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Ski Music


Ski Music

Photo: Robert Doisneau: Maurice Baquet a Chamonix, 1957
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Sunshine On My Shoulders, Part 1: From Yodeling to Soldiering

By Charles J. Sanders

Aspen’s most beloved centenarian, the world-class yodeler and ski apparel legend Klaus Obermeyer, has a theory why skiing and music will always be inextricably linked.  “To express feelings as happy as sliding down a mountain through powder snow and sunshine,” he philosophized through his million-watt smile, “they must be sung.  Words alone can’t convey that much joy.”  

Yodeling Klaus Obermeyer.
Sport-Obermeyer photo.

The relationship between skiing and music remains as intimate today as when it began centuries ago, running the gamut from classical odes to the Alps to the pounding rock and hip-hop coursing through the soundtracks of cutting-edge ski porn and the earbuds of World Cup racers.  And though the exact origins of this union of sport and art are hard to pinpoint, Obermeyer has a pretty convincing theory about that, too.   “Yodeling,” he insists, “was the beginning.  Absolutely.”  

Obermeyer is among those who believe that while the use of that falsetto vocal technique among Swiss alpine herders to communicate may have been crucial in ancient times, its most lasting importance is as the root of the folk-art form that grew into ski music, and its evolution parallels the history of the sport.  “Those shepherds were isolated up there with the herds in the high meadows, calling back and forth all day,” he continued.  “Eventually, they began to pass those summers by making up yodeling songs about how beautiful life is in the Alps, and performing them back down in the valleys.    When skiing became popular years later, those same yodeling tunes were turned into songs about the happiness you feel when you reach the summit and go flying down.  Sometimes you yodel out loud, sometimes inside.  But we all sing in our own way.  That’s the basis of all ski music.  It’s yodeling for the pure joy of playing in the snow.” 


Tyrolese Minstrels of Innsbruck

It was nevertheless economics that first drove the mountain yodel’s ascendance to international popularity in the mid-19th century.  With the emergence of the Romantic movement and its back-to-nature sensibilities, the impresarios of Europe quickly realized there was money to be made by exporting the most successful, local Alpine performers to foreign stages.   

By the 1850s, Bavarian, Swiss and Austrian yodeling and singing groups such as the Tirolese Minstrels of Innsbruck had already been embraced by North American audiences.  The public flocked to see them on tour, performing beloved mountain songs including Ernst Anshutz’s soon-to-be classic “Oh, Tannenbaum.”[1]   Among their fans, many of whom had only recently emigrated from central Europe, that nostalgic song of the Alpine forests grew rapidly into a ubiquitous Christmas favorite.  So did the popularity of traditional Bavarian, Swiss and Tirolian yodeling tunes, frequently backed by accordion, zither, harp or Alpine horns.[2]   

London concert

Reflecting their divergent cultural traditions, Swiss renditions[3] of mountain songs tended toward staid ballads, while the more up-tempo Austrian and Bavarian arrangements[4] were filled with rowdy, vocal pyrotechnics.  The Tirolean performances were even joined on occasion with schuplattler[5] (slap dancing), lending a tinge of aggression to the artform that would later be warmly embraced by the pan-German fascist movement.  For the time being, however, yodeling performances in both Europe and North America tended toward spiritually uplifting, apolitical drinking songs, dramatically staged against colorful backdrops of the Alps.  


The surge of public interest in the mystique of the high mountains eventually also caught the attention of Europe’s 19th century musical giants, many of whom had been raised on the early Romantic, mountain poetry of Goethe and the Dolomite melodies of Vivaldi.  Seizing the renewed opportunity to draw creative inspiration from the awesome, glaciated peaks of the Alps (while not-so-incidentally boosting concert revenues), these “serious” contemporary composers began writing and performing what they considered to be more fitting tributes to sublime, Alpine majesty. 

