A Lot of Sound, No Music

Recently my family and I watched The Sound of Music for perhaps the twelfth time — probably the last great musical that Hollywood ever produced. It made me wonder if I could list the reasons why such a movie could not now be made. These reasons I offer below; but it seems to me that they can all be united under the single assertion that the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional palette of the American people has suffered a terrible constriction, a reduction to the tedium of lust and greed and the thirst for power. It is not so much that Hollywood would not make a movie like The Sound of Music as it is that the people themselves would be hard pressed to understand it.

 

Here, then, are the reasons as I see them; then I will conclude with a recommendation to faithful Christians on what we should do about it.
 
 
1. The movie takes for granted that some things are holy. It is almost the definition of postmodernity, the belief that nothing is holy, or that the holy is determined, at whim, by our desires. So in that truly awful movie Titanic, the lead boy and girl (hardly a man and woman) celebrate their undying love for one another — a love of some 20 minutes’ duration — and prepare to meet their Maker by fornicating. They have, it seems, nothing better, certainly nothing holier, to do.
 
But in The Sound of Music, we hear in the distance the men’s choir of the church of St. Ignatius, as Georg von Trapp drives home with his fiancée, the Baroness Schroeder, and their friend the impresario Max; and the sounds of their voices are meant to clash against the worldliness of the people in the car, almost as if they were calling Georg back to the Austria he loves and the faith he has never quite abandoned. The movie really is about the reclamation of the captain and his family by a young woman, Maria, who thinks that God has called her to be a nun, but who sees instead that God has called her to be a wife to a widower who has lost his way, and a mother to his seven good-natured but as yet undisciplined children. The music that she brings back to the family culminates in the wedding march as Maria walks, in virginal white, to the altar, where she and Captain von Trapp kneel to receive the blessing of the priest.
 
The Sound of Music offers many an opportunity for sniping at the Church or at the ascetic life. Yet far from taking those opportunities, the movie shows, with a pleasing fulfillment of our hopes, that the nuns at the abbey are good and sane. The Mother Superior wisely recommends that Maria leave the abbey, for her own spiritual welfare. Even the nun in charge of novices, a stern and ironical old battleaxe who has called Maria "a clown," helps to save Maria and the von Trapps in the end, by removing the distributor cap from the Nazis’ car.
 
This is not to say that Rogers and Hammerstein actually understood the Catholic Faith. They don’t. The narcissism that was even then destroying our culture is to be found in the movie, too. I can hardly imagine what the devoutly Catholic Maria von Trapp could have made of the song that her namesake sings as she runs madly toward her new job as governess at the von Trapp mansion: "I have confidence in me!" Or how anyone with a shred of genuine gratitude to God and understanding of the forgiveness Christ offers could sing Maria’s love song to Georg: "Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good."
 
 
2. There is such a thing as innocence — and it is not the same as ignorance. Maria von Trapp, as governess for but a few weeks, knows more about the von Trapp children than their father himself does, and she has no scruples against telling him what they need. Except in the case of the baroness — and that is an important and revealing exception — Maria is a shrewd judge of character, not despite her innocence but because of it. Only such a woman could have won over the trust of the children and could have rebuked their father and gotten away with it.
 
But suppose that we detected in Maria even the slightest hint of lust. Suppose we caught her eyeing up the captain, or dressing to catch his attention. It would destroy the romance of the movie; it would mean that the captain was trading one kind of crass and designing woman for another, just as in our post-patriotic times his refusal to serve the Nazis would imply little more than that he was going to serve some other regime, maybe one not quite so bad, but certainly not one to enlist our admiration. Maria does not understand Baroness Schroeder precisely because she is all love and no hard-edged, self-consuming lust. That baroness, for her own part, uses Maria’s innocent heart against her, revealing to her that Georg may be falling in love with her — understanding that that would be just the thing to persuade the honest young lady to leave the household.
 
