Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
“Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things”
Most people can at least hum a few bars of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical put to film in 1965. On the surface, the movie is a romantic story of a widowed naval captain (Christopher Plummer) and the Catholic postulate (Julie Andrews) from the local Abbey who gets sent—against her will—to care for his seven children and subsequently falls in love with him. But if that were the main point of the story, it would end on the wedding of Captain Von Trapp and Maria, and it would hardly need to be a musical at all. The Sound of Music is a story that uses song to remind us that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it. Because of this, it is unique amongst musicals, and it is a special film to watch during the Advent and Christmas season.
he Sound of Music is about encroaching darkness, the fear it brings, and how we respond to fear.The music in the story of The Sound of Music serves a very particular purpose, and the story is more intricate than that of a love story between a man and his unlikely bride. The Sound of Music takes place in 1938 Austria a few months before the beginning of World War II. As such, it deals with the rise of Naziism and shifting political climates, and it takes for granted that the viewer understands what the Anschluss is—Hitler’s move to annex Austria into the Third Reich. For Austrians, it was a time of high anxiety and immense division between those who longed to remain free Austrians, and those who agreed with Hitler’s vision of a unified Aryan Empire. What is, in the beginning of the film, a matter of opinion to bend the knee or not to Hitler becomes, by the end of the film, a matter of life or death as the Anschluss occurs and Austria loses her freedom to Hitler’s Third Reich.
The story gives little space to the politics of the time until the final act. The darkness and the fear are, however, always lurking beneath the surface: in snatches of conversation, in the absence of flags, in salutes not returned, in flags torn up, in gathering soldiers, in the shuttered expressions of Captain Von Trapp. Austria is not a land at peace, and her people are about to lose their freedom—a growing reality Captain Von Trapp is keenly aware of, and something he fears above all else.
And this is where the main theme of the movie resides, and where we find the unique purpose of the music in this story. The Sound of Music is about encroaching darkness, the fear it brings, and how we respond to fear. Sometimes, this story postulates, the best way to drive back the darkness of fear, is by singing.
Although The Sound of Music is a musical and by definition requires the characters to burst into regular song, the songs are largely reserved for Maria to express truth and speak against fear. Time and again, she rebukes darkness where she finds it, and by singing into the darkness, Maria brings light and life with her wherever she goes—most notably into the house of the Von Trapp family, which is wreathed in the militaristic overcorrection of the Captain father who is afraid of letting his children close to him after the grief of losing his wife, and who fears what is happening to his homeland. The darkness in Austria is mirrored in the household Von Trapp. Music is what sets them free.
The first night Maria is in the Von Trapp house, there is a terrible thunderstorm, which causes the children to reach out to her against their normal inclinations to run her off. To combat their visceral fear, she teaches them “My Favorite Things,” rebuking the darkness and the storm with a simple song about ordinary pleasures. Of course, Maria does more than just sing for them—she loves them without reservation. But her expression of love for them is in song, and this is what teaches the Von Trapps not to fear, and more than that, what it is to hope and to shine a light that cannot be overcome or understood.
The Sound of Music is not a Christmas movie, but I return to it during the Christmas season, drawn by the parallels between the Virgin Mary who birthed the Christ child to be the light of the world, bringing him to rebuke the darkness, and the virginal postulate nun Maria who brings the light of musical life into the darkness of the Von Trapp household. As the darkness could not comprehend the light of the world, so the light of Maria’s music is incomprehensible to the darkness of the Von Trapp household. She transforms the children; she beats back the darkness of fear around Captain Von Trapp and transforms even him.
True to form for the story, the Captain’s release from fear leads first to song. He sings with his children and is reunited with them in love. He next sings Edelweiss, a song of hope and love for his people and the country he loves—a country, remember, that is falling into darkness. And when he professes his love for Maria, they sing to each other.
We sing to rebuke the dark. But even if—even when—we cannot sing, creation breaks out in song for us.Singing in The Sound of Music takes a more serious turn the darker things get in Austria. The songs that beat back the darkness in the household Von Trapp become defiance against encroaching darkness in their country, and defiance against darkness that has tragically already arrived. As Nazi forces try to press Captain Von Trapp into their service, he ascends a public stage with his family to sing a farewell concert to his countrymen. Alone, he sings Edelweiss once again, but this time as lament, as hope, and as a reminder to his people of who they are. He stands lit by a single light on a dark stage in a dark time, surrounded by his enemies, and when his voice chokes with tears and he can’t sing on, Maria again joins him and carries him forward in song. Soon his whole family sings with him, and the entire audience as well. Singing holds back the darkness of fear.
The gravest part of the story is when the singing falls silent. The Von Trapp family must flee, and they hide in darkness behind the gravestones in the Abbey crypt, desperate and afraid. As Nazi soldiers search for them, the youngest child, Gretl, says she is afraid and asks if they may sing a song about their favorite things. Maria says that they must not—that they must be very, very quiet. This silencing of the music in the graveyard of the church is only a temporary death for the Von Trapp family, as they are reborn to life in escape to Switzerland. But the darkness and the silence that sweeps over them in their metaphorical death before they leave Austria signifies the fall of Austria to the Third Reich—the death of a nation and a terrible war to come.
This does not mean that the movie ends without hope, though, or that it betrays its own message and theme that singing into the darkness beats back fear and brings light and life and love. As the Von Trapps are resurrected into life in their journey to Switzerland, the movie ends in the hills that, we were told through song in the very beginning, are alive.
“The hills are alive
With the sound of music,
With songs they have sung
For a thousand years.”
From the sure death of the grave at the encroaching hands of the Nazis to life in the hills—hills that have an expression of life through music. The lyrics are reminiscent of Isaiah 55:12, “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
We sing to rebuke the dark. But even if—even when—we cannot sing, creation breaks out in song for us. As a testament to God’s everlasting nature and his promise that he came to rebuke the darkness once, and he’s coming back again. A thousand years, ten thousand years, and ten thousand more, he is the same. Many of us will sing “Silent Night” to candle light in a dark sanctuary today; we might even number it among our “favorite things.” It’s a Christmas Eve tradition for good reason as a reminder that the light came into a dark world, and the darkness did not understand it. The light in the dark is a powerful image, but the music itself can also remind us of the eternality—the immutability—of God. Whether the song is as simple as “raindrops on roses” or as powerful as creation’s resounding thousand-year-long melody: God is, the darkness does not comprehend him, and we do not need to be afraid.