22 November 2016
“Edelweiss”; From Broadway to Film
In this day and age of super-fans and technology that can record original works, adding a scene or moment to a film adaptation of a work that was not in the original is a risky business. This often upsets many loyal fans who wish the adapters would stick to the original script and avoid adding new content. However, I would argue that an addition to the 1965 film adaption of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music that was not in the original Broadway production of 1959 did in fact enhance the show. “Edelweiss” is one of only two new songs in the second act of the musical, but was added to the first act in the film, and thus serves as more of a reprise when it appears again in Act II. This way, we hear the song in two contexts: the first as a vulnerable folk song in an intimate family setting created with Rodgers’ structure and harmony, and the second as an emotional anthem of national pride created with Hammerstein’s lyrics. Both contexts are also supported by the staging choices made in the film and help the audience better connect with Captain von Trapp’s character. Most of all, I believe that this change in the film improves the original content by tying into the theme of national love.
The folk-influenced structure of “Edelweiss” contributed to the widespread belief that it was a real folk song, “so convincing were the feeling and simplicity of the music.” In fact, “[o]ne woman commented to Rodgers that she had known that song all of her life, but in German.”1 This was probably due in part to its slow-paced triple meter, typical of the ländler, a traditional Austrian folk dance reminiscent of a waltz.2 It is a short and repetitive song, not to mention that it is in the classic Tin Pan Alley form of AABA, which was a familiar structure at this point in musical theatre history. Accompanied by only Theodore Bikel’s guitar in the original production, the song shone with clarity and authenticity.
Rodgers’ music also helps to create the folk aspect of the song. “Edelweiss” is in C Major, the most rudimentary of keys, and begins with an upward arc of almost a full octave, from E up to D, just within the first word. The second interval is the rather large interval of a perfect fifth, which creates an “opening upward leap” and can be associated with hope and happiness in the rural mountainside.3 The smaller intervals in the next word, which descend, cause the harmony to float back down, returning to the starting note of E, and the pitches remain fairly local for the rest of the first phrase or A section (“Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me.”) Then at the end of the second A section (“Small and white…”), the phrase concludes on the tonic, thus creating a satisfying cadence, since there has been much more of the dominant pitch (G) than the tonic up until this point. The B section (“Blossom of snow…”) begins with a leap of a fifth again, but this time starting on the higher note of D and jumping downward, only to work back up to the tonic. However, the B section ends on the dominant, so that it is easy to slip back into the A section and end on the tonic once again. This exceedingly simple structure is catchy, pleasing to the ear, and instantly nostalgic, making it the perfect folk song for the end of the show.
In the film’s additional scene, “Edelweiss” takes place just after the Captain joins in with the children in singing “The Sound of Music” reprise. As Knapp states, “[i]n the stage show, ‘Edelweiss’ is saved for the concert near the end, but in the film [the Captain] sings it early on, at the request of the children, and it serves to authenticate him much more surely and fundamentally than his growing response to Maria.”4 This point illustrates the audience’s increased awareness of vulnerability in the Captain when he concedes to sing “Edelweiss” that does not appear until this moment in the show. Vulnerability typically makes an audience more sympathetic of a character, or makes them more willing to root for that character to have a happy ending. It is also a common method of singing folk songs, which tend to be far more subdued and intimate than the stereotypical, flashy Broadway hit. The audience is able to better support the Captain and Maria’s relationship once he proves to have the ability to be kind and gentle rather than stern and intimidating all the time. He establishes this other side of himself briefly when he joins in during “The Sound of Music” reprise, as in the original Broadway production, which is the first time his character sings, but it is emphasized considerably when he goes on to sing a full folk song in the film.
Hammerstein’s lyrics add to the folklore as well, but also create the song’s sense of nationalism. He decided to focus on the mountain flower, edelweiss, which becomes a symbol of patriotism for Austria. His lyrics enforce Austrian pride and love with phrases like “Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow” and “bless my homeland forever.” The song “offers … a symbolic image of the Austrian countryside—Edelweiss—precious but fragile, set to a compromise between the aural ländler and the sophisticated waltz.”5 Hammerstein develops simple, hopeful lyrics, which are complimented by Rodgers’ simple, yet pleasant, accompaniment.
Though the harmony and structure remain intact in the song’s second performance in the film adaptation, its staging and performers undergo significant changes. Instead of the Captain singing alone until the very end of the song, he is joined shortly by Maria and the children onstage, and then by the entire audience in the theatre during its second performance in the film. His family joins him so quickly because in the film, the Captain becomes overcome with emotion when he sings onstage, and needs the support of Maria first, then his children, and then the entire country it seems when the audience takes up the melody. This alteration drastically changes the dynamic of the song, from one of quiet, wholesome simplicity, to full grandeur. I do not believe it affects the message of the song though, which remains strongly nostalgic and patriotic. The inclusion of the audience especially emphasizes the sense of cohesion of thought and feeling, of connectedness that the von Trapp family strive for as they must flee the country, which makes it even more touching. Additionally, the viewer associates this song with even more sentimentality upon hearing it a second time in the film due to the memory of vulnerability that the Captain shows when he first sings it.
“Edelweiss” is a song unrelated to the romantic love or family love themes of The Sound of Music, but introduces a new one: a deep-rooted love for one’s country. I believe that although the Captain does not necessarily sing the song to his family or to Maria during the first act, this performance helps the audience connect it with a kind of love, since he is among his children. The Captain’s display of emotion, contrary to his previous strict and serious manner, invokes in his children a sense of awe. With this foundation, the second rendition in Act II is that much more profound – it becomes a national anthem and symbol of hope and faith in one’s country. Within the Nazi Germany invasion context of the show, this symbol is extremely prevalent, especially since Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the show not long after World War II. The folk quality and simplicity to the song make it easy to relate to and form a sense of friendship and pride which effectively captivates the audience inside and outside the context of the show.
HYLAND, WILLIAM G. “THE SOUND OF MUSIC.” In Richard Rodgers, 247-57. Yale University Press, 1998. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bf0p.25.
KNAPP, RAYMOND. “DEALING WITH THE SECOND WORLD WAR.” In The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, 236-237. Princeton University Press, 2005.
Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “ländler,” accessed October 24, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/l%C3%A4ndler
- HYLAND, WILLIAM G. “THE SOUND OF MUSIC.” In Richard Rodgers, 247-57. Yale University Press, 1998. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bf0p.25.
- Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “ländler,” accessed October 24, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/l%C3%A4ndler
- HYLAND, WILLIAM G. “THE SOUND OF MUSIC.” In Richard Rodgers, 248.
- KNAPP, RAYMOND. “DEALING WITH THE SECOND WORLD WAR.” In The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, 236-237. Princeton University Press, 2005.
- KNAPP, RAYMOND. “DEALING WITH THE SECOND WORLD WAR.” 238.