The Real Von Trapps – A Favorite Musical vs. the History
The first time I saw “the Sound of Music,” I was 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 so that the opening sequence, where they just sweep over Austria’s beauty, was 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.
Well, 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.
Shadowing it all were those mountains. 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 sweeping 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, it wasn’t just a real place that the Sound of Music immortalized. It was also 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 – and I suppose this one starts with Captain Georg Von Trapp. He was born in 1880, and the first world war saw him burst out of the ranks of anonymity. His calling was submarines in the Austrian Navy, and he conducted them with incredible valor at a time when they were… well, unreliable at best. He did so well that he was first made 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.
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. He was so devastated, as were the children, that they couldn’t bear to be 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 he was portrayed as in the movie’s first half). However, heartbreak still cast a heavy cloud over him. He was gone a lot for business, and the children were left in the care of various household staff. It is true that sailor suits were their main attire, and they were occasionally ordered around via whistle.
Well, when anyone is down and out, enter Maria and her iconic guitar. She was born in Vienna in 1905. Orphaned young, she was 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 about from an honest mistake. She attended a Palm Sunday service thinking it was a Bach concert. She was incredibly moved by the priest’s sermon, and she experienced a religious rebirth. It was 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.
Well, 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. It wasn’t love of the Captain that brought about the marriage. “It was the children I fell in love with,” Maria wrote in her book.
Her job upon arrival was governess for just one of them, 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 her 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 fell for her. At the time, it was expected that he would 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 to Yvonne and went after Maria. When he asked to marry her, she was hesitant. She wasn’t ready to give up the religious life she craved. When she sought the advice of the nuns, she was in for a surprise. 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, it wasn’t swooning that brought about the marriage in 1927 – at least, not on Maria’s part. Don’t despair though, because the love for him would come. Later in life, after ten children and all their adventures together, Maria would say 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, 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 who lusted after a telegram boy (although at least if there was no Liesl, we can assume there was no Rolf. Because damn him). Instead, it was a young man named Rupert who pursued medicine as a vocation. There was also Agathe, Maria (whom our nun was originally hired to teach), Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina. After the marriage, more little birdies joined the nest, and seven children eventually grew into ten.
The Von Trapp household saw other changes too. For starters, the Captain was home a lot more. Church and religious worship were woven in to their routines, and they especially enjoyed reading scripture together during Advent. Maria continued in organizing musical time for the children as well as education and playtime. They had plenty of money and overall, they had very few worries.
But then came the Nazis…. (DAMN you Rolf).
I’m sure you’re wondering about that whole thing where they make a dramatic escape from the Salzburg Music Festival, and then they 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 had a deep impact on people everywhere, and the Von Trapps were no exception. A few years before, the Captain had taken all of his money out of a bank in England and had instead given it to a local bank to try and boost the business there. He came to regret this when the bank failed, and a family who was quite used to 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, it was her children. She was immensely proud of how well they adjusted. 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 was more than happy to work his way through 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.
It was an arrangement that would bring in so much more than money. The priest they boarded, Father Wasman, also happened to be a masterful musician. He was an expert on the organ and piano, and he knew a thing or two about choral vocals. He was happy to coach the Von Trapps during their nightly singing escapades, a skill that would eventually earn him the position of their music manager (not the dashing Max in the movie – but close enough).
The family also came into contact with a parade of literary masters and other musicians. Musicians that 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.
Her name was Lotte Lehmann, and she was a very famous German soprano. She came by to inquire about renting a room when she stumbled on a Von Trapp family singing session. She was beyond moved by what she heard. “Oh, children, children, you must not keep that for yourselves… You must give concerts… You simply have gold in your throats.”
It was an idea that had never appealed to the family before. They saw their music as a private family ritual. The idea of stepping on a public stage horrified all of 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 stepped 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 soon asked to appear on the Salzburg radio station. They agreed, and it just so happened that the Chancellor of the Austrian Republic was listening to their broadcast. He, like Lotte Lehmann before him, was enraptured by what he heard. He had to have the incredible singing family for his state reception of dignitaries, diplomats, and military personnel. Right after that high-profile event, the Von Trapps were booked to perform at the world-famous Salzburg Summer Music Festivals.
Practically overnight, the Von Trap Family Singers were professional musicians, whose star was 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 was quick to follow. The Von Trapps, like every other family in Austria, were now exiles in their own country. It was an especially bad blow to Captain Von Trapp, who just like in the movie, 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 were fast and wide-spread. Friends and Neighbors were turned into spies. Even the family’s own long-time butler announced his allegiance to the Nazi Party. Nazi flags were ordered to be hung from every house in Salzburg. Just like in the movie, this was a big problem for the Captain, and the Nazis did try to force him to hang a flag. One went so far as to come by the house. Georg explained that he had no money to buy a flag. The Nazi answered by producing a huge, spanking new swastika flag, just for him.
George refused to hang it – right to his face. “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… well, 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 to come from the family Von Trapp. The next was from their young daughter Lorli, who repeated some of her father’s complaints about the Nazis at school. Another came from the Captain, when he refused a prominent position with the German submarines in the Navy. Still another slap in the face came from Rupert, who, fresh out of medical school, turned down a position serving with Nazi doctors in Vienna.
The final nail in the coffin came with a phone call from Munich. The Von Trapp Family Singers had been chosen to perform at Adolf Hitler’s upcoming birthday party.
Since the Nazis were unlikely to swallow another Von Trapp insult, the family had a choice to make. Captain Von Trapp 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 was implying 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. Rather, they just traveled to the border of Austria and Italy (by train) under the guise of mountain climbing, and it was just in time. Because the day after they left, the Austrian borders closed. Meanwhile, Georg wrote a letter to an American contact who had once wanted the family to perform concerts there. They waited for weeks in a tiny town on the border 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.
I’m here to tell you that 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 were struggling musicians, with very little money, in a foreign country, during wartime, with only visitor visas. Two of their sons would serve in the war while the family struggled to put down new roots. They continued their demanding concert schedule which took them all over the country. 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 that their Salzburg home had been commandeered by Heinrich Himmler. He had used it as a summer home, and SS barracks were put on the property. Even Hitler had visited on occasion. The Von Trapps could not return to a home with such bloody handprints on it, so they sold it. It became a monastery for a long while, but in 1992, it was purchased by another company who converted it into a hotel. As of 2008, visitors are now allowed on the property, known as “Villa Trapp.”
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 they continued in music until 1957. After the children went on with their own lives, Maria returned to the Vermont mountains and ran a lodge out of there until she died in 1987.
So, it turns out that the real-life story is somewhat different than happy sing-alongs. It always is, isn’t it? However, it 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 is a story that 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