Love it or loathe it, sing along or plug your ears and scream, the famous Broadway musical and 1965 movie, ‘The Sound of Music‘, is one of the most famous stories ever recorded and told to the world.
…Recorded? By who?
Although famous for its Hollywood recreation, the true story of the Von Trapp Family, as recorded by Maria Von Trapp herself, is far deeper than the version we see on the screen or watch on the stage. That’s what this posting is about.
Wait. What…It’s REAL?
Yes. It is real. The Von Trapps were an actual Austrian family. There really was a Maria. There really was a captain. And there really were seven children. They really did leave Austria and they really did sing. The Von Trapp Family is still around today, although they’ve largely relocated to the United States of America. So, what parts of the movie-version of their exploits are actually part of their real story? After all, it was their real-life story that inspired the play and the movie. So; what’s fact and what’s fiction? Let’s find out…
“How Do You Solve A Problem like Maria?”
Was there actually a Maria Von Trapp? Did she live in a convent? Was she a nun? Did she become a governess and marry the captain?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes and…Yes.
The real Maria was born Maria Augusta Kutschera on the 26th of January, 1905. She came into the world in a hurry. She didn’t even wait for her mother to get to the hospital…instead, she was born on the train on the way to the Austrian capital of Vienna!
Maria A. Kutschera graduated from the State Teacher’s College of Progressive Education in Vienna, Austria, at the age of 18, wanting to become a teacher or a tutor. The year was 1923. Fate took her down another path, however, and she decided to become a nun at Nonnberg Abbey, just outside the city of Salzburg. While still at the abbey, she took up the post of schoolmistress there and started educating local children.
Nonnberg Abbey, Salzburg, Austria
In 1922, a lady named Agathe Whitehead died, leaving a husband and seven children. In fact, it was one of her children, her daughter (also named Agathe) who killed her, so to speak. Agathe the daughter contracted Scarlet Fever, but survived. She unfortunately passed the disease onto her mother, who died. Leaving her husband without a wife and her children without a mother.
Who was her husband? Captain Georg Von Trapp.
With his wife dead and his daughter still recovering from fever, Georg was desperate for another woman in the house. Someone who could teach Agathe her lessons while she was recuperating from her illness at home. He wrote to Nonnberg Abbey and they sent him…Maria. It’s now 1926 and Agathe has been sick for four years.
Maria was never engaged by the captain to become a governess, as the movie portrays. She was actually engaged as a tutor for the sick daughter, Agathe. And Maria was not the sweet girl seen in the movie. She was a lot firmer with children (as a schoolmistress probably had to be), but she did eventually grow to love Captain Von Trapp. In fact, as time passed, they grew to love each other so much that they decided to prove it in the bedroom. That proof meant that they then had to get married, and they did, on the 26th of November, 1927. Maria was a mere 22 years old, to the captain’s 47, and she was expecting her first baby.
Captain Von Trapp
Captain Von Trapp. The harsh, grumpy, strict, grouchy old man portrayed on the screen by Christopher Plummer. Who was he, really?
He was born Georg Ludwig Ritter Von Trapp on the 4th of April, 1880. Only ‘Ritter’ isn’t one of his names. It’s actually his title. Translated into English, it means ‘Knight’. Georg’s father, August Trapp, was a successful naval officer in the Austo-Hungarian Navy and his actions at sea had been rewarded with a knighthood for him and his descendants. Thereafter, all members of the Trapp Family were styled ‘Von Trapp’.
Georg followed his father into the Navy, while his brother Werner joined the army. He died in 1915 during the First World War. Georg was more fortunate and he led a long and distinguished naval career during the First World War. As a U-boat captain, he sunk or captured over a dozen enemy vessels.
For his actions, Georg was promoted and he retired from the sea with the rank of Korvettenkapitan (‘Corvette Captain’) and a Knight’s Cross medal for valour. The Central Powers lost the Great War and the Austo-Hungarian Empire was broken up. Austria-Hungary became just Austria, losing its coastline and therefore, its navy. Capt. Von Trapp was out of a job.
