THE TRUE STORY OF THE VON TRAPP FAMILY AND THEIR OWN “SOUND OF MUSIC”
Most of what we know of the von Trapp Family Singers comes from the 1959 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, and especially from the 1965 Best Picture starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (the photo here is of Julie Andrews and Maria von Trapp during the late 1960’s). The basic story does in fact come from Maria von Trapp’s biography but there are numerous differences between it and these productions. Historic accuracy was altered to fit the demands of show business. Names, marriage dates, birth orders, and characterizations of family members were also changed.
First we will explore the real lives of Georg von Trapp and Maria Augusta Kutschera; their early lives, how they met, and why they decided to marry. Then, we will look at the von Trapp Family; their singing career, how they avoided Nazi pressures on the family, why they immigrated to America, and how the family members felt about seeing their lives portrayed on the stage and movie screen.
GEORG von TRAPP
Although an ethnic Austrian, George Ludwig von Trapp was born in 1880 in Zara, Croatia (present day). After central European borders were redrawn following World War I, his hometown came under the control of Italy; so George also claimed Italian citizenship.
He became a national hero in Austria during the war as a Navy Captain. George was awarded the title of “Ritter” the lesser known equivalent of “Baron” (titles of nobility were outlawed in Austria in 1919, but honors like this were continued out of respect).
In 1912, he married Agathe Whitehead, the granddaughter of the man who invented the torpedo, and her large inheritance. The couple had seven children during the ten years following their marriage. In 1922, Agathe died of scarlet fever leaving the now retired naval officer with seven mouths to feed. Devastated by the death of his wife and the children of their mother, George sold his property in Croatia and bought a home in Salzburg, Austria. The home in Salzburg was large and comfortable, but not opulent.
Within a short time, Georg lost most of the family fortune (that he inherited from the estate of his first wife, Agathe) when he tried to buttress a failing Austrian bank managed by a friend of his. The von Trapp family was effectively bankrupt by 1927. They managed to survive by laying-off all of their domestic staff and taking in borders.
When his daughter, also named Maria, was stricken by scarlet fever like her mother, George needed a tutor for her as she couldn’t attend school. He approached the Reverend Mother at the Nonnberg Abbey to inquire about finding a tutor for his child. Maria Kutschera was suggested as a proper tutor since her college training was as a teacher.
Georg was a well known opponent of Nazism. When the Nazi’s annexed Austria in 1938, Captain von Trapp refused to fly the Nazi flag on his house and declined an invitation to have his family sing at Adolph Hitler’s birthday party. He was being seriously recruited by the German Navy because of his extensive experience in submarine warfare. His family was nearly broke and he had no means of earning an income other than as a naval officer. He earnestly considered their offers, which would rescue his family from poverty, but in the end he turned them down.
MARIA AUGUSTA KUTSCHERA
Maria was born in Vienna in 1905. As a young child she was orphaned and raised by an abusive relative. The story is that her guardian was a socialist and an atheist who taught her that nothing in the Bible was true. When she was older, she attended a teacher’s college in Vienna and came into contact with people who convinced her that the Christian religion was true and caused her to have a religious awakening. After graduating from college, Maria entered the Benedictine Abbey at Nonnberg in Salzburg as a potential candidate for sisterhood. As portrayed on stage and in film, Maria struggled to follow the rules and was often disciplined.
One day, Georg von Trapp came by the Abbey to see if they had any person qualified to tutor his daughter Maria Franziska. Sister Maria was chosen because of her training and because see was suffering from a lack of exercise and fresh air spending her days indoors. Maria Kutschera was assigned to tutor at the von Trapp home for ten months; then return to the Abbey to be formally entered into training there.
She developed a strong and loving relationship with the sick child; and with the other six children as well. They all enjoyed outdoor activities and especially singing together. During her time there, Georg became fond of Maria (or in love with her depending on who told the story). He wanted to provide a permanent mother figure for his children and Maria needed a solid, reliable family to live with if she decided not to return to the Abbey. George asked Maria to marry him; an offer that she was reluctant to accept. She recorded in her autobiography that, “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children.”
But she felt that it was God’s plan for her to marry him and care for the children so she accepted. Maria did admit that later she grew to love Georg von Trapp.
They were married in 1927, over a decade prior to World War II. Maria was 25 years younger than George. Over the next ten years, they had two children together; Rosmarie (1928) and Eleonore (1931). The seven children of Georg and Agathe von Trapp were Rupert (1911), Agathe (1913,) Maria Franziska (1914), Werner (1915), Hedwig (1917), Johanna (1919), and Martina (1921). As you probably concluded, none of these names were used in the stage production or film.