We do not understand innocence, not because we are sophisticated and subtle, but because we are old and drab in our sins. When the eldest daughter Liesl and Rolf meet for their secret dance in the gazebo, we are meant to see the danger that the girl is running, even though she herself does not see it. The two of them sing a song about how Liesl is only 16, going on 17, whereas the wiser Rolf is all of 17, going on 18, and he will take care of her. The irony is that Rolf is at best but a callow boy, at worst a selfish prig flattered by the Nazism he does not understand, while Liesl herself, still innocent, is the aggressor in their dance, taking Rolf aback. It is all teenage infatuation, precipitated in part by the father’s coldness to his children and the lack of a mother in the home. But if there were any real lust in the scene, it would lose its charm. Liesl would become a tramp in training, and Maria — who covers for the girl when the captain asks her what she has been doing that evening, in the rain — would be complicit in the sin.
 
 
3. There are such things as children, thank God. Not miniature adults with foul mouths. In the movie Sleepless in Seattle, which is about the best we can do these days for romantic comedy, the little boy asks his father whether he will have sex once he gets married to the woman he is pursuing. "I certainly hope so," says the father. Big laugh. One wonders whether the screenwriters could conceive of the healing mystery of childhood — that children are good for us to be near just because they do not yet understand the world, and so remind us of when we too could take more delight in a cloudless sky than in a tawdry joke cracked in a bathroom.
 
In The Sound of Music, the children are clearly longing for their father, and they resent the baroness for her taking him away from them so often. Beyond that, they do not speculate on what the captain and the baroness are doing. That would reduce the captain in their eyes and in ours, and it would make the children themselves far less interesting as characters. The children cannot be other than innocent, to sing the rousing songs that Maria teaches them, and to obey their father so promptly when he resumes his role as head of the von Trapp family.
 
It is their innocence that keeps them from appearing ridiculous when they sing the farewell song to the guests at the von Trapp mansion; and it is their innocence that binds the film together, as the finest expression of Austrian patriotism, of the love of Maria and the captain, and of the holy life to which all the faithful are called. Even the pranks they play on Maria on her first day at the mansion are harmless, and that they should play them in the first place proves that they are real children, neither trained dogs nor machines. We like them for the pranks they play, and we like them the better for feeling sorry for them afterwards, when Maria "thanks" them, gently but firmly, for having made her feel so welcome.
 
"He’s only a boy," says the baroness, when Georg rebukes Rolf, who has come to bring him a telegram from the Nazis, and whom Georg caught tossing pebbles at Liesl’s window. If only that were so. The minor tragedy of the movie is that the insecure Rolf loses his boyhood. "Come with us," says Captain von Trapp, when Rolf has caught the family hiding in the cemetery, just before their escape over the mountains. "You’re only a boy," he says. That is true enough — and if Rolf were to join them, he would be returning to the boyhood that is proper to him, and would be well on his way to genuine manhood. He chooses being a "man" now instead, and blows his whistle.
 
 
4. There are such things as boys and girls, and men and women. It is not possible to have a romantic comedy without reveling in the differences between men and women, delighting in the typical confusions these cause, and then delighting in their fit resolution. But we live at a time when masculinity and femininity are held up as lies, as objects of scorn.
 
Who could now play the role of Captain von Trapp, as Christopher Plummer played it? He was manly, patriotic, clearheaded, decisive, and courtly; and if he had been instead a caricature of these things, if he had been a bully, a jingoist, a muddlehead, a waffler, and a prig, why on earth would we cheer when he proposed to Maria? She is attracted to the man in him, and returns him to that manhood he knows he has in part lost; thus he is a greater father to his children at the end of the movie than at the beginning, and a clearer giver of commands, for the good of all.
 
Who could now play the role of Maria, as Julie Andrews played it? She was womanly, tender, cheerful, largehearted, and, dare I say it, properly submissive; and if she had instead been a caricature of these things, if she had been bitchy, touchy, prim, emotionally unruly, or a doormat, why on earth would any sane man propose to her? Captain von Trapp is attracted to the woman in her, the woman who can at one time rebuke him for ignoring his children, and then, when he has regained his senses, be the delegate of his authority and his love, in taking care of the children as their mother.
 
