Behind the Song: Edelweiss

Edelweiss is the popular ballad from the musical The Sound of Music.   This was the last song written for the musical.

Edelweiss
Edelweiss Flower

Edelweiss is a white flower found high in the Austrian Alps and was the inspiration for the waltz.

The song was written as a vehicle for Captain Von Trapp, played by Theodore Bikel in the original stage version.  Christopher Plummer played the role in the 1965 film version.

The song is used as a love song and subliminal goodbye to the Captain’s beloved homeland.    The flower is the symbol used to reflect his loyalty to Austria.  In the film version, the song is also performed earlier by the Captain and his daughter, Liesl.

In German, “edel” means noble and “weiss” means white.  According to one source, “symbolic meanings of the edelweiss flower are daring, courage and noble purity.”

The flower grows in many inaccessible places.  Men would risk their lives to bring  the flower to their girl as a symbol of true love.  Edelweiss in Sound of MusicUnfortunately, many men lost their lives in such an attempt.  For this reason, the flower has become protected.

The Sound of Music was in tryouts in Boston when Richard Rodgers decided Captain Von Trapp needed a song to bid farewell to Austria.  Rodgers and his writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein, decided to write this new song.

The Edelweiss was chosen to build on earlier moments in the play, including when Gretl presents a boquet of Edelweiss flowers to Elsa Schaeder.

Rodgers provided a waltz time melody, while Hammerstein wrote about the appearance of the flower.  Hammerstein was ill with stomach cancer and Rodgers is reported by some sources to have provided or finished the majority of the lyrics for this love song.  However, Hammerstein is officially listed as the lyricists.

Edelweiss became one of the best loved songs of not only the musical, but also of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collection.

Group of Edelweiss Flowers
Group of Edelweiss Flowers

Due to the popularity of the song, many of mistakenly believed this was an Austrian folk song or National Anthem.  Neither of these are true, though.

Hugh Fordin in his biography of Oscar Hammerstein says, “Thirty years later “Edelweiss was widely believed to be an old Austrian song, though Oscar… composed it for the Sound of Music.”

Theodore Bikel, in his autobiography, adds that, “after performances, he was approached by native Austrians who said they were delighted to hear that old folk-tune again.”

Oscar Hammerstein died nine months after The Sound of Music opened on Broadway.  The Sound of Music was the last musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote and produced together, having produced some of the best loved musicals of the day, including Oklahoma!, The King and I, and South Pacific.

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