The Real Von Trapps – A Favorite Musical vs. the History
The first time I saw “the Sound of Music,” I fell in love. Not just with that happy-go-lucky story (quite a boast for a movie with Nazis), but also with Salzburg. The mountains that drew Maria to their wild peaks also had a powerful hold on me. So much that the opening sequence, where the camera just sweeps over Austria’s beauty, has always been my favorite part.
Although, to be honest, I didn’t believe it really looked like that. I’ve been around film and its “movie magic” for too long. The mountains couldn’t possibly be that green. The waters wouldn’t be that clear. In this day and age, no village is that picturesque. I was a cold, hard skeptic. So, I made myself a promise. Someday, I would go and see it with my own eyes – no “fixing it in post,” and no movie magic.
In the summer of 2018, I did see Salzburg in person, and it was more delicious than a crisp apple strudel. We saw the gazebo where Liesl and Rolf (damn him) enjoyed some flirtatious telegram talk. We stood on the Do-Re-Mi stairs, we ran through the tunnel of vines, and we even played in that delightful fountain.
And those mountains shadowed it all. Those MOUNTAINS. They were just as breathtaking as they were in the movie. The whole place was. As I stood on a bridge over a bubbling river, and I took in the grand panorama of Salzburg, the REAL Salzburg, all I could think was:
“The hills are alive with the sound of music!”
So, Hollywood got one right for a change. However, the Sound of Music didn’t just immortalize a real place. It also told the story of real people. There was an actual Captain Von Trapp. He did marry a nun-in-training named Maria. They really had a family of singing children that wowed the world at the outbreak of World War II.
I had put one mystery to rest, but the other soon consumed me. How did Hollywood do with the people? As much as I love Julie Andrews, I couldn’t count on a whimsical movie for the facts any longer. So, I went straight to the source. Maria Von Trapp herself. I found a copy of her book, “The Story of the Von Trapp Singers,” published in 1949. Like the movie, it was a wild ride.
With any story though, it’s best to start at the beginning – a very good place to start – and this story starts with Captain Georg Von Trapp. Born in 1880, the first world war saw him burst out of the ranks of anonymity. He made a name for himself with submarines in the Austrian Navy, conducting them with incredible valor at a time when they were… well, unreliable at best. He did so well that the Austrians made him a knight, then a baron. He married a young woman named Agathe Whitehead, the daughter of the torpedo’s inventor, Robert Whitehead. They had a wonderful marriage that produced seven children.
A fairy tale and then some, but things unraveled after the Great War. Austria lost control of all its seaports, which forced the Captain into early retirement. A few years later, scarlet fever made a house call and stole away his bride. Her death left him and the children devastated. They couldn’t bear to live in the same place where they had once been so happy. Georg sold his estate in Pola (modern-day Croatia) and bought a secluded villa in Salzburg.
He lived a life of wealth and comfort in Austria. When he was home, he lavished the children with gifts and gave them the best he could (not quite the stone-cold father figure the first half of the movie portrays him as). However, heartbreak still cast a heavy cloud over him. He left home a lot for business, and various household staff cared for the children. It is true that they went about in sailor suits, and occasionally had to answer to whistle commands.
Well, when anyone is down and out, enter Maria and her iconic guitar. She was born in Vienna in 1905. Orphaned young, she landed in the home of an abusive relative who raised her on atheist and socialist ideals. An odd combination for a future Catholic nun! As it turns out, her religious calling came from an honest mistake. She attended a Palm Sunday service thinking it was a Bach concert. The Priest’s powerful sermon knocked her off her feet, and she experienced a religious rebirth. The experience proved such an overhaul that after college, she entered the Benedictine Abbey in Salzburg as a Novice, which is sort of like a nun with training wheels.
According to her book, Maria was indeed a bit of a problem child at the Abbey. I’m not sure about curlers in her wimple, but she definitely waltzed on the stairs, got lost in the mountains, and didn’t always keep to the strict protocols of nun life. She also suffered severe headaches and nausea, which the other nuns attributed to altitude sickness. They decided she needed some time at lower elevation, so they sent her to serve as governess to the sick child of Captain Von Trapp. After a few months, she would return to the Abbey and take her permanent vows.
We all know what happens next. I mean, who wouldn’t swoon over Christopher Plummer’s iconic portrayal of Captain Von Trapp? Well, here comes the first dagger, Sound of Music Fans. Love of the Captain didn’t bring about the marriage. “It was the children I fell in love with,” Maria wrote in her book.