Musical works such as Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,”[6] Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,”[7] Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,”[8] and Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony[9] catapulted their composers to even wider appeal in the cultured quarters of Europe.  That, in turn, helped foster a trend toward the creation of lighter, more accessible winter and mountain tunes by popular songwriters of the late 1800s.   At least two of those fin-de-siecle pieces became such seasonal favorites that they remain part of the contemporary winter repertoire a century and a half later. 

RCA Victor 78 rpm record

The first, written by French composer Émile Waldteufel, is “The Skaters’ Waltz,”[10]  which remains a late December musical staple in outdoor ice rinks and ski towns around the world.  The other is the instantly recognizable “Schneewalzer”[11] (“Snow Waltz”) by Thomas Koschat of the Vienna State Opera.  As much as any musical composition of that era, it presaged the emergence of ski music as its own genre.   The chorus, including the lyrics “In the snow, snow, snow, snow, waltzing in the snow,” would later exert influence on such skiing-related classics as the Austrian waltz “Kufsteiner Lied” and the American standard “Let it Snow.”

A more recent version of “Schneewalzer” performed by singer Rufus Wainwright was used as the musical theme to the award-winning documentary film Ski Heil[12] in 2009, depicting the complicated history of military mountaineering in the German-speaking nations of central Europe.  And it was that same culture of perpetual warfare that served as the catalyst for the first generation of mountain songs that focused directly on skiing. 


Prior to the late 19th century when skiing first became widely popularized, the skill had been regarded throughout Europe as purely utilitarian, handy only for cold-weather transport, hunting, and border defense.  The lone exception was Norway.  As the generally recognized inventors of skiing, Norwegians believed the practice to be a unifying aspect of their culture, serving essentially as their national pastime.  They also viewed broadening the sport’s international popularity as a way to re-establish a heroic national identity, demonstrating the virtue of their homeland’s struggle for recognition as a sovereign state free from Swedish rule. 

When polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen of Norway famously crossed the ice sheets of Greenland on skis in 1888, highlighting the Viking tradition of exploration stretching back a thousand years to Erik the Red, it was a journey undertaken in part to support his nation’s independence movement.  To the great satisfaction of Norwegians, reports of Nansen’s valiant exploits captivated all of Alpine Europe. 

Reflecting admiration for the spirit of adventure that the explorer personified, those whom Nansen inspired began joining local European skiing and mountaineering clubs in record numbers.  Many such converts were likewise seduced by the Norse ideal of a life on snow, and quickly embraced the associated Norwegian and Saami customs of soprano mountain singing that emphasized short vocal calls often layered in harmonies.  It was a style that blended seamlessly with the now well-established, central European yodeling tradition. 

The more spiritual Norwegian mountain music style known as “yoik” --typified by such Nordic folk songs as “Vuelie[13] (featured in the 2013 Disney film Frozen) and the Viking-influenced funeral chant “Helvegen[14] (still hauntingly performed in outdoor fjord venues north of Bergen today)-- soon took its place in the development of world ski music.  So did the geographically related, traditional music of Sweden, a style parodied by good-humored folk-dancing tunes such as the “Kiss Polka.[15]   

To most Europeans outdoorsmen and women, the combination of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish folk music (typified today by the multi-national “Norse” lullaby “Vargsangen”)[16] had always been part of a vague, unified Scandinavian culture they now accepted as a staple of the modern skiing and musical landscapes.  Through the prodding of Nansen, however, they also came to grasp Scandinavia’s unique mountain traditions as being distinctly Norwegian.  Whether by coincidence or not, Norway indeed achieved its political independence in 1905.


Band of the Chasseurs alpins, WWI

By the turn of the 20th century, the growing popularity of ski mountaineering had also come to the notice of European military leaders.  With the Age of Romance disintegrating into an era of rabid nationalism across the continent, it had become obvious that the flashpoints of confrontation among rival nations would inevitably be at their shared borders.  Those frontiers were often defined by natural features, such as mountain ranges, whose passes required guarding.  It was only a matter of time before recruitment from among the fresh crop of skiers emerging in Nansen’s wake became standard military practice.   