Georg married his first wife, Agathe Whitehead in 1911. She came from a wealthy family and her fortune allowed Georg and Agatha to start a family. She died in 1922 of scarlet fever.
The Von Trapp Children
There really were seven Von Trapp Children, but their names are not the same as the ones used in the movie and play. In real life, they were…
Werner Von Trapp (1911-2007) – “Kurt” in the movie.
Rupert Von Trapp (1911-1992) – “Friedrich” in the movie.
Agathe Von Trapp (1913-2010) – “Liesel” in the movie.
Maria Von Trapp (1914-Present) – “Louisa” in the movie.
Hedwig Von Trapp (1917-1972) – “Brigitta” in the movie.
Johanna Von Trapp (1919-1994) – “Marta” in the movie.
Martina Von Trapp (1921-1951) – “Gretl” in the movie.
Originally, Maria the tutor was employed purely to teach Agathe so that she wouldn’t fall behind in her schoolwork, but she eventually married the captain and added a further three children to the Von Trapp family, bringing the total number of kids up to TEN (but more about that later).
The Von Trapp Family Singers
The Von Trapp Family really did sing. And just like in the movie, Capt. Von Trapp was fiercely opposed to the idea of his family singing in public. He thought it was degrading and dishonourable. After all, he came from a wealthy, well-respected Austrian family. To, as it were, ‘sing for their supper’ was considered crass and beggarly. While he supported his children’s singing activities in private (he even taught his daughters how to play the guitar), he refused to allow them to sing in public.
…Until he lost all his money.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Georg Ritter Von Trapp made a disastrous decision.
The death of his first wife had left him a considerable fortune. Big enough for him and his children to live in their own mansion with their own staff and gardens, much like what you see in the movie. But what the movie doesn’t tell you is that all this was kind of a facade. In 1935, the Captain lost almost his entire family fortune. It was originally locked away securely in banks in London. But, feeling sorry for a friend who ran a struggling Austrian bank, he deposited the majority of his money into an account at his friend’s bank. As with a lot of things in the Depression, the bank went bust and nearly all of the Von Trapp fortune was wiped out. Previously opposed to the idea, Capt. Von Trapp now saw that his children’s singing talents could be used to give the family fame and hopefully…their fortune back!
Despite what a lot of people think, the song ‘Edelweiss’ is not an Austrian folk-song. It never was. It was a showtune written in the 1950s by Rodgers & Hammerstein for the 1959 musical ‘The Sound of Music‘.But, what actually is ‘Edelweiss’?
The Edelweiss is actually a flower, from the German words “Edel” (‘Noble’) and “Weiss” (‘White’), or literally, ‘Noble Whiteness’.
The Edelweiss is a pure white flower that grows in cold climates at high altitudes in the German and Austrian Alps. The Edelweiss was used extensively as a symbol by German and Austrian soldiers in both of the World Wars. Because the Edelweiss grows at such inhospitable levels (it’s not found in altitudes below 2,000 meters), wearing an Edelweiss was seen as a sign of determination and strength, since the only way to get the flower was to climb the Alps personally and get one.
The Salzburg Festival
There really was a Salzburg music festival, just like the one in the film, and just like in the film, the real Von Trapp Family entered the conpetition. They needed the money badly. The loss of their fortune meant that they had to fire all their servants. They also had to rent out half of their villa to try and generate extra income. The family lived upstairs and the ground floor was used as a boarding-house.
After being discovered, the family toured Austria during the late 1930s, giving concerts where-ever they went. Things were looking up for the Von Trapps. They travelled around Europe, moving from city to city, country to country, earning a living; a necessity, now that the family fortune was gone. But the longer the Von Trapps stayed in Europe (especially Austria), the more uneasy they grew about the rise of Nazism, especially Captain Von Trapp, who was a firm anti-Nazi.
“So Long, Farewell…”
In the movie, the Von Trapps flee Austria after the music festival, hiding in the abbey before driving off into the night and hiking over the mountains into Switzerland and freedom. They were being hunted by the Nazis after all and Georg was likely to be drafted into the German Navy. But was that how it really happened?