She began in the Von Trapp household as governess for just one of the children, Maria. The little girl who shared her name was bed ridden with the lingering effects of scarlet fever. The two bonded fast, and the other children took to Governess Maria as well. She encouraged them in play and organized games and adventures in the estate’s lavish garden. And yes, she pushed for them to have play clothes, although they didn’t come from curtains. She also used her guitar to teach them a plethora of Austrian folk songs, and they passed many evenings cementing their bonds through music.
While Maria fell in love with the children, the Captain began to fall for her. At the time, he had planned to marry a Princess Yvonne (the Baroness Schraeder equivalent). However, the more he got to know his charming governess, the harder he fell. He soon broke off his engagement and went after Maria. When he asked to marry her, she was hesitant. She wasn’t ready to give up the religious life. When she sought the advice of the nuns, they surprised her. They wanted her to accept the proposal and be the loving mother those children deserved. “Climb every mountain,” they said. (Just kidding, they didn’t say that).
So, swooning didn’t make Maria blush quite the way it does in the film, but she still married Captain Von Trapp in 1927. Don’t despair though, because the love for him did come. Later in life, after ten children and all their adventures together, Maria said of her dashing Captain – “I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”
So, we know the man and the woman a little bit better, but what of the children? Yes, there were seven (to start), but that’s about all the movie got right. Let’s start by correcting their names. The eldest was not a smart-mouthed young lady lusting after a telegram boy (although if there was no Liesl, we can assume there was no Rolf. Because damn him). Instead, it was a young man named Rupert, and he pursued medicine as a vocation. Then came Agathe and Maria. Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina rounded out the seven. More little birdies joined the nest later, and seven children eventually grew into ten.
The Von Trapp household saw other changes too. For starters, the Captain stayed home a lot more. Church and religious worship wove their way in to the routine. The family especially enjoyed reading scripture together during Advent. Maria continued organizing musical time for the children as well as education and playtime. They had plenty of money and overall, they had very few worries.
Until the Nazis…. (DAMN you Rolf).
I’m sure you’re wondering about that whole thing where the Von Trapps make a dramatic escape from the Salzburg Music Festival, and then climb over the mountains to make it to neutral Switzerland. Well, some of it is fact – and some of it is purebred Tinsel-Town fiction. Let’s sort it all out, and to do that, we have to start with the collapse of the global economy in the 1930s.
Those depression years deeply impacted people everywhere, and the Von Trapps were no exception. A few years before, the Captain had taken his money out of a bank in England and given it to a local bank to help boost their business. He came to regret this when the bank failed, and a family of wealth and comfort suddenly found themselves destitute.
The Captain didn’t take it well, but Maria tried to find the silver lining (“I have confidence in sunshine!”) In this case, she found ample beads of hope in her children. Without a word of complaint, they pitched in around the house, and they put their talented fingers to making and cooking things. Even Rupert, in medical school at the time, did not despair. He happily worked his way through school instead of relying on family funds.
If households could live on love alone, the Von Trapps would have remained wealthy. However, they had to find some money too. Maria turned to the abbey for support, and they advised her to go to the Archbishop to ask permission to put a chapel on her property. Then, the Von Trapps could board a priest, as well as students from the nearby Catholic University.
The arrangement ended up providing so much more than money. The priest they boarded, Father Wasman, also happened to be a masterful musician. An expert on the organ and piano, he knew a thing or two about choral vocals. He took to coaching the Von Trapps during their nightly singing escapades, and that eventually earned him the position of their music manager (not the dashing Max from the movie – but close enough).
The family also came in contact with a parade of literary masters and other musicians. Musicians that quickly recognized the unique ability of their hosts. It is in fact rare for an entire family to be blessed with such musical gifts, and one boarder took immediate notice.
Lotte Lehmann, a very famous German soprano, came by to inquire about renting a room when she stumbled on a Von Trapp family singing session. What she saw and heard rocked her to the core. “Oh, children, children, you must not keep that for yourselves… You must give concerts… You simply have gold in your throats.”
The idea had never appealed to the family before. They saw music as a private family ritual. Stepping on a public stage horrified them, the Captain most of all.
However, Lehmann wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she arranged for the family to perform at an Austrian summer festival for musicians – a singing contest, to be exact (sound familiar?) Against the high-flying protests of the Captain, the rest of the family agreed. The very next day, they walked out on their very first stage (minus the Captain – he stayed in the audience).
They were, in a word, a sensation. They also won first prize in the contest by a landslide. The Von Trapp Family Singers were born.
And when there’s a new act in town, word spreads fast. The Von Trapps were asked to come and sing on the Salzburg radio station. They agreed, and it just so happened the Chancellor of the Austrian Republic listened to their broadcast. Just like Lotte Lehmann, the family’s talent enraptured him. He insisted on having them sing for a state reception of dignitaries, diplomats, and military personnel. Right after that high-profile event, the Von Trapps got booked to perform at the world-famous Salzburg Summer Music Festivals.