Before long, German Gebirgsjäger troops and French members of the Chasseur Alpin were warily monitoring one another on skis across

the Vosges Mountains near Alsace, while Italian Alpinis were tracking French military movements on the Savoyard border.  The British and Swiss had their own arrangements for protecting their Alpine tourist trade through the safeguarding of the Swiss borders with Germany, Austria, Italy, Lichtenstein and France.  Still, relations remained relatively calm.  Even the interactions between

Italian Alpini in training, WWI

soldiers stationed on the more intensely disputed southern frontier between Italy and Austria --where Italian mountaineers and Austrian Alpinjägers had mingled for decades-- retained their friendly, non-military flavor.

Amid all this temporary stability in the Alps, it soon became an object of great amusement to military observers that while regular army units had always merely tolerated musical pomp and circumstance, ski and mountain troops seemed to regard group singing as their lifeblood.   Songs were an indispensable aspect of their unusual esprit de corps, a natural outgrowth of shared, civilian traditions tracing back to yodeling shepherds, mountain-valley festivals, and the inspiration of modern-day ski Vikings. 

The result of the continued upholding of these traditions of Alpine fellowship and song was a general belief among the ski troops that all this international military maneuvering represented nothing more than history’s largest gathering of mountaineering clubs.  That is not to say that signs of a possible conflagration were not apparent, but thoughts of serious wartime dangers were blatantly downplayed in the expanding catalog of song lyrics that now specifically recognized skiing as a tie that bound all mountaineers together, regardless of national boundries. 

German troops on Christmas leave, WWI

The German and Austrian mountain troops, under the civilian tutelage of their combined, pan-Germanic mountaineering organization known as the Alpenverein, tended to emphasize melodic and upbeat songs of Teutonic brotherhood such as the “Alpinjäger Marsch.[17]  Typical lyrics, usually sung in unison, accentuated the anticipated adventure of mountain military service rather than the terrors that might also await:

Of the great ski troops we’re all a part,
With whiten tunic and speedy ski,
We rush against foe with gladden heart
And sing “ski heil” with friends we see![18]

The Italian Alpini favored more intricate choral arrangements filled with reverence for their extraordinary Dolomite surroundings.  The lyrics, however, still often referenced jovial fearlessness as an essential military virtue. 

Accepting an invitation to attend the annual gathering of their French mountain troop counterparts in 1912, the Italians were only too happy to regale the Chasseurs with period pieces such as “Va L’alpin,[19] and the sacred Dolomiti “skier’s hymn,” “Inno Degli Sciatori.[20] The cheerfully fatalistic lyrics of the latter included homages to skiing “over shining, cloudless fields so fair, of everlasting snow,” and pledges to go “smiling always, toward fate and foe.”

Though the facts are lost to history, the members of the Chasseur Alpin likely answered their Italian guests with a sentimental hymn of their own, perhaps their anthem “La Montagne.”[21]  The lyrics of that melancholy song describe the resolve of a French soldier to survive hard service in the Alps so that he may return home to his own beautiful mountains and the woman he loves.[22]

The songs of the neutral Swiss mountain troops were predictably the most optimistic of all.  As the Graubunden theme “High On A Mountain[23] indicates, without the concern of direct military confrontation, members of the Swiss ski troops adopted lyrics that often omitted reference to the potential of armed conflict altogether:

High on a mountain so happy and free,
There lives a maid, and she dearly loves me,
Down in the valley we’re learning to ski,
Upon a mountain high

Oh, the bells they are ringing (yodel)
And the birds they are singing (yodel)
Upon a mountain high.

The Swiss composers J. Rudolf Krenger and Gottfried Strasser similarly invented a popular tune that perfectly captured the spirit of fellowship in the Alps during the pre-war eras.  Like various German language songs, it took as the heart of its lyric the exuberant, traditional greeting throughout the mountains of Europe as a wish for a great day on the slopes: “Schy-Heil. [24]

How times have changed since we were younger
O half the world now shouts, “Ski Heil!”
For everyone’s a two-board rider,
And slides over bumps with style.