We could say similar things about the children. The boys are boyish, and the girls are girlish, and in both cases it is considered a part of their ordinary yet mysterious appeal. If Liesl were a tomboy with a right cross and a foul mouth, why would we care so much to protect her from Rolf? If Friedrich were what boys now are portrayed to be, sullen, slovenly, and stupid, how could we believe it when he becomes a man before our eyes? "We can do it, Father!" he exclaims, when the captain suggests that they drive the car into the hills and cross the mountains on foot.
 
 
5. Today, no one can sing. No one knows why people ever sang. Unless one calls the moaning of unnaturally constrained vocal cords — a constipation of the voice — "singing." The music that is gradually receding from the airwaves (to be replaced by news and talk) is all tedium, all day, all night; nothing but narcissism and lust, hardly a genuine human feeling to be had.
 
We cannot now have musicals, because we do not sing; and we do not sing because we have lost the sense of anything to sing about, or anyone to sing to.
 
The lesson for Christians, I think, is this. You can engage a culture, but you cannot engage a corpse. When people are living in a cemetery, you do not join them. You establish a real village, and invite them over. You first become the sorts of people who sing, who love men and women for what they are, who love children (and actually have a few), who admire innocence, and who kneel before the holy. Then you will have something of a culture — and you will find those who are weary of the alternative trying to engage you.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Bob

    I’m not sure what your definition of “now” is, but the movie Hairspray came out two years ago, and is a great musical film.
    There have been a few others recently (Phantom of the Opera, Chicago), but admittedly none as good.

    And, of course, Bollywood is pouring out musicals by the carload.

  • Charles Miller

    Bravo! Just sheer delight. Your closing paragraph is simply stunning and on the mark. Having spent some time this weekend at Lifelight, the country’s largest free Christian music fest, it is clear that engagement is not without its perils. The screamo band (that’s a musical genre, think: “unnaturally constrained vocal cords” and loads of amplification) needed a team of security personnel to keep the audience from self-destruction. I did not quite catch the message in the music, if there was one. Indeed we need to build the village upon an ancient foundation, with a tried-and-true set of blueprints!

    Personal remark: I look forward to your articles in Magnificat, and your Dante translation made it reachable for a simple reader like myself.

    Bob: Not to be uncharitable, but “Chicago” represents the very antithesis of the virtues of “Sound of Music”. It is a musical in name only…

  • Lindsay

    I have always thought it was partly my love for musicals that brought me to the Catholic church!

  • Johnnyjoe

    I too was taken by the impact of your last paragraph.

    The lesson for Christians, I think, is this. You can engage a culture, but you cannot engage a corpse. When people are living in a cemetery, you do not join them. You establish a real village, and invite them over. You first become the sorts of people who sing, who love men and women for what they are, who love children (and actually have a few), who admire innocence, and who kneel before the holy. Then you will have something of a culture — and you will find those who are weary of the alternative trying to engage you.

    This truly is as insightful an assessment of the real need for an authentic Christian life PUBLICLY lived with Zeal and Conviction as I have read in recent memory.

    It is worthy of a greater exposition, and the primary problem we have with Christian leaders in our culture.

    How many of our politicians and community leaders live public lives more aptly described by the antecedent phrase “At least they’re (fill in the blank) or they’re NOT (fill in the blank).

    Perhaps you can expound on this paragraph in a follow up essay?

  • Miguel

    Dr. Esolen’s point that you can engage a culture but not a corpse is well taken, as is his point that we have to establish a “real village.” But how can we actually do this? Not long ago, a man put down a huge load of cash to found just such a village in Florida, and the whole thing has devolved into one petty scandal after another, bickering and more bickering, hardly the thing anyone would want to join. I had some hopes for that “real village” and it saddens me terribly to see that even among “orthodox Catholics” we can’t seem to love and bear with one another — even in the midst of such a hostile culture. It’s truly depressing. How, Dr. Esolen, can we such a “village” (even if just a metaphoric one) and make it the type of place that is truly alive with God’s love?

  • Bob

    To Charles Miller: About Chicago, you might be right. I actually haven’t even seen it. But it does support my point that musicals are indeed still being produced, which is what I was emphasizing. But certainly not as many (at least in this country) as there used to be. … Hmm, I just this second remembered Mama Mia as well, so there must be lots of them out there that I just can’t think of right now.

