loves his native land, and that fleeing it will exact a toll. How to express that? A song obviously. But what kind of song? Theodore Bikel, the actor and folk singer, had been cast in the role, and could certainly relate to the von Trapp experience, because he'd lived it: He had been born in Vienna but his family had escaped to British Palestine after the Anschluss. More to the point, he could also strum the guitar. So Dick and Oscar figured they should write a number Baron von Trapp could play live on stage - an "old" Austrian folk song, to be performed in Act Two as part of the Trapp family's singing act at the Kaltzberg Festival.

So fifty years ago, in a room at the Ritz-Carlton furnished with a piano, the last ever Rodgers & Hammerstein song was written. As always in this partnership, the words came first:

Edelweiss
Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me...

It's such a simple idea. But the von Trapps have already decided to flee Austria, and, even if the "audience" at the Kaltzberg Festival and the various bigshot Nazis don't know that, we - the audience at the play - most certainly do. Today, most writers would hit the thing head on and write some Oh-God-I-love-this-land-I'm-gonna-miss-it-why-did-things-have-to-turn-out-like-this? overwrought ululated power ballad. But Hammerstein was a sure enough dramatist to know that, when the captain starts singing about a simple white flower, everyone in the audience would understand how much he loves his country. Edelweiss grows up high, in rocky terrain north of 6,000 feet or so, and it's long been a symbolic bloom in the Alps. In 1907, Franz Josef made it the official emblem of the Habsburg Empire's mountain troops, and it remains their insignia in the Austrian army to this day. On the other hand, the Wehrmacht and the SS also made it the official emblem for their mountain troops. Nonetheless, it took a couple of New Yorkers in a Boston hotel room to wring the full symbolic juice out of the flower. Earlier in the show, Gretl presents a small bouquet of edelweiss to Elsa Schraeder upon her visit to the von Trapp home, and so Hammerstein decided to extend its metaphorical power: Edelweiss is the Austria that will endure and, when the winter of tyranny melts, will flower anew. As always, Hammerstein's deft, memorable imagery is hopeful: "Blossom of snow/May you bloom and grow..." It's a small song for a big moment, and Rodgers set it to a wistful waltz tune, simple and folk-like but very affecting.

It went into the show in Boston, and was an instant success. In a production otherwise dominated by its female star, Mary Martin, and a score tailored to her needs, it was Theodore Bikel's only solo, and audiences loved it. In the film, for Christopher Plummer, who doesn't play the guitar or indeed sing (he was dubbed by Bill Lee), the arrangement loses something of its simplicity. But Ernest Lehmann's screenplay gives even more weight to the song, and makes it a symbol of renewal not just for a nation but in a personal sense, too. In the show, it's heard once - in that Second Act scene of the Trapp family's performance at the festival. In the film, it's sung twice - first at the family home by Baron von Trapp and his children in a scene intended to show that Sister Maria's presence has not only rekindled his love for music but reconnected him to his family; and then secondly at what in the film is now the Salzburg Festival. In its reprise, the song is a show of defiance, not just by the von Trapps but by other patriots in the festival crowd. It's similar to the moment in Casablanca when everyone at Rick's starts bellowing out the Marseillaise to the fury of the Germans. And, at the Salzburg Festival, because "Edelweiss" is a beloved Austrian folk song, everyone knows the words:

Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss
Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever.

Not long after R&H wrote the song, Theodore Bikel was leaving the theatre when he found a fan and fellow immigrant waiting at the stage door for his autograph: "I love that 'Edelweiss'," said the theatregoer. "Of course, I have known it a long time, but only in German."

Not for the first time, Hammerstein had done too good a job. Just as his "Ol' Man River" for Show Boat is assumed by many to be an authentic Negro spiritual, so "Edelweiss" is assumed to be an authentic Austrian folk song. Not so. In both cases, a great craftsman manufactured them to solve a structural problem with the storytelling. But he did it so well that they have become for real what they were only intended to simulate. Some years ago "Edelweiss" was played at the White House, at a state dinner for Austria's President Kirschschlager, and everyone but the Austrians stood up for the national anthem. Actually, no. The current Austrian anthem is "Land der Berge, Land am Strome", and the only official anthem by Rodgers & Hammerstein is their title number for their very first show, which serves as the state song of Oklahoma. In a curious example of how the lines between reality and showbusiness blur, among the guests at that White House banquet was the elderly Maria von Trapp - not Julie Andrews, not Mary Martin, but the real Baroness von Trapp.

Hammerstein never lived to see his last lyric's greatest success. He knew he was in pain and he figured out why. Not long after The Sound Of Music opened, he went to see his doctor and demanded to be told the truth about his condition. That day, he had a lunch appointment with Richard Rodgers, and told his composing partner what the other man already knew. His doctor had offered him three alternatives: another operation, which would be painful and could never cure the cancer; a trip to Washington for a new experimental treatment which would also be painful and temporary; or he could do nothing except enjoy the time he had left with his family at their home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Rodgers asked him which option he would choose. "I'm just going down to Doylestown," said Hammerstein, "and stay on the farm until I die."

At the end of lunch, two sober middle-aged men rose, shook hands and parted.

Rodgers recalled that, during their conversation, they'd been interrupted by a gentleman from a few tables away. He was visiting New York from the Midwest and asked if they'd mind autographing his menu. They obliged, and he then said: "I hope you won't mind my saying this, but one thing bothers me. You're both extremely successful men, at the top of your profession, and I'm sure you don't have a worry in the world. I was just wondering what could possibly make you both look so sad."

When Hammerstein died, Theodore Bikel was on stage every night on Broadway still singing "Edelweiss", and he noticed something about the song. "This dying man writing the very last lyric of his career," he said, "the very last word he wrote was 'forever'." But a great song is forever and, as it marks its fiftieth anniversary, the last bud of the most spectacular partnership in theatre history has bloomed and grown:

Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss
Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever.

~Elisabeth von Trapp sings "Edelweiss" live on our double CD The Mark Steyn Christmas Show, exclusively available from the Steyn store as part of our After Glow, Broadway Christmas, and Merry & Bright seasonal specials.

from Request of the Week, November 26, 2014

 

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