The adoption a few years later by the Austro-German Nazi party of the phrase sieg heil as its victory salute cast a dark shadow over the use of the ski heil greeting throughout the world’s mountain communities in the decades that followed.  But in the years prior to the development of that unfortunate linguistic anomaly, both the ski phrase and its appearance in song were guaranteed to raise a smile --and perhaps a glass or two of schnapps-- in honor of the sport.  Equally fascinating, many in the German jazz community would later adopt the greeting swing heil in the early 1930s nightclubs of Berlin as an ironic protest against the growing sieg heil mentality, even as the use of the ski version fell out of fashion among anti-fascist mountaineers. This curious phenomenon was captured in the 1993 film “Swing Kids,”[25] a film interesting as well for its faithful recreation of Berlin’s underground, interwar music scene.


German Alpenkorps, WWI

Military conditions in the Alps inevitably began to grow more complex as the clouds of World War I gathered in 1914.  According to the accounts of the great Austrian ski-technique pioneer and “Father of Modern Skiing” Hannes Schneider, who served as a trainer of his nation’s ski troops on the Sud Tirolean front, many of the men about to face one another in combat had grown up climbing, skiing, and singing together in those same mountains.  Going into battle against each other would literally pit friend against friend, an eventuality they sought to avoid for as long as possible.

As a result, even after the First World War began in earnest that autumn, the ski heil spirit of camaraderie among mountain troops persisted.  That was especially true after Italy declared its neutrality in the struggle between the Western Allies and Russia on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey on the other.  Austrian and Italian ski troops on either end of the Dolomite border continued to chat bilingually, trade food and bottles of wine, and drink and sing together.  Maintaining a code of fellowship in wartime, however, was simply not possible.  That reality was later starkly depicted in German actor-director Luis Trenker’s 1931 mountain film Berge in Flammen[26] (Mountain on Fire), which featured military singing as part of its grueling and dramatic war reenactments.

Brutal war in the Dolomites, WWI

Following the famous, unauthorized “Christmas Eve Truce[27] of 1914 arranged by German, British and French officers as their men poignantly sang carols to one another on the western front, several German mountain units promptly arrived to put a stop to the Austro-Italian fraternization in the Dolomites.  Shortly afterward, Italy secretly disclosed to England and France its desire to annex the entirety of the mountainous, Austrian-controlled border region known as the Sud Tirol.  That coveted territory, to which the Italians now referred as the “Alto Adige,” included the spectacular Brenta Alps, Bozen (Bolzano) and Trent (Trento).  After a bargain was reached in support of Italy’s aims, the Italians declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany in early 1915, joining the Western Allies.

What ensued was an unmitigated, three-year Alpine bloodbath, with fighting every bit as vicious and lethal as the muddy trench warfare that characterized the struggle in the lowlands.  Tens of thousands of mountain troops, including entire regiments, died beneath avalanches intentionally triggered during artillery duels.  Hundreds of thousands of others were killed as a result of conventional mountain warfare, including those vaporized in an explosion detonated by the Alpini in tunnels burrowed below the barracks of the Austrian troops quartered high on the Col di Lana.  The blast was of such force that it blew the top of the mountain apart.  In all, over half a million soldiers perished on the Alpine front, and well over a million more were wounded before the war came to a merciful end with the surrender of Germany and Austria in November of 1918. 

Friends had indeed killed friends by the tens of thousands in the Dolomites, whether they had once sung together or not.  By war’s end, the horror of death and defeat was summed up in the oft-heard Austro-German mountain and military dirge “Wo Alle Strassen Enden.[28]  It concludes with the refrain repeated over and again by the mountain soldiers who sang it as they departed the Dolomites.  “Wir sind verloren.”  We are forsaken. 


Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Italy as promised was granted possession of the Sud Tirol by the French, British and American victors.  After the million-plus wartime casualties suffered in defeat by the Austrians (now no longer part of the dissolved Austria-Hungarian Empire whose combined war dead numbered close to two million), their additional, humiliating loss of that beloved region was an indignity that would have far-reaching and calamitous consequences.  The march toward yet another, greater catastrophe two decades later had already begun.

La Montanara

In the meanwhile, however, the Alpini celebrated by commemorating their 1918 victory in song.  Continuing their trademark tradition of performing harmonious tributes to the Dolomites themselves, the skiers and climbers of the Italian military adopted as their post-World War I anthem a new composition by composer Antonio Ortelli, “La Montanara.[29]  The beautiful melody quickly became known as “the Hymn of the Alps,” its lyrics, by Luigi Pigarelli, appreciated for their nostalgic return to Romance-age aesthetics:

Up there in the mountains 
Amid forests and valleys of gold 
Amid rugged rocks, there echoes 
A love song that never grows old

Many other additions to the Alpini repertoire followed, including the sadly melodic war laments “Sui Monte Scarpazi[30] and “Sul Capello.”[31]  All are still regularly performed at 21st century civilian and military gatherings in ski towns throughout the mountains of central and northern Italy, including Cortina D’Ampezzo, Val Gardena (Wolkenstein), and Madonna di Campiglio.


In contrast, beginning in 1919, Austro-German ski music immediately lurched toward extreme militaristic nationalism.  Its new lyrics reflected a pervasive aching for revenge, a reality that would help usher in one of the darkest periods in human history.  It would also prompt a degradation in the comradeship-oriented European ski song tradition that would last for generations.   

This radical shift in the musical culture of the defeated can be traced in part to Austrian mountaineer Eduard Pichl, an exceptionally accomplished climber and extreme, pan-German Nationalist who had recently been elected as head of the powerful Vienna Section of the Alpenverein.  Aside from a mutual rage over the loss of the Sud Tirol, Pichl also happened to share with a certain, fellow Austrian --the newly transplanted Munich rabble rouser Adolph Hitler-- an adoration of Austria’s most fanatical fascist and anti-Semite, Georg von Schönerer. 

As a presumed Christmas and welcome home gift to Hitler in 1924, less than a week before the future German Fuhrer’s release from prison for attempting to overthrow the government of Bavaria, Pichl arranged for the expulsion from the Alpenverein of the huge Austrian-Jewish Section known as “Donauland.”  The vote, pre-arranged to take place in Munich, was the culmination of several Pichl victories that had already resulted in the exclusion of all “non-Aryans” from every other Alpenverein section in Austria.  

Before, during and after the First World War, though Austrians of Jewish heritage comprised less than three percent of the nation’s total population, they were hugely represented in the Alpenverein.  The Vienna section, especially, had included hundreds of Judeo-Austrians who served in combat on the Sud Tirolean front.  It also had been the favored chapter of Austria’s greatest climber, Dr. Paul Preuss, an Austrian Jew from Altausee who had died in a Salzburg region free-climbing accident in 1913, and whose iconic status Pichl now also sought to erase.

Through Pichl’s efforts, a bond was now forged between the self-proclaimed Aryan mountaineers of Austria and the burgeoning Bavarian Nazi Party, turning the “racial purification” movement throughout the Germanic Alps into a reality.  The Alpenverein chapters in Austria and Bavaria swiftly transformed themselves into what amounted to para-military training organizations for the Nazi Party.  In appreciation, Hitler later financed Pischl’s dream of completing his four-volume biography of von Schönerer.

There was a second, parallel goal of the Nazi Party-Alpenverein coalition: to fashion out of whole cloth a myth of historic, Austro-German Alpine supremacy.  That Romantic fabrication stood in complete contradiction to the fact that the British, French and Swiss had dominated nearly the entire history of exploration and climbing in the mountains of western and central Europe prior to the 20th century.  Germany, in fact, had not even unified as a nation until 1871, and Austria (outside of Vienna) had been predominantly a provincial, Habsburg fiefdom for centuries.  To overcome these factual impediments, it was determined by Nazi leaders (including soon-to-be propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels) that music’s power to influence would have to play an instrumental role in accelerating Hitler’s revisionist, Alpine crusade.