  • meg

    The last paragraph resonated with me, too. Beautiful and hopeful.

    As a Sound of Music fan I was drawn to read Maria von Trapp’s book. In real life Uncle Max was actually a Catholic priest who accompanied the family everywhere for years.

    Speaking of bringing true culture to people, Maria von Trapp and her family started a music camp in northern Vermont in the 40’s (50’s?) for all ages – taught people how to sing, play the recorder, etc. I would love to attend something like that with my family if it were available.

    Though their true lives were somewhat idealized in the book it does serve to illustrate what a richly Catholic country Austria used to be. Read the book just to read about the Catholic traditions the villages had back then – I was actually envious.

  • Austin

    Julie Andrews has the voice of an angel, and in the movie “The Sound of Music” is quite prim and proper {she does start out after all as a nun]. All that being said, beneath that prim and proper exterior, she smolders. Which of course, adds an interesting dimension to the film.

  • Jenny

    I LOVE the Sound of Music, but I am a college-aged student, so when you describe it as the ‘last’ of Hollywood’s great musicals, I am left wondering what some of the other, earlier ones are. Suggestions, please?

  • Anne B.

    Anthony, my family’s got your family beat! Try 12 x 2.

    Though not a musical, another of our family favs which wouldn’t be made today is Walt Disney’s “The Three Lives of Thomasina.” It’s an unusual, whimsical film where children are children, grownups are grownups, and faith and prayer impact the conclusion of the story.

  • Sarah L

    I’m not saying parishes should produce and perform musicals, but much of what I love in _The Sound of Music_ can be found in the culture provided by the parish of which I and my husband and kids are members. That’s why it’s well worth the drive. Our parish priest is the center of that culture, and those who, along with him, give of their time, energy and talents to extend that culture to others (within and without the parish) are my heroes (besides my husband).

    Back to the article, though, thanks for writing it. I may have to watch _The Sound of Music_ again (it’s been a few years). I can’t imagine anyone ever attempting a modern remake (at least I don’t want to imagine it). Haven’t seen any of the modern musicals (_Mama Mia_ looks excruciating)–including _Grease_, which many women my age have seen and have raved about. There aren’t many actors and actresses I’d care to see in any musical, but maybe someday someone will surprise me. I hope so.

  • meg

    It’s hard to beat The Sound of Music for many reasons.

    Having said that, My Fair Lady is good from that same era. From an earlier era Singin’ in the Rain comes to mind first.

  • Nick Milne

    So in that truly awful movie Titanic, the lead boy and girl (hardly a man and woman) celebrate their undying love for one another — a love of some 20 minutes’ duration — and prepare to meet their Maker by fornicating. They have, it seems, nothing better, certainly nothing holier, to do.

    I’m afraid I must object to this. This is not to say that I disagree with your general thesis, or indeed with anything at all that you’ve ever written, for in truth if you’ve taken a position somewhere with which I haven’t basically agreed I’ve yet to discover it, but in this case you are misremembering the order of events and, I think, letting your contempt for the movie lead you into some pretty snarky waters.

    The most egregious problem with your analysis is that Jack and Rose aren’t “preparing to meet their Maker” at all. Their tryst in the baggage hold preceeds the striking of the iceberg, and indeed it is on their post-coital flight from discovery that they see the impact occur. Fornication is fornication, to be sure, but it simply cannot be seriously maintained that they engage in the act in a sort of last-gasp response to the threat of imminent doom.

    You spend a lot of time with young people in your capacity as a teacher, so you should probably be aware of the degree to which “sudden and severe” describes their infatuations with one another. I suppose such things may not often come up in the classroom, but surely you must remember your own youth and that of your friends and family. It is incorrect – in fact it is insane – to imagine that the fruits of a suddenly-developed shipboard romance between an intensely-unsatisfied though wealthy girl and a picaresque layabout used to sketching Parisian prostitutes would be the sort of quiet and holy love that would see them start to plan a future together. That was never in the cards for either of them, and they both knew it. We may justly censure them for what they did, but it would be astonishing to declare it to be “truly awful” artistry to depict them acting as such. They would, after all.

