Don’t Look To Musical Theatre For National Anthems

Given all the controversy about the depiction of presidents as stand-ins for Julius Caesar, I thought I would offer a somewhat more light-hearted example of how what we think we know about a theater piece has caused some political/diplomatic discomfort.

The belief that “Edelweiss,” a song created for The Sound of Music, is the Austrian national anthem (or of Austrian lineage at all) has crept into presidential remarks. (h/t Michael Walls on Quora for this story).

Back in 1984, references to the song kept cropping up in various remarks at a White House reception with the Austrian ambassador,

…but edelweiss, the flower “The Sound of Music” made famous, bloomed only in Reagan’s remarks: “Before the song ends, the lyrics become a prayer for Austria itself. It is a prayer Americans join in: ‘Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, and bless your homeland for ever.’ ”

Earlier in the day, music seemed to swirl through the luncheon Secretary of State George Shultz gave for the Austrians. And Austria’s ambassador here found out that the tune “Edelweiss” is just as sacred to Americans as apple pie and motherhood.

“There are 200 million Americans who know it’s the Austrian national anthem,” U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock III told Ambassador Thomas Klestil at the luncheon.

“And whether you like it or not,” Brock teasingly said of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune that became known to millions through “The Sound of Music,” “it is definitely yours.”

Klestil told about going to a Texas charity function whose theme for the evening was Austria. At one point he said he was invited to join everyone in singing “a beautiful Austrian song, ‘Edelweiss.’ ”

“I didn’t know the words,” Klestil confessed. “I said, ‘It is not an Austrian song, it is a movie song written in Hollywood.’ When I said I didn’t know the words, they were all shocked and they looked at me as if I were not a patriot.”

Just then, Muffet Brock, also registering shock, interrupted to ask: “You mean it isn’t the Austrian national anthem?”

Klestil shook his head, gave what some would have sworn was a polite gulp, looked across the table at Margit Fischer, wife of the Austrian minister of science and research, and began to sing “Edelweiss, Edelweiss . . .”

“You see,” said Klestil watching Fischer’s expressionless face, “here’s the wife of an Austrian government official and she doesn’t know it either.”

As amusing as the story is, it might also be subject for some serious introspection.

First, you may decide it proves Americans are ill-informed about the world and make assumptions based on pop culture. Even though this happened in 1984 prior to the information access afforded by the Internet, I don’t know that the basic problem as resolved itself.  (And I would have thought Reagan’s speechwriters would know enough so as not to characterize the song as a rallying cry for Austria.)

This story might also reinforce the argument that misrepresentations of other cultures and stories of other cultures, (The Mikado & Whitewashing in casting controversies, for example), ill-serves both the source materials and the audiences viewing them.

Or in a self-depreciating context, it is a funny story.

As we are seeing right now, snap-decisions about the meaning of things and personal bias can politicize pretty much any occurrence. (Or leave it devoid if political value if everyone decides not to pay attention.)

While this isn’t news to anyone, I think events over the last few years are reinforcing the necessity to think about how stories are being told and if it is necessary to have an informative conversation around it to illuminate the context.

The answer isn’t to simply call for people to cleave to authenticity because that removes options for interesting storytelling. The rationale behind why it is acceptable that Hamilton depicts the Founding Fathers in a range of races, but Martin Luther King can’t be cast as a white man in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop seems clear to me. I can intuit the distinction, but it might take me awhile to adequately explain all the nuances to someone else.

For a lot of people, a short, simple answer isn’t enough and can feel dismissive. Though if they have already made up their minds about what it all means, a long, thoughtful answer or series of conversations, isn’t going to help.

This took a more serious direction than I intended. I am disturbed and at a loss at how to extricate ourselves from the return of the divisive culture war environment.

Perhaps there is incremental benefit to simply making small efforts to correct relatively non-controversial mistakes like saying, this is actually the Austrian national anthem, not Edelweiss.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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