It probably isn’t news to anyone these days that popular culture can influence what people perceive to be factual information. While there is a lot of controversy over the intentional manipulation of information these days, I thought I would offer an amusing story I found about a situation inadvertently created by a Broadway musical 30 plus years ago to provide a little relief.
It seems diplomats have found their patriotism under suspicion thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.
Perhaps it is because the musical is based upon the real Von Trapp family lending some verisimilitude, but apparently a lot of people thought (and perhaps still do think) that the song “Edelweiss” is the Austrian national anthem.
According to reports of events at the Reagan White House in 1984, the Austrian ambassador mentioned he had been expected to sing a song he barely knew.
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.”
I should mention that while there has been a fair bit of conversation and self-examination in the last few years about the way other cultures are depicted in classic plays and musicals, this doesn’t fall squarely in that category. In the musical, the song is represented as piece of shared culture, albeit fictitious, but not the national anthem.
There may be an obligation to debunk erroneous notions like these, if only to prevent embarrassment. However some the belief is likely to persist simply due to the appealing defiance associated with it. Just like the story about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads will likely never die.
By the way, here is the actual National Anthem of Austria