Violent clashes on the mountain trails of Bavaria, the Rax near Vienna, and what remained of the northern Austrian Tirol soon became the norm, as the Aryanized Alpenverein attempted to re-brand themselves as the sole, rightful heirs to the Alps.  Consistent with that purpose, the mountain music of Bavaria and Austria under Nazi influence rapidly devolved into a collection of fascist anthems saluting Germanic superiority in mountaineering and skiing, skills they claimed to have inherited from their vague, pan-Germanic ancestors whom legend said had emerged from the Tirolean mountains to seize global leadership from the fallen Roman Empire.  Even songs celebrating Alpine beauty, such as the German mountain favorite “Erika,[32] were soon converted to political use in the 1930s as marches for the brownshirt (SA) Nazi militia movement and the Alpenverein

Perhaps most chilling of all the Austro-German “mountain” songs in this horrifying era was the anthem of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), which could be heard echoing from every hiking and skiing trail in Germany and Austria throughout the decade of Nazi ascendance.  Though its lyrics are now tragically cliché, the effect at the time on the young teenagers singing it, and those non-Aryans in the mountains hearing it, was profound. 

Known as "Es Zittern die Morschen Knochen"[33] ("The Frail Bones Are Trembling") and written by schutzstaffel (Nazi SS) member Hans Baumann, its message speaks for itself.   In any other era, it could hardly have qualified as a ski or mountain tune, but such is what became of the ski heil spirit under the Third Reich:

Die faulen knochen zittern ... Für uns großer Sieg!
Wir werden weiter marschieren. Auch wenn alles zerbricht.
Denn heute gehört Deutschland uns, und morgen die Welt.

(The frail bones are trembling…For us great victory!
We will continue to march.  Even if everything shatters.
Because today Germany is ours, And tomorrow, the world.)


Der Feinste Sport became Two
Boards Upon Cold Powder Snow

Of course, there were exceptions to this dark musical trend, the most famous of which was the celebratory “Der Feinste Sport[34] (“The Finest Sport”), credited to Bavarian composer Otto Sirl.  The chorus of that Alpine evergreen would shortly be recast by American parodists as one of the first, widely known US ski songs, “Two Boards Upon Cold Powder Snow:”[35]

Zwoa breittl gefrueigher Schnee, Juch-he
Das ist meine hochste idee!
(Two boards upon cold powder snow, yoho! That’s all a man needs to know!)

Another of the more upbeat German songs of the era was the theme of the 1938 Luis Trenker film Love Letters From the Engadin, in which a second song entitled “Schi-heil[36] debuted.  This one, which became better known than the Swiss original of the same title, was composed by renown Sud Tirolean film composer Guissepe Becce (with lyrics by Hanns Sassmann), and apparently intended under Goebbels’ guidance to emphasize the lighter, good-humored side of fascism.  Similarly, as late as 1940 (a full year after the commencement of German battlefield aggressions in World War II), propagandistic Nazi feature films were still highlighting mountain folk songs.  These included “Hoch Droben Auf Dem Berg[37] (High Up On the Mountain) from the youthfully symbolic opening scene of Rosen In Tirol, which played in theaters throughout Germany and Austria even as Luftwaffe bombs fell nightly on London.

Such rare deviations aside, more malignant expressions of aspirational, Aryan domination remained the rule among Germans and Austrians eager to sing away their past defeats and prepare their citizens for total war.  That plan was emboldened by German alpine ski victories in the 1936 Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and the triumph of an Austro-German climbing team that finally succeeded (following numerous and fatal international attempts) in conquering the North face of the Swiss Eiger for the first time in 1938.  Each such victory was greeted with ever louder choruses of Germany’s Haydn-inspired national anthem, “Deutschlandlied,”[38] which at the time commenced with the infamously ominous lyric “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles.”  Germany, Germany Above All Else.

