I, like many other people, was recently saddened by the death of celebrated Canadian actor Christopher Plummer. To many people, Plummer (when not busy replacing ‘problematic’ actors) is most famous for the role of Captain von Trapp in the 1965 film of The Sound of Music. Arguably his defining moment in the film is when, on hearing the children singing to the Baroness Elsa Schraeder, he joins them with the song ‘Edelweiss’. Plummer’s death brought this song back into my mind, frequently featuring on the news coverage of his obituary. Listening to it again, I realised that this song is perhaps more relevant now than ever before.

‘Edelweiss’ was one of the final additions to the musical, as well as the final song that Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote. The song was designed to showcase the folk-singing talents of Theodor Bilek, the Broadway originator for Captain von Trapp. The titular edelweiss is a flower which grows on the steep, rocky cliff-faces of the Alps. Given the extreme conditions the flower grew in, as well as its rarity, bringing one back for a partner became a romanticised symbol of true love and the flower has become a symbol of the mountains. The flower also had strong military connotations, it was the symbol worn by the various German alpine units both before and during the war, as well as an insignia of the Edelweiss Pirates, an anti-Nazi youth movement who had evaded the Hitler Youth.

In the original musical, the song occurs during the von Trapps’ performance at the Kaltzburg Festival (relocated to Salzburg in the film). The captain is being forced to accept command of a Nazi naval unit, the Nazis having recently annexed Austria; after discussion with Maria, he decides to flee Austria with his family rather than take up the role. Using the festival provided a chance to escape, the family sings ‘Edelweiss’ and a reprise of ‘So Long, Farewell’, before surreptitiously fleeing the festival and hiding at Maria’s old abbey, eventually escaping to Switzerland. The song is therefore laced with dramatic irony: the Nazis, unaware of the planned escape attempt, do not initially recognise the song’s anti-Nazi sentiment.

In a world torn by the pandemic, the lyrics have a particular poignancy. They speak of a flower “small and white, clean and bright”, a sign that beauty can flourish even in the most inhospitable conditions. Von Trapp clings onto this symbol of hope, telling the flower to “bloom and grow forever”. The edelweiss even assumes a semi-divine status, with the captain calling for the flower to “bless my homeland forever”, invoking the plant’s protection as though it were a deity. Von Trapp has to trust in the same belief that many of us have to today: no matter what adversity may come, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel.

The titular edelweiss with its distinctive white petalspixabay

Those familiar with the film, however, will probably have realised it uses the song to a greater extent than the musical. In the film, the captain first sings the song upon hearing the children sing themselves, having been taught to do so by Maria. Up until this point, the captain has been treating his children like soldiers, emotionally distancing himself from them, partly due to the death of his wife (occurring prior to when the musical begins). This moment is the first time the captain shows any connection to his children, it is also the first time he himself has sung in many years. With covid keeping everyone housebound, these themes of death and family connections are uncomfortably pertinent to today’s world. However, von Trapp’s successful reconnection with his children through music provides a glimmer of hope, a powerful example that familial bonds can withstand even great tragedy.


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The song is therefore perhaps more relevant even than when it was originally released, with the recent pandemic tearing peoples’ lives and even countries apart. The lyrics also capture multiple different kinds of love: a love for your country, a love for your family. With Valentine’s Day almost upon us, ‘Edelweiss’ invites us to consider these different types of love, and how they are equally, if not more, important than love in the romantic sense. Plummer himself was one of the most stubborn refuseniks of The Sound of Music, describing his role as “so awful and sentimental and gooey” and even going as far as refusing to attend the film’s 40th anniversary events. In these unprecedented times, however, perhaps this gooey sentimentality is exactly what we need.