During the worldwide depression of the 1930’s, with Georg no longer working, he and Maria decided to make their family tradition of singing into a paying profession. Georg was reluctant for his family to perform in public at first. Fifty years later, daughter Eleonore said, “It almost hurt him to have his family on stage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one.” In 1936, the family won first place in the Salzburg Music Festival which opened doors for them to perform across Europe. They specialized in folk songs, madrigals, and Renaissance music.
By 1938, the Nazi’s had put more pressure on Georg to join the German Navy. They offered to renew Georg’s naval career, to insure that eldest son Rupert would find a prestigious position as a doctor, and to underwrite their performances. The family had to choose whether to stay in Austria and take advantage of the incentives offered by the Nazi’s or leave all of their family and friends behind, as well as their possessions. But Georg and Maria became fearful that those around them could be acting as informants for the Nazi’s.
The decision was made not to compromise with the Nazi’s and they planned to leave. In June of 1938, the family left by train for Italy. They travelled next to London, then to the United States aboard the S.S. Bergensfjord to begin a concert tour. The family had a contract with an American booking agent before they left Austria.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
The popular conception is that the von Trapp family left Salzburg on foot and climbed over the nearby mountains to Switzerland. This is completely untrue. The Swiss border was way too far to travel to on foot. The closest border was with Germany. If the von Trapp’s had chosen to cross over the mountain there, they would have arrived in the German town of Berchtesgaden. On a hill above town was Adolph Hitler’s mountain retreat, Berghof, where the Nazi elite would gather. The von Trapp’s knew this so it was never a possibility. “We told people we were going to America to sing. And we did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train, pretending nothing.” (von Trapp’s daughter Maria in 2003).
The von Trapp’s had arrived in the United States prior to its entry into World War II. Their last child, and the first to be an American citizen, was Johannes. He was born in January of 1939 in Philadelphia. When their six-month “visitor visas” expired, they toured again in those parts of Europe not controlled by the Nazi’s. They even returned to Austria briefly without interference by the German Government. Upon their return to New York in October, the family was held at Ellis Island by the Immigration Service. An official had asked them how long they intended to stay. Maria should have responded ‘six months’ (as their visas indicated) but instead she said, “I never want to leave here again.” The confusion was eventually cleared up and the family was released after several days.
LIVING IN AMERICA
The family settled in Stowe, Vermont; an area not unlike parts of Austria. Georg never filed to become a citizen; but Rupert and Werner were naturalized by serving in the U.S. armed forces during the war. In 1944, Maria and five step daughters filed declarations of intention to become American citizens. Georg von Trapp died in 1947 and is buried in the family cemetery in Vermont. Maria died in 1987 and is buried alongside Georg. The children eventually went their separate ways as well. They found their own professions as a medical doctor, a kindergarten teacher, a missionary, a music teacher, a famer, and the youngest, Johannes, as a manager of the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont.
“THE SOUND OF MUSIC”
So, how did the family feel about the theatrical productions? Their input to the stage and film versions was very minimal, and more out of courtesy than anything else. The von Trapp’s had sold the rights to their story in the middle 1950’s. In general though, the family was not too greatly disturbed by the modifications of their story made by others. The basic story was intact, but with many, mostly minor, changes.
It was noted earlier that none of the real names of the children were used, and the birth order (by gender) was switched around. The implied date of marriage between Georg and Maria was also incorrect. The film suggests that their marriage was just prior to the 1936 Salzburg Music Festival but it was nine years before that in reality. Maria had two of her own children by 1936 bringing to nine the number of children in the family.
Maria herself was represented as being genuinely naïve and passive in the theatrical roles. In fact, Maria was a dominating, bold, and straight forward person. In later years, the children referred to their step mother as a “force of nature.” She was a college graduate that had been exposed to a wide variety of worldly ideas including socialism and atheism (as mentioned earlier). Maria once wrote of Mary Martin’s and Julie Andrews’s performances that they “were too gentle-like girls out of Bryn Mawr.”
The most distressing characterization for the children was the portrayal of their father. Baron von Trapp was depicted as a detached disciplinarian. The children had always considered their father as a gentle, warm, and caring parent. He tried very hard to keep them protected from the pre-war hysteria. The film also implies that the children were severely regimented at home, and that they had no freedom to sing around the house. In reality, they were all musically inclined, including Georg, long before Maria arrived.
And of course there is the final scene where the family “climbed every mountain” on their way to Switzerland and freedom - this is a complete fabrication (sorry).