By the start of the Second World War in 1939, Goebbels had taken Nansen’s inspiring dream of achieving freedom for Norway through heroic feats of mountain sport and exploration, and converted it into a nightmarish, self-delusional belief in an Austro-German master race of singing mountaineers whose righteous destiny was to rule the world.  The thousand-year Roman Empire would be surpassed, the Nazis prophesized, by a thousand-year, Pan-German Reich directed by the Fuhrer from the Eagle’s Nest above Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.  

During these later years of Hitler’s rise, the musical repertoires of the Alpenverein and Hitlerugend eventually grew to include even the feared Nazi SS anthem “Horst Wessel Lied” (also known as “Der Fahne Hoch”) which was frequently sung in combination with the “Deutschlandlied” anthem). Championed by Goebbels as the most sacred, pan-Germanic musical composition of modern times, the “Horst Wessel Song” was used to stunning effect by film director Leni Riefenstahl in her infamous, 1935 propaganda masterwork, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will).[39]  The song accompanies the parting of clouds in the opening scene to reveal the old German city of Nuremberg, an ironic and unforeseen foreshadowing unsurpassed in film history.  Additional use of the song at the Nuremburg rallies is also included at the film’s conclusion.  Suffice it to say that performance of the composition and exhibition of the film are still generally outlawed in Germany and Austria today, for the political hatred they remain capable of inspiring.


White Ecstasy was based on the
earlier Wonder of Skis

Director Leni Riefenstahl was not merely the Third Reich’s most popular, young film propagandist.   Her previous career as a German mountain and ski film star had also intersected repeatedly with the shaping of ski culture and music in Alpine Europe, and by extension, the rest of the skiing world.

Working with famed mountain film pioneer Dr. Arnold Fanck in producing some of history’s most influential cinematic depictions of skiing, she headlined in numerous silent alpine features of the 1920s, and then starred with Hannes Schneider in the sound motion picture epics Storm Over Mt. Blanc (1930)[40] and Der Weisse Rauch (The White Ecstasy) (1931).[41]   The music for both films was created by revered German composer Paul Dessau, who used light, classical motifs to tie Fanck’s sublime, alpine skiing images to the music of the Romantic German composers of the 19th century.  He also seamlessly blended Tirolian folk music into his work, utilizing the melody of the aforementioned Bavarian classic “Der Feinste Sport[42] as one of the central themes of of both films, including the opening and closing scenes of the White Ecstasy soundtrack.

Sadly, Dessau’s substantial contributions to ski music were largely forgotten for many decades due to the successful efforts in 1930s Germany and Austria to eliminate screen credits for all Jewish composers and artists, especially those involved in projects dear to the Alpenverein.  When occasionally challenged to defend their actions (Fanck indeed objected to credit removals from his films), the Nazis often traced the precedence for such obliterations to the writings of the Reich’s most revered musical figure, Richard Wagner.  In 1850, with his essay entitled Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), Wagner had ruthlessly attacked acclaimed Jewish-German composer Felix Mendelssohn for allegedly having diluted the Romantic mountain traditions of the German and Austrian “heimat und volk” (native culture and its people).  His recommendation to Mendelssohn, that he consider engaging promptly in “the bloody struggle of self-annihilation,” remains breathtaking in its viciousness.

It is therefore one of the most ironic twists in musical history that the two most famous, musical symbols of Austro-German mountain culture in the 1930s are neither of that era, nor of those nations.  Rather, the song “Edelweis[43] --frequently mistaken as the Austrian national anthem and perhaps the world’s most famous and beloved mountain song-- was written by American composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (both of Jewish heritage) for the Broadway production The Sound of Music in 1959.[44]  That show celebrated the escape from their native Austria of the members of the  musical von Trapp family[45] of Stowe, Vermont, who had fled the Nazi Anschluss (“annexation”) in 1938.  The opening sequence in the popular movie version featuring the title song “(The Hills are Alive With) The Sound of Music,”[46] and the closing credits that feature the brilliant composition “Climb Every Mountain,”[47] also remain some of the most emblematic portrayals of the high Alpine ever filmed.

