The trouble is… the song is completely Mr. Hammerstein’s invention.
I only recently learned this, so please forgive me if you knew all of this back when The Sound of Music first played or on your first experience with the show. Y’see, “Edelweiss” rings true as a song that could be a national Austrian song… albeit in English. According to the DVD extras, it even fooled Ronald Reagan, who played it for the Austrian president when he came to the White House. (Insert politically charged sniping at Reagan, if you’re so inclined. I’m not. Whatever you think of the man, that song likely had to get through a few levels of approval, and nobody caught it.)
The song has some traits that can easily suggest authenticity. First is the eponymous flower, a protected flower in Austria. The song is a waltz, also easily associated with Austria. The language is slightly archaic and formal, suggesting either age and/or careful deliberation that tends to come with government-related songs. There is a clear invocation for the flower to “bless my homeland forever”, a bit of nationalistic wistfulness. Less subtly, the audience in the show at the climax of the film also knows the song, and sings along with Captain Von Trapp in a defiant nationalist streak even as Hitler’s Third Reich has recently moved into power.
Of course, we are still talking about a musical. Maria sings about her childhood as the good Captain tries to kiss her, and the children she cares for go from musical noobs to singing troupe in an afternoon. The titular “Sound of Music” is pretty clearly a narrative song that also introduces Maria, but the Captain also knows it and joins his children in singing it as he has his conversion moment. The nuns sing. About Maria. Clearly, music is one of the ways the story is told, and it’s not practical to suppose that all of the pieces of music in the show exist outside of the internal needs of a musical.
And yet, “Edelweiss” has a ring of potential authenticity. It’s not impossible for a musical to use “real” music as a way of instilling a bit of truth or history, to invoke reality as a way to give the presentation a bit more emotional heft or literal relevance. In some ways, it’s the theme song of the show, title track notwithstanding, largely because of its assumed authenticity.
So what of games, another entertainment venue? I’ve argued before that creating plausibility and trying to distill authenticity in the lore, presentation and worldbuilding is a lofty but valuable goal. This, of course, assumes that you value believability as a component of immersion. It need not always be, as immersion has many faces, but if you’re angling to make an interesting, believable and entertaining world, it pays off to pay attention to precisely this sort of detail.
You see it in other places, too. Tolkien invented languages, lineages and entire historical epochs for his incredible Lord of the Rings. We may never actually know everything he had rattling around in his head regarding Middle Earth, but his efforts to make his imagination real doubtless had an effect on the books we do have. The infrastructure he built his story on extended beyond the pieces we read about, giving stability and history to the world. Sometimes, history is a key component of telling a story.
We even see a bit of it in the movies at times, say, with the extended version’s Eowyn funeral song or the deep history that brings the Army of the Dead to Aragorn’s side. These are parts of the world that exist outside of the direct scope of the narrative at hand, but still affect it. That sense of a greater world lends emotional heft to a story, and even help suggest that what parts we do witness are also parts of a greater whole, and may yet in turn also become crucial history.
Sometimes it is those small hints that do more to ground a story and suggest the implications of the Hero’s Journey than any grand revelatory exposition from the Jedi Mentor ever could. It could be argued that subtleties aren’t always appreciated in the moment, but I’d note that subtleties are often a hallmark of enduring works. Layers upon layers of understanding are often built on finding interconnections between details, whether those are noted at the time or upon rereading. It’s one of the reasons why rereading scripture often brings new understanding; we (hopefully) learn more in the meantime, and start to see better glimpses of the big picture. That allows us to place information in context, and, as in so many things, context is king.
Mr. Hammerstein put his heart into “Edelweiss”, one of the last songs he would write in this life. It is a slightly melancholic and wistful song, perfectly suited for the emotions the story is meant to invoke. It even carries undertones of farewell, fitting for a family who leaves their motherland under some duress and with a mournful heart.
Music matters. Details matter. We could do worse as we craft our own brand of entertainment than to look to the example of Mr. Hammerstein. We have our own messages and our own tools, but in the end, if we want to craft meaningful compelling experiences, we should understand why these examples endure and why they have the effects they do.