Practically overnight, the Von Trap Family Singers became professional musicians, with a star fast on the rise, but we can’t forget about the Nazis… (DAMN YOU, ROLF!) The Third Reich marched into Vienna in 1938, and Anschluss followed on their heels. The Von Trapps, like every other family in Austria, were now exiles in their own country. Captain Von Trapp took that especially hard, because just like in the movie, he was an ardent Austrian patriot. “Austria,” he lamented when he heard the news. “You are not dead…This is only a sleep. We promise you to do all we can to help you wake up again.”
The changes came hard and fast. Friends and Neighbors turned into spies. Even the family’s long-time butler announced his allegiance to the Nazi Party. Nazi flags hung from every house in Salzburg. Just like in the movie, the Captain refused to to hang any swastikas at his house, and the Nazis did try to force the issue. One went so far as to come by the house. Georg reminded him he had no money to buy a flag. When the Nazi officer produced a huge, scarlet, brand new Swastika Flag, Georg remained unmoved. “You know, I don’t like the color. It’s too loud. But if you want me to decorate my house, I have beautiful oriental rugs. I can hang one from every window.”
I don’t know if you are familiar with flag insults, but comparing a flag to a rug is um… not in accordance with flag decorum. It was a dangerous insult at a dangerous time, but it was only the first in a long line of them from the family Von Trapp. The next came from their young daughter Lorli, who repeated some of her father’s complaints about the Nazis at school. The Captain provided another, when he refused a prominent position with the German submarines in the Navy. Rupert handed Hitler’s regime yet another slap in the face, when he turned down a position serving with Nazi doctors in Vienna.
A phone call from Munich poised the final nail in the coffin. The Von Trapp Family Singers had been chosen to perform at Adolf Hitler’s birthday party.
Since the Nazis probably wouldn’t swallow another Von Trapp insult, the family had a choice to make. The Captain worded it most elegantly. “Children… do we want to keep… our home with the ancient furniture, our friends, and all the things we are fond of? Then we shall have to give up the spiritual goods… We can’t have both anymore.” He meant simply that if they refused the concert, they would have to leave Austria.
Which is exactly what they did. A dramatic choice, but in real life, it wasn’t as dramatic as climbing over the mountains and sneaking into Switzerland. The family just traveled to the border of Austria and Italy (by train) under the guise of mountain climbing, and they arrived just in the nick of time. The day after they left, the Austrian borders closed. Meanwhile, while not exactly languishing at the border, Georg wrote a letter to an American contact who had once asked the family to perform there. They waited for weeks in a tiny border town for the money and tickets to travel. After it all came through, they took another train to England, and from there, they went to America.
But the drama didn’t end there. As it turns out, “the Sound of Music” is just one freeze frame in the crazy Von Trapp feature film. In America, then in Europe again, then back in America, their lives were an Austrian Mountain Range of ups and downs. They inched along as musicians, with very little money, in a foreign country, during wartime, with only visitor visas. Two of their sons served in the war while the family struggled to put down new roots. They continued their demanding concert schedule which took them all over the United States. They also started a Von Trapp music camp in the mountains of Vermont.
After the war, the family got both their sons back, but they learned their Salzburg home had been commandeered by Heinrich Himmler. He had used it as a summer home, where even Hitler had visited on occasion, and eye soar SS barracks still occupied the property. The Von Trapps could not return to a place with such bloody handprints on it, so they sold it. It became a monastery for awhile, but in 1992, another company purchased it and converted it into a hotel. By 2008, “Villa Trapp” played host to countless visitors and tourists.
As for the family, they settled in the mountains of Vermont, where Captain Von Trapp died in 1947. The rest of the family became US citizens and continued in music until 1957. After the children went their own ways, Maria returned to the Vermont mountains and ran a lodge until she died in 1987.
So, the real-life story is somewhat different than happy sing-alongs. But it always is, isn’t it? However, the movie did one thing absolutely right. It forever cemented the legacy of the Von Trapp Family singers. They dumped everything they knew for a life lived on a fragile thread, because they refused to compromise their morals. That story deserves to be told.
So, the next time I watch that movie that’s always been a favorite, I will just smile even bigger. Because now I know the real Maria, her real family, and their very real faith that saw them through an awful lot. To me, that is just as magical as hills that are alive with the sound of music.
“The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” – M.A. Trapp
“Maria” – M.V. Trapp
The National Archives Website
Villa Trapp Official Website
For more photos from our trip through Austria and Europe – click here