The second example of musical misidentification concerning Nazi Germany is the sinister yet hauntingly beautiful “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”[48]  Almost universally assumed to be an authentic German mountain anthem and often showcased to demonstrate the turn in Germany and Austria toward genocidal fascism, it was actually composed in 1966 by Jewish-American songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb for the Broadway show Cabaret.  Drawing inspiration from the soundtrack of the 1939 film 21 Days,[49] the song so effectively parodies the Alpenverein and Hitlerugend mountain musical culture of the Nazi era that even 21st century neo-fascist groups -- not recognizing it as scathing satire-- have used it at rallies to their subsequent embarrassment and anger.

Such is the redemptive power of music to cleanse and rehabilitate even the most monstrous of historical periods through songs of hope, and warnings of lessons learned, as so poignantly illustrated in Cabaret.[50]


Unsurprisingly, an eerily similar pattern of extreme nationalism in military ski and mountain music developed during the 1930s in Japan. At the time, it, too was a nation on the march toward fascist totalitarianism.

Still suffering from the shame of the forced opening of their nation to Western trade by American Naval Commodore Matthew Perry in the mid-19th century, the members of the Japanese military suffered yet another crisis of confidence following the 1902 tragedy known as the Hakkōda Mountains incident.  In that action, nearly the entirety of a 200-soldier detachment of Japanese mountain and ski troops died of hypothermia while on maneuvers in the mountains of Northern Honshu (directly across the Tsuaru Strait from Hokkaido). Those deaths were due, it was acknowledged, to gross unpreparedness and incompetent leadership in the face of a severe and unexpected blizzard. 

Compounding the effects of this tragedy, the Japanese military leadership was at the time still subject to humiliation by the popularity of a bitterly sarcastic Japanese military ski song, “Yuki No Shingun[51] (The Snow March).  Its lyrics condemned the misuse of poorly equipped Japanese mountain troops in their victorious 1895 war with China, a failure that had similarly resulted in thousands of unnecessary Japanese casualties in the cold and snow.  The song ends with a blistering accusation against Japan’s highest military ranks:

Because we came here offering our lives…
If the fortunes of war so wish, we must die in battle…
The donated padded clothes..slowly, slowly, fastened upon our necks
Show the intention wasn't to let us return alive

It took until 1935 (and an apolitical visit from Hannes Schneider who taught thousands of Japanese civilian and military skiers his Arlberg technique) before the most fanatical members of the Japanese military finally effected the banning of “Yuki No Shingun.”  In an effort to bury the song for all time, the Army introduced and popularized in its place a new gunka (military march), “Anthem of the Kwangtung Army,[52] reflective of Japan’s intention to dominate its neighbors as a matter of right, might and destiny. 

The anthem’s specific subject was the celebration of an elite Japanese Army unit, including specialized mountain and cold-weather ski and shock troops, presently engaged in performing ethnic cleansing in the newly occupied Japanese territories of Manchuria and Mongolia.  Lyrically proclaiming the cultural superiority of Japan as it pursued the domination of East Asia, and in a foreshadowing of the horrors to come, the new Imperial Japanese “mountain song” concluded with the dire sentiment:

Forward unto the reclaim of rot,
And the majesty of a Greater Asia,
The Flower of the Empire of Japan,The Kwangtung Army

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Author Charlie Sanders is a director of ISHA and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and serves on the advisory board of Protect Our Winters. He is author of the award-winning book Boys of Winter: Life and Death in the U.S. Ski Troops During the Second World War, and of “Skiing the Seven Continents” (Skiing History supplement, March 2020).

[18] E. John B. Allen, The Culture and Sport of Skiing at 160.

[22] E. John B. Allen,The Culture and Sport of Skiing.

[23] Kemp, Skier’s Songbook at 51.

[24] Kemp, Skier’s Songbook at 56.


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