Just Above Sunset
September 11, 2005 - The Broadway Musical and Hollywood Film as Modern Christian History

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Theo Hobson offers this fascinating off-topic item - Hegel With Songs - very amusing, but apparently not parody.  It appeared in The Guardian (UK) on 7 September.  For me - a former teacher and history buff, and atheist grandson of a Congregational minister with a burr-in-the-saddle about religion in general and what it has done to us all over all the long centuries - this is so fine.  And who hasn't thought Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was full of crap?  Well, perhaps there are a few folks who spend little time thinking about "German idealism" in the decades following Kant, and about dialectical reasoning (thesis - antithesis - synthesis) morphing into Marx mucking about with dialectical "materialism" as some way to think about progress - their loss.

This also caught my eye, perhaps, because in the seventies I played in the pit band for far too many performances of The Sound of Music - little did I know!

The core passage from Hobson:


... The Sound of Music offers us our religious inheritance in a form we can all accept. Its plot is a fairytale version of modern Christian history.

The Reformation began with someone leaving a monastery; so does this film. In both cases the motivation for leaving is a conviction that God's grace cannot be confined to a religious institution, but must be expressed in the midst of the world. Because Maria leaves her convent on good terms with her mother superior, we are apt to miss the radicalism of her departure. She is a fantasy-faith version of Martin Luther. The entire plot is a fantasy rewriting of the Reformation, in which the Catholic Church is glad to be supplemented by this alternative vision.

She becomes the governess to an aristocrat's children. This is a representative Protestant/secular identity: her role is now economic. And the nature of her work is characteristically modern: to educate and to discipline. Her employer, a widower, seeks order in rational certainty. He has introduced a cold, militaristic atmosphere into his bereaved home. He symbolises the Enlightenment.

Maria subverts all aspects of her new role. In place of discipline and rationality she offers love and music, even if this means defying her employer, and so jeopardising her new economic identity. She therefore redefines her role, from employee to friend, mother figure and (dare we hope?) lover.

The highlight of the film comes early: the graceful advent of healing song, in the midst of a storm. Maria is the healer, the dispeller of the dark shadows of grief. She is the vicar of Christ who says: "Fear not." When the children confess their fear and rush to her bed, she teaches them a new habit of hope, in the form of a new song. More widely, she teaches them that music has the power to dispel demons. When assailed by terrors ("when the dog bites, when the bee stings"), one has to call to mind one's favourite things, such as raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and brown paper packages tied up with string. The element of chocolate-box kitsch should not distract us from the truly primitive drama of this song. It is exorcistic. Music has the power to expel evil forces.

So she is teaching them not just a new song but a repeatable liturgical practice, as we shall see. She is teaching them religious hope, but by means of art, self-expression. This form of religion is unregulated by the ecclesiastical institution; it is a synthesis of Christianity and Romanticism.

But Maria is not simply a Protestant-Romantic reformer; she remains in touch with her Catholic roots and in need of them. She cannot sustain her independence from the church. When her bosom flutters with love for her master she returns to the nunnery. She loses confidence in her new identity and returns to her Catholic identity of daughter of the church. Her progress is a retelling of Europe's spiritual history in which Catholicism is not left behind but continues to be needed as "base". In this version, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism remain explicitly and consciously indebted to their ecclesiastical source.

The children are miserable without her, especially as their father plans to marry the scarlet woman from the city, Maria's antitype. One day, in the garden, the eldest girl suggests that they cheer themselves up by singing the song they learned on the night of the storm. As they sing, Maria suddenly returns, running through the garden, haloed by her hat, guitar case in one hand, suitcase in the other, joining in the chorus. This is a dramatisation of the sacramental force of song: it has the power to make present what it represents, to conjure up the inspiration and protection it seeks. The film is in effect over now, with the resurrection of the resurrected mother.

In the final part of the film the new family defy the Nazis, singing their way to freedom. Some think this intrusion of 20th-century history rather over the top. But the Nazis are a crucial foil. The tension between the church and the world, between Catholic and Protestant, between religion and Romanticism, is now resolved, for all are united against this extreme evil. And of course by this time Maria's own role has stabilised. Before she marries, her identity is split between her Catholic and Protestant selves: nun and single working woman. This painful split is resolved by the new role of "mother" and wife.

The film performs what Europe has always been pining for: the integration of its conflicting religious impulses. It is the fantasy unity of Catholicism, Protestantism and Romanticism. It is Hegel with songs. And what songs!


What songs?  When playing in the pit band for The Sound of Music we dissolute and cynical musician types used to mutter alternative lyrics under our breath - "The hills are alive, and they're coming to get you…" and "High on a hill sits a lonely goat turd… "  But the far-too-cute Sabrina Boyd played Maria.  That helped.


I did hear John Coltrane perform "My Favorite Things" live once - 1964, Pittsburgh Jazz Festival - soprano sax.  Not much like the musical or film, of course.  He stopped in the middle as the news broke and the kids came down the aisles with the "extra" edition of the Post-Gazette - the 1964 Civil Rights Act had just been passed.  Music has the power to expel evil forces - it has the power to make present what it represents, to conjure up the inspiration and protection it seeks?  Maybe so.  "Fear not."  John Coltrane knew.

Ah, memories.  Hobson here now has me rethinking it all - not Sabrina or Coltrane's variations in Dorian mode.  Martin Luther and Hegel.  Whatever.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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