    It is no “undying love of some 20 minutes’ duration” that sees them sleep with one another in the baggage hold, but rather a mounting romantic attachment, aggravated by circumstance, that gradually intensifies throughout the five days during which the Titanic was afloat. It is that same youthful passion that has always and everywhere been both the willing folly and the unwitting curse of the young.

    If it were the case that their fornication were presented as the culminating height of their relationship I’d be happy to join in your censure, but in truth it isn’t. Indeed, the immediate aftermath of their fornication – maybe the consequence, if you’re into a magic realist reading of the thing – is the striking of the iceberg that eventually sees the ship destroyed and Jack killed. You’ve surely read enough Victorian literature to see in this at least the faintest trace of the “just ruin” that was so often shown to come down upon fornicators. Typically it would be the woman who would be ruined, but in this case Rose is basically seduced by a rogue and it’s the rogue who perishes.

    Nevertheless, once the sinking becomes a certainty, we really do get to see Jack and Rose “prepare to [potentially] meet their Maker,” but it is not even slightly in the manner you’ve suggested. From the time the iceberg strikes to Rose’s eventual arrival on the Carpathia, the actions of the young couple are a sustained program of warning, rescue, and attempted (sometimes accomplished) self-sacrifice. As the boat finally sinks and they cling desperately to the stern railings, Rose’s sad joke – “this is where we first met!” – brings the relationship to its close. There’s the culmination; the fornication was just something along the way to this far more significant moment. In a better movie it would have been repented of or even avoided, but it is not necessarily the mark of a “truly awful” movie that it was not.

    I had not hitherto suspected that I would ever attempt such a defense of Titanic, it having seemed to me an ultimately inconsequential (if often visually impressive) film rather than a “truly awful” one, but here we are. My response to you here is not a defense of fornication, which is indefensible, but rather of the film itself, both from your inaccurate account of its contents and what I feel is your unjust misreading of their implications.

    Other than that, a fine article.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    I LOVE the Sound of Music, but I am a college-aged student, so when you describe it as the ‘last’ of Hollywood’s great musicals, I am left wondering what some of the other, earlier ones are. Suggestions, please?

    Oh, Jenny, you have opened the floodgates. [smiley=wink]

    I totally agree with Meg’s suggestions — My Fair Lady and Singin’ in the Rain were favorites in my family when we were growing up, too. I also love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On the Town, Oklahoma!, The King and I…basically, turn on TCM or AMC any rainy Saturday afternoon and you’re bound to stumble on something good.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Fiddler on the Roof was released in 1971, six years after the Sound of Music. Does it meet Esolen’s standards as a great musical?

  • Marie

    Thank you, Dr. Esolen for your in-depth review of The Sound of Music. I was a 19-year-old covent school student in the Philippines (very provincial and unsophisticated) when I first saw it. But even then, I thought the movie a bit saccharine and improbable, although I enjoyed the songs and even had them all memorized and sung over and over.

    I’m happy to have seen it again as a play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco just a few years ago (with Marie Osmond as Maria – I can’t remember who played Capt. Von Trapp.) It was only then that I realized the weight of this musical. The “Nazi bit” does give it a lot of depth that even the teen-age romance between Liezl and Rolf attained a breathtaking tragic dimension that escaped me the first time.

    That said.

    You wrote: “You first become the sorts of people who sing, who love men and women for what they are, who love children (and actually have a few), who admire innocence, and who kneel before the holy. Then you will have something of a culture — and you will find those who are weary of the alternative trying to engage you.”

    This was the kind of village that I grew up in post-war Philippines. There was no biting edge to it. It offered no prospect of becoming a Christian martyr, none of the hubris that makes a tragic hero that my English literature teacher considered essential in art and almost impossible to avoid in real life. After WWII, when electricity was introduced into my little village, it inevitably went the way all other modernized places went.

    Not that the ideal hadn’t been tried before. That village in Florida that Miguel (comment (5) wrote about. The Von Trapp music camp in Vermont that Meg mentioned. The city of Loreto, Pennsylvania that Fr. (Prince) Demetrius Gallitzin founded (which got him into very deep indebtedness.) The Catholic village that the Venerable Pauline Jaricot established in France, which was a dismal failure. The late great Dominican Guild of Sts. Joseph and Dominic in Ditchling, Sussex, England that produced that scandalous sculptor, Eric Gill.

