Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flower Power: Vince Hill: "Edelweiss"

And so we wander from a back garden in Liverpool to...Austria? For a song about a...flower?

See, I told you this was a different kind of year.

The Sound of Music was by far the biggest phenomenon of the mid-60s moviewise; starting as a musical in 1959, it was made into a movie in 1965 and the soundtrack was the album of the time, taking the top spot for months and bobbing up now and again whenever it was a slow week. By early 1967, its songs were already common parlance...except in my house. As I wrote, I grew up in a household more interested in The Doors and Charles Mingus than musicals; unlike virtually everyone else in my generation, I didn't grow up with a copy of this in our record collection, nor did my parents watch it when it was on tv. I first encountered it live in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion (so glamourous - it's where the Oscars were held!) with none other than Florence Henderson, a.k.a. Mrs. Brady, in the lead role. My aunt Debbie took me. I must have thought it was okay, but at eleven I was maybe a bit too young to get this song.

"Edelweiss" comes near the very end of the story; the Von Trapps know they have to flee before the Nazis capture them. You might think that a man about to take his family on a treacherous journey over hill and dale would have other things to sing about, but The Sound of Music is in part a paean to the natural world, a world that is free from man-made things like politics. In the movie it is sung twice - once by the Captain to his children (he has been distant from them, but due to his love for Maria, he has become warm and loving to them again) and then by the whole family at the Salzburg Festival, as an audience sing-a-long. Thus it is a uniting song, a song that exaults the national flower of Austria and a flower that represents family love. Though they had to flee, the Von Trapps sing what is in effect a song of defiance right in the Nazis' faces; what seems to be on the record a gentle tune has a tougher side (Vince Hill's butter-rich voice does it justice, I think; it is supposed to go down easy, in part to mask its defiance).

There is a sadness to this song of course; sadness in that they have to flee the land they love, symbolized by the flower, and then there's the sadness that this was the last song written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; Hammerstein died less than a year after writing this, not long after the musical opened on Broadway. They wrote the song while the show was in rehearsals in Boston, feeling the Captain should have a song at the end, and so convincing was their composition that "Edelweiss" was taken by many to be a native folk song of Austria instead of another Broadway show tune. (Ronald Reagan thought it was the national anthem, and I'm sure he wasn't alone there.)

Now, I know that some - like Pauline Kael - would think the songs from this musical are "sickly, goody-goody*"; in which case I think it's only right to say that having attachments and feelings for a place is part of what makes people, for better or for worse, human. She may have objected to the sentimentality of the songs (even this one), but as the title reminds us, the show is about Music, and the ways music can uplift and transcend even the most horrible of situations, such as forced evacuation of not just your home but your home country.

The humble, small flower is happy and makes its beholder happy; and so a man sees his family, his nation. We know it and they will pull through, finding strength through this humility, this beauty, however square that might seem to some. As Light Programme as this is, there is a bite to it, a reminder that beauty has power, too.

*Presumably she never heard this; this is as close as I got to the musical growing up.

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