The Sound of Music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein is the story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp family in the years prior to World War II. The general ideas are there but Hollywood changed a lot of the details in the interest of “poetic” or “creative” license.
The musical version of Maria portrays her as a devout, yet lively, nun who is preparing to take her vows. Though she means well, she never quite fits in with following all the rules. She has no family so the convent serves as her “family.” She is called upon to be a governess to seven children of a wealthy widower, Navy officer Captain or Baron Georg von Trapp. His strict, no-nonsense, no sense of humor personality gradually fades as he and Maria fall in love.
After they are married, the entire family is asked to sing at a music festival in Salzburg. The concert hall is filled with Nazi officers waiting to “escort” the captain to his new post in the Third Reich. The family performs as if nothing is wrong but secretly make their escape when they go offstage. Nazis are searching for the von Trapps who are hiding at the convent until the immediate danger is over. The family leaves Austria by hiking over the Alps.
In real life, Maria Augusta Kutschera was raised as an atheist and a socialist by a very strict, elderly cousin. Her father had placed her there after her mother died when she was two years old. She grew up in a lonely household with no other children around. One day while studying in Vienna at the State Teachers’ College of Progressive Education, she stepped into a church thinking that she was attending a Bach music concert. She realized it was a Palm Sunday service and a visiting priest was speaking to a standing-room-only crowd. In her autobiography, Maria (1972), she wrote that her uncle had said there “wasn’t a word of truth” in the Bible stories, but hearing the priest speak “just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed.”
Maria entered the convent in Salzburg after her college graduation. Her health began to fail from lack of outdoor activities and fresh air. During this time, Captain von Trapp was looking for a tutor for one of his daughters who was recovering from a serious illness. The Reverend Mother recommended Maria because of her teaching degree and for health reasons. The position would be for 10 months, after which time she would take her vows to become a nun.
According to her book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949), Maria was hired in 1926 to tutor only one of the von Trapp daughters, not all the children. She and the captain were married in 1927, and stayed in Salzburg 11 years before fleeing the Nazi takeover. There were originally seven children but Maria and the captain had three of their own, making a total of 10 von Trapp children.
As in the musical, the family won first place at the 1936 Salzburg Music Festival. Unlike the musical, they did not leave Austria immediately following their festival performance but left in 1938, after Austria was annexed by the Nazis. By then, they were successful and performed all over Europe singing madrigals and folk songs. When they left Austria, they did not hike over the Alps to Switzerland, but got on a train and went to Italy. They traveled with their musical conductor and secretary as if they were on their way to give another concert. Once in Italy, they contacted their American agent and made arrangements to go to the United States.
The family bought a farm in Stowe, Vermont, in the early 1940s and conducted music camps during the summer months from 1944 to 1955. Each camp lasted 10 days with a total of four separate camps during the summer. The captain participated with the rest of the family, often playing the violin, but died in 1947 and was buried on the farm. By 1948, Maria and all the children had become US citizens. The family opened the Trapp Family Lodge in 1950 which still exists today. It is billed as “a mountain resort in the European tradition” and is located in the heart of Vermont ski country.
When Maria sold the film rights, she signed away her own rights. Two successful German movies were made, Die Trapp-Familie (1956) and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958), before the rights were purchased for the American version. The family had practically no say in the storyline of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The one thing Maria really didn’t like when she saw musical was the way her husband was portrayed. He wasn’t anything like the cold, rigid character in the play. He was a kind and “warmhearted parent” who enjoyed family musical events. Maria was the one who had the temper. She thought that Mary Martin, who originated the role on Broadway, and Julie Andrews, in the film, were “too gentle.” Her children compared her temper to “a thunderstorm that would pass.”
Maria von Trapp died March 28, 1987, and is buried in the family cemetery in Stowe, Vermont, next to her husband. The Sound of Music is one of America’s most successful musicals. The movie captured the Austrian scenery and famous buildings in and near Salzburg. Had it not been for the “real” Maria, this beloved musical version of her life would not have been possible.
By Cynthia Collins
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