    It would appear that Our Lord is more realistic than our vision. He reminds us that the children of this world are smarter than the children of light. Also, this passage in the Gospel:

    (Mt 13:27-29)

    27″The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

    28″ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
    “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

    29″ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’

    I agree with those who said that there are other great musicals contemporary to The Sound of Music. My favorite is Guys and Dolls – not explicitly Catholic in setting, but the theme certainly is. (Or perhaps because I like Marlon Brando when he was still acting like a human being? In it, Brando sings, dances, and romances.)

  • Kamilla

    Tony,

    That was simply gorgeous! Even now, I can’t see Christopher Plummer and not see a shadow of von Trapp. I hope to never learn anything of his private life which dispels the myth I hold that he was so very good in that role because there was something of that character in the actor. Unfortunately, such is not the case with Julie Andrews. I made the mistake of seeing one of the movies she did with her husband, Blake Edwards.

    I have seen Sound of Music again, as an adult and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did seeing it as a child. I wonder if the same would hold for my other two childhood favorites, Chitty Cbitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins. I doubt it very much [smiley=happy]

    Kamilla

  • meg

    I think Anthony Esolen was exaggerating to make a point, he didn’t mean to be taken literally. It was a shorthand way to draw a conclusion and he was absolutely correct.

    He is comparing two period movies in which a young man and woman fall in love under less than ideal conditions. One couple retains their innocence and one couple gives way to passion. The former have a place in a quality movie that families have enjoyed over and over together for four decades; the latter have a place in a movie that no right thinking Catholic would allow their children to see under any circumstances.

    Which begs the following questions: Did the fornication elevate Titanic in any way? Is one not truly in love before one consummates that love? Wouldn’t a sweet and tender scene of the two in a different situation resonate with more people? Heck, did the young man have to be a poor man’s Toulouse-Lautrec or would a chimney sweep have sufficed?

    Most importantly, is it the proper role of movie makers to present our young people with a multitude of circumstances under which it is acceptable to abandon their virtue?

    These are the questions I asked myself as I left the theatre after viewing Titanic, a movie I will never watch again (it just wasn’t that good). I remember thinking that it was another entry in a long line of movies sending the message to our young people that humans cannot, are actually incapable of, controlling our passions. What poison. So, yes, to me it was “truly awful”.

  • Chris

    I loved the article and thought Anthony was dead-on in just about every point, except I too thought of “Fiddler on the Roof” which is a tremendous movie and may even be greater than “Sound of Music” in a number of ways. Nevertheless I concur with Anthony.
    I often think of Josef Pieper’s brilliant little essay entitled “Only the Lover Sings”. Only in a culture where there is genuine love can musicals thrive and flourish.
    Which brings me to my second point-also touched upon by some others-culture is a by-product of the Gospel and not its essence-the mystery of salvation is as pertinent in a decadent culture as it is in a thriving christian culture. The depth of injury incurred by our fallen human nature is such that the culture of this world, at best, will limp along, and sadly will usually be in a rather sad state, except for occasional glimpses of glory, such as “The Sound of Music”. We rejoice when they occur and we love to bask in them, but these are merely foretastes of heaven where the culture will be completely suffused and transformed by our intimate participation in the life of the Trinity.
    That being written, I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

  • RGB

    Western culture is a corpse; it cannot be said clearer than that.

  • Jamie

    Tony,

    There you go again, curmudgemating about Western culture! I happen to love everything you say about Sound Of Music. The one thing I appreciate almost as much as looking at an art form that I love, is having someone like you tell us all WHY we like it and WHY it’s truly worthy of being viewed over and over. I mean that sincerely–you’re one of the best at that sort of thing. But for goodness’ sakes, Tony, a corpse? You’re starting to sound like my father-in-law! First, if you’re right, why do so many Americans LOVE the Sound of Music and other R&H classics? Second, maybe some time needs to pass before we look at our songs as sentimentally as we do “Do A Dear.” I’m not clever enough to express this as a principle, but we don’t regard the Present, we scoff at it and long for the past.

