Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle opens with a haunting version of Edelweiss:

Here is the iconic tune from The Sound of Music — a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase “way of life” — transformed into an anthem of dystopia. Here is a story about the tyrannies of fascism, set to a song that is known — or, at least, that has been known — for being soft and lush and lullaby-like. Here is a song of freedom, transformed into one of despair.

It’s a common misconception that “Edelweiss” is a classic Austrian folk song, selected for The Sound of Music to bring to the show an added dash of cultural authenticity. It is not. It was written for the musical in the late 1950s by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wanted to create a song for Captain von Trapp that would subtly convey his regret and his sadness and his pre-emptive nostalgia at having to leave Austria after the Nazi takeover. And since the actor playing von Trapp in the Broadway show, Theodore Bikel, was also an accomplished folk guitarist, the pair decided to write his elegy as if it were, indeed, a folk song.

For the lyrics of “Edelweiss,” Rodgers and Hammerstein focused on the German myths about the edelweiss flower, famed not only for its metaphor-friendly ability to withstand harsh Alpine winters but also for its symbolism of love’s triumphs: Suitors would climb the Alps to pick the flowers, giving them as gifts that proved both their prowess and their affection.


Rodgers and Hammerstein created “Edelweiss” with the intention that it would do double duty: It was to be a song of acquiescence — to family, to love, to the small satisfactions of stability — and also of resistance. It was both a symbol and an instrument of the Von Trapps’ fleeing of the Nazis — an embodiment of their belief that the “homeland” was something that could, like a flower that blooms in winter, survive the harshness of fascist rule. The original song, Playbill notes, “represented the indomitable spirit of the Austrians under Nazi control.” In The Man in the High Castle, it represents the American version of the same thing. “Edelweiss,” here, is a lullaby that is soothing precisely because it insists, against all odds, on staying awake.


  1. David Foster says:

    Captain von Trapp was a real person, although the portrayal of his personality in ‘The Sound of Music’ was apparently not too accurate. He wrote an interesting memoir of his service as a WWI Austrian submarine commander, which I reviewed here:


  2. Visiting Observer says:

    It’s just vulgarity taking something nice and trying to turn it nasty. Big big yawn. On a more positive note, interesting comment by David Foster.

  3. Graham says:

    a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase “way of life”

    Thanks for that line — an evocative way of putting it.

    This is of course also what the Nazis claimed to be fighting for in their own propaganda, films, and music.

    The Wehrmacht, at least, kept up traditional pre-Nazi — or at least period but non-Nazi — marching songs, as well, many of which were about the natural wonders of Germany, its girls in particular. Or which combined girls and nature as metaphors for one another.

    Some prominent such songs were called:

    “Erika”, or “Auf der Heide blüht ein kleines Blümelein” (“On the Heath a Little Flower Blooms”) — its composer also did a 1941 song on the subject of the edelweiss, and it too was about both natural beauty and a girl left behind.

    “Lore” (sometimes anglicised as “Laura”) aka “Im wald, im grunen wald” — a ballad combining love of the German forest with a paean to the forester’s daughter, and 18-year-old German girls in general

    “Dark brown is the hazelnut” — an early modern folk song about a poor peasant girl.

    “Beautiful bloom the wild roses” (“Schohn blumen die heckenrosen”, more or less)

    There are a few others, like “Heidemarie” and “Wenn wir marschieren”, but I’m not counting those since they actually mention soldiers going off to war. The aforementioned don’t even go that far.

    Apropos of nothing, I suppose, except that in writing “Edelweiss”, R & H tapped into a deep vein of central European or even explicitly German romanticism. It is one of the most beautiful and timeless pieces to come out of postwar American musicals.

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