After the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to Germany), the Von Trapp family felt increasingly nervous. Captain Von Trapp was a fierce anti-Nazi and he didn’t want to join a Nazi Navy, no matter what kind of salary, title or rank the Germans could offer him, and they had sent him job-offers, which he repeatedly turned down. As far as he was concerned, he was an Austrian and he lived in Austria. Not Germany. He had absolutely no allegiance and no obligation to Germany at all, and that was how it was going to stay. Increasingly uneasy with Nazism and the changing political landscape, the Von Trapps no longer felt safe in Austria and they decided that they just had to leave. So, they packed up their bags and got on the train.
…That’s right. The train.
But how is this possible? If you remember the movie, you’ll remember that the Austrian border was closed and that they can’t get out. But in a twist of fate and using a bit of legal trickery, the Von Trapps were able to leave Austria quite legitimately. How?
Well…It has to do with Capt. Von Trapp’s birth.
See, Capt. Von Trapp was born in the Kingdom of Dalmatia, once part of the larger Austro-Hungarian Empire. To be specific, he was born in the Dalmatian capital city of Zadar. In 1918, Zadar was annexed to Italy. Because Captain Von Trapp was born in Zadar, he could now claim Italian citizenship…as could the rest of his family.
He took advantage of this and so all his family had to do, as Italian citizens, was hop on a train going from Austria to Italy. Easy, huh?
Once they arrived in Italy, the Von Trapps boarded a steamship and sailed first for London, and then for the United States. According to Maria Von Trapp in an interview with her onscreen persona, Julie Andrews, the crossing from England to America took three weeks (22 days exactly), and Maria knew almost no English (although she quickly became fluent during her years in America).
The Von Trapps in America
In the U.S.A., the Von Trapp Family became famous for their singing and they toured America and Europe extensively before the outbreak of WWII. During and after the war, despite their Austrian background, they continued to sing and perform and when the war was over, they even set up charities to help Austrian civilians who had been displaced by the war.
After being pestered repeatedly by friends, Maria Von Trapp wrote down her family’s exploits in a memoir published in 1949. It was this memoir, “The Story of the Von Trapp Family Singers“, that was used for the Broadway musical and the world-famous movie in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1942, the Von Trapp Family moved to the city of Stowe in Vermont (where some of them still live). In 1950, they opened the Trapp Family Lodge, a ski-lodge and holiday resort which was the family home and business. It’s still run by the Von Trapp Family today. On the 20th of December, 1980, the lodge caught fire and burnt to the ground. The Von Trapp family and all the lodge-guests (but one) managed to escape the inferno, including Maria Von Trapp. The destruction of the family lodge allowed the Von Trapps to rebuild it as a traditional Austrian ski-lodge, reminiscent of their homeland.
The Von Trapp Family Today
So whatever became of the Von Trapp Family? Who lived? Who died? When did they stop singing?
Capt. Georg Ritter Von Trapp died in 1947 from cancer. Maria Von Trapp died in 1987 from heart-failure. Of the seven children from the captain’s first marriage, only one (his daughter Maria) is still alive. Of the captain’s three additional children by Maria, all of them are still living. Johannes Von Trapp (the youngest of the ten original Von Trapp Family Singers from the 1930s and 40s) manages the family lodge in Vermont.
The original Von Trapp Family Singers broke up in 1957, but believe it or not, descendants of the Von Trapp Family are still singing, recording and performing today.
The Von Trapp Children (Justin, Amanda, Melanie and Sofia, collectively called ‘JAMS’) are an a’capella group and they are direct descendants of the original Von Trapp Family Singers. Their great-grandparents are Capt. Georg Von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe Whitehead. Their grandfather, Werner Von Trapp, died in 2007. They originally started singing as a treat for their grandfather, but after his death, became a professional singing-group, giving concerts and going on tours. Their repetoire includes religious songs, folk-music, a’capella songs and of course…selections from the musical, ‘The Sound of Music‘.