  • Kevin

    I agree with the comments: “Today, no one can sing. No one knows why people ever sang.” and “The music that is gradually receding from the airwaves (to be replaced by news and talk) is all tedium, all day, all night; nothing but narcissism and lust, hardly a genuine human feeling to be had.” This is one of the reasons I cannot seem to get excited about Catholic radio. Catholic ‘radio’ is Catholic “talk’ which has its place but where can you tune in to hear Catholic music? A side note: I always thought Julie Andrews was wonderful. How could you star in a film like “The Sound of Music” and not be a saint. But alas, Hollywood is Hollywood and Julie digressed to lesser roles (including Victor, Victoria) and never recovered. Though it is probably elementary reasoning, I always thought God took away her voice for her digressions and indiscretions in later life.

  • Chris

    Not long ago, a man put down a huge load of cash to found just such a village in Florida, and the whole thing has devolved into one petty scandal after another, bickering and more bickering, hardly the thing anyone would want to join. I had some hopes for that “real village” and it saddens me terribly to see that even among “orthodox Catholics” we can’…

    Plunking down a wad of cash to build a Catholic fantasy land in the middle of a swamp was never going to work. True culture can’t be created on that scale. I wished Ave Maria the best, but that was a train wreck waiting to happen.

    How, Dr. Esolen, can we such a “village” (even if just a metaphoric one) and make it the type of place that is truly alive with God’s love?

    I’m not Dr. Esolen, but I have a suggestion. Start with your family, then make friends with another family, then another. Soon you will have a community. It might fail, so you start again, and keep working at until you die. Perhaps your work will create a lasting legacy. Or perhaps avarice, sloth, envy and the like will tear it down. Either way you’ll have lived your vocation, and that will have spiritual fruit you’ll never see.

    “Tomorrow’s society will be what today’s family is.”
    -Venerable Pope John Paul II

  • Marjorie Campbell

    Dr. Esolen’s point that you can engage a culture but not a corpse is well taken, as is his point that we have to establish a “real village.” But how can we actually do this? Not long ago, a man put down a huge load of cash to found just such a village in Florida, and the whole thing has devolved into one petty scandal after another, bickering and more bickering, hardly the thing anyone would want to join. I had some hopes for that “real village” and it saddens me terribly to see that even among “orthodox Catholics” we can’t seem to love and bear with one another — even in the midst of such a hostile culture. It’s truly depressing. How, Dr. Esolen, can we such a “village” (even if just a metaphoric one) and make it the type of place that is truly alive with God’s love?

    Here are Esolen’s points on the Sound of Music: holiness, innocence, children and the complementarity of the sexes – and our witness to the decay of their sanctity in modern Western culture. It’s totally true – and when no one rents Sound of Music at Blockbuster, and it’s considered trite and old-fashioned; we, folks, are done. This is my opinion. I have no objection to groups of Catholics who wish to concave and try to preserve and model the Truth – but it’s likely to fail because they engage with each other about purity of Truth and not with a broader Culture that hungers for glimpses. I, personally, will stay engage out here until they kill me. No one, BTW, will notice the in-fighting in conclaves … it’s like watching people pick belly button fuzz. Who cares? But, I remain hopeful, someone hungry will notice the Truth me and my family try to live everyday. This said, I don’t begrudge tired pious people who seek a retreat. This game is not for the weak hearted. Also, BTW, I can’t sing very well. But I try, despite my children hissing at me to lip sinc. I refuse.

  • Marjorie Campbell

    This is one of the reasons I cannot seem to get excited about Catholic radio. Catholic ‘radio’ is Catholic “talk”

    Kevin, Catholic radio is talk radio because it engages the culture. I completely agree about the lack of music … but, for now, it has a distinct mission with this me-me-me-I-have-something-to-say culture. Let us talk with the culture, and I’m sure you can either find great music on CD … or start a radio station that blares our beautiful music 24/7. I promise to tune in.

  • Tony Esolen

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    On Fiddler: I grant it’s a great musical; I had thought it was earlier than Sound of Music. I guess Oliver is later, too.

    On the corpse: Sometimes it is a cheering thing, to know that your enemy is a corpse … It sure does forestall a lot of unnecessary and unproductive labor. I see plenty of signs that young people know that it is a corpse — or at least the young people I teach at Providence College. Many of these kids listen to classical music, or to the rock music of my youth, which, though it was decadent, was at least music. They seem to be open to the possibility that the generation immediately preceding them had gotten everything wrong regarding marriage, though for the life of them they can’t figure out what to do instead.

    I know a terrific homeschooling family, five boys and two girls, who with no help from their neighbors live the lives I have in mind — though it is not easy for them. I hope I don’t embarrass them if I say that they’re the nicest and sanest family I know, and that I admire them tremendously. A couple of things I could mention: my son and I ride our bikes over there sometimes, and the kids (including neighborhood kids, who know where fun is to be had) are usually riding bikes, playing in a big playhouse built by Dad, playing some sort of game (wiffle ball, very often), something, all ages, in all kinds of friendly combinations. Dad has, also, a lathe in the shed, and has fashioned homemade wooden recorders, which the kids in the family know how to play, and will play sometimes on the porch. They tell me that the adult neighbors don’t know what to make of it all. Imagine two or three such families within a block or two’s radius.

    The gist of what I am trying to say, as always, is that there is no coherent or living culture out there to engage. That being the case, we might as well be as odd as possible, especially since what is odd is immediately appealing to intelligent young people. I mean, if it’s a fight between belief and nothing, between singing and noise, between lots of happy kids and one or two miserable ones walled up in day care asylums or something, we should win hands down.

    My apologies if I got the plot of Titanic wrong …

  • Sam

    Great article! When I watch the Sound of Music, I feel a sense of loss for the once-Catholic culture of countries like Austria and wonder what might have been if they had not gone the way of all flesh. I feel that way for our country too, even though we’ve never been a Catholic country. I also feel that way when I read the Lord of the Rings and hear the many echoes of nostalgia by the Elves and the Numenorean Men like Aragorn for the lost high culture of their realms. This longing and sadness can only be appreciated if you value what is good, true, and beautiful instead of the cheap imitations commonly referred to as art by today’s Melkors in pop culture who can only imitate but not create — and when they do imitate, they end up perverting what is true, good, and beautiful.

  • Steve

    Although it was a great movie and I love it for its innocence and beautiful singing, I suspect that real life was never that perfect. But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? The attraction to all movies on some level is that they allow you, if only for a couple of hours, to enter a world of make believe, of escapist fantasy. After all, The Sound of Music occurs in the time leading up to the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria, which unleashed a wave of vicious anti-Semitism in Vienna and elsewhere by those same pious Christians that the movie portrays as honorable Austrian patriots. It’s a bit of stretch.

    If we today can keep the darker side of human nature confined to film, music, and the rest of culture, I’d say we’re doing better than some of our ancestors did. At least, they couldn’t blame their culture for their sins.

    Steve

    P.S. Incidentally, the actor Christopher Plummer called the movie The Sound of Mucus on the set.

  • Cober Joe

    Do todays children sing as much as we did before WW II ?When I was working and ate my luch,always made first a sign of the cross,alone amidst my co-workers.Now in seniors home,cross myself in dining-room before eating.A lady asked me to join ladies who pray after supper in her room.They are glad,now there are 5 instead of 4. But they will not cross themselves in the dining-room.With family or friends in a restaurant,I’m the only one to make a sign of the cross.Like Captain v. Trap dare to stand for Truth. Dare to sing,alone if necessary.I feared to be seen as a ‘show-off’ Then realized,I want to be a ‘show-up’,to step to the front-line where the battle is fought.A man joined an organization “Today you must use the power of numbers”.I say”If only more Catholics dared to use the power of one”.Those who dare,should know each other.We may be far from each other,but we fight on the same front,helping each other.’Titanic’good history,ugly immoral story.At 89,I still try to sing(witness)the Truth in public,alone if necessary. Come,try,give it what you can, and MARY will smile at you.

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