Of course we all know that most of what we see on stage and screen are romanticized versions of life — but how much does it differ from the truth, such as in the case of the von Trapp family, and the hugely-successful musical based on their lives, The Sound of Music? Initially a 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the 1965 film of the same name was a huge success, won five Academy Awards, and is considered the third highest-grossing film of all-time at the North American box office (when adjusted for inflation). 2013’s “Live” TV version, starring Stephen Moyer & Carrie Underwood, was a huge ratings hit, too.
Much of the movie’s popularity owes a lot to the fact that, here in the USA, we like our stories sweet — and you don’t get much sweeter than seeing Julie Andrews twirling in the lush, green hills, singing her little heart out. But if you’ve ever wondered how anyone could possibly have had truly lived such a perfect existence… well, your skepticism was well-placed.
Make no mistake: The Sound of Music is wonderful in its own right as both entertainment and art. But if you’ve ever wondered about the story behind the story, below we list some of the differences — changes made, facts overlooked and alterations made — when the von Trapp family’s tale was preempted with a shinier, happier and simpler version.
And a hat tip: Much of the information below is from/adapted from an article by Joan Gearin, a very talented archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. – NJP
The von Trapps & The Sound of Music: Fact vs fiction
1) Let’s do a recount: In total, there were ten, not seven, von Trapp children. To be fair, seven were born before Georg and Maria met, then the man and his new bride had three little ones of their own.
2) What’s that name? The names, ages, and sexes of the children were altered for The Sound of Music. In the play/movie, the children were (from oldest to youngest) Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta & Gretl. In real life, the kids were Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina. Later additions were Rosmarie, Eleonore (aka Lorli) and Johannes.
3) What happened to their first mother? That’s one of the saddest (and somewhat ironic) parts of the story: Georg Ritter von Trapp’s first wife was named Agathe Whitehead, but she died in 1922 from scarlet fever… which, according to her daughter Maria, she contracted from her children.
4) A teacher, not a nanny: Maria originally came to the von Trapp family in 1926 as a tutor for one of the children (the aforementioned Maria) who was recovering from scarlet fever — not to actually be a governess to all the children.
5) Do, re, mi: The family was musically-inclined before Maria arrived, but she did teach them to sing madrigals, and, of course, helped propel them into a singing career.
6) Maria’s early years: The woman played by Julie Andrews — originally named Maria Augusta Kutschera — was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905. She was orphaned as a young child and was raised as an atheist and socialist by an abusive relative. While attending the State Teachers’ College of Progressive Education in Vienna, she says she accidentally attended a Palm Sunday service, believing it to be a concert of Bach music. There, however, a priest was speaking… and his words resonated with the young woman.
7) A problem like Maria? Years later, she recalled in her autobiography Maria, “Now I had heard from my uncle that all of these Bible stories were inventions and old legends, and that there wasn’t a word of truth in them. But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed.” Soon after, Maria graduated from college, and as a result of her religious awakening, she entered the Benedictine Abbey (convent) of Nonnberg in Salzburg as a novice. While she struggled with the unaccustomed rules and discipline, she later noted that those two years “were really necessary to get my twisted character and my overgrown self-will cut down to size.”
8) Climb Ev’ry Mountain: While in the convent, Maria’s health suffered from not getting the exercise and fresh air to which she was accustomed. When Georg von Trapp approached the Reverend Mother of the Abbey seeking a teacher for his sick daughter, Maria was chosen — partly because of her training and skill as a teacher, but also out of concern for her health. She was supposed to remain with the von Trapps for just ten months, at the end of which she would formally enter the convent.
9) Where’s the love? Those ten months turned into a lifetime. Maria and Georg married in 1927, eleven years before the family left Austria — not right before the Nazi takeover of Austria. Maria did not marry Georg von Trapp because she was in love with him. As she said in her autobiography Maria, she fell in love with the children at first sight, not their father. When he asked her to marry him, she was not sure if she should abandon her religious calling but was advised by the nuns to do God’s will and marry Georg. “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… [B]y and by I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”
10) Edelweiss more his style: Georg, far from being the detached, cold-blooded patriarch of the family who disapproved of music, as portrayed in the first half of The Sound of Music, was actually a gentle, warmhearted parent who enjoyed musical activities with his family. While this change in his character might have made for a better story in emphasizing Maria’s healing effect on the von Trapps, it distressed his family greatly.
11) Not everything was raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens: Though she was a caring and loving person, Maria wasn’t always as sweet as the fictional Maria. She tended to erupt in angry outbursts consisting of yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors. Her feelings would immediately be relieved and good humor restored, while other family members, particularly her husband, found it less easy to recover. In her 2003 interview, the younger Maria confirmed that her stepmother “had a terrible temper… And from one moment to the next, you didn’t know what hit her. We were not used to this. But we took it like a thunderstorm that would pass, because the next minute she could be very nice.”
12) Cost-cutting measures led to new endeavors: The family lost most of its wealth through the worldwide depression when their bank failed in the early 1930s. Maria tightened belts all around by dismissing most of the servants and taking in boarders. It was around this time that they began considering making the family hobby of singing into a profession. Georg was reluctant for the family to perform in public, “but accepted it as God’s will that they sing for others,” daughter Eleonore said in a 1978 Washington Post interview. “It almost hurt him to have his family onstage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one.” As depicted in The Sound of Music, the family won first place in the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936 and became successful, singing Renaissance and Baroque music, madrigals and folk songs all across Europe.
13) Why they left their homeland: When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, the von Trapps realized that they were on thin ice with a regime they abhorred. Georg not only refused to fly the Nazi flag on their house, but he also declined a naval command and a request to sing at Hitler’s birthday party. They were also becoming aware of the Nazis’ anti-religious propaganda and policies, the pervasive fear that those around them could be acting as spies for the Nazis, and the brainwashing of children against their parents. They weighed staying in Austria and taking advantage of the enticements the Nazis were offering — greater fame as a singing group, a medical doctor’s position for Rupert, and a renewed naval career for Georg — against leaving behind everything they knew, and ultimately decided that they could not compromise their principles and left.
14) So Long, Farewell: The family did not secretly escape over the Alps to freedom in Switzerland, carrying their suitcases and musical instruments. As daughter Maria said in a 2003 interview printed in Opera News, “We did tell people that 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.”
15) How they made it to America: Traveling with their musical conductor, Rev. Franz Wasner, and secretary, Martha Zochbauer, they went by train to Italy in June, later to London, and by September were on a ship to New York to begin a concert tour in Pennsylvania. Son Johannes was born in January 1939 in Philadelphia. When their six months visitors’ visas expired, they went on a short Scandinavian tour and returned to New York in October 1939. They were held at Ellis Island for investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, apparently because when asked by an official how long they intended to stay, instead of saying “six months,” as specified on their visas, Maria exclaimed, “Oh, I am so glad to be here — I never want to leave again!” The Story of the Trapp Family Singers notes that they were released after a few days and began their next tour.
16) On the film rights: Sadly, the von Trapps never saw much of the huge profits The Sound of Music made. Maria sold the film rights to German producers and inadvertently signed away her rights in the process. The resulting films, Die Trapp-Familie (1956), and a sequel, Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958), were quite successful. The American rights were bought from the German producers. The family had very little input in either the play or the movie The Sound of Music. As a courtesy, the producers of the play listened to some of Maria’s suggestions, but no substantive contributions were accepted.
17) How did the von Trapps feel about The Sound of Music? While Maria was grateful that there wasn’t any extreme revision to the story she wrote in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and that she herself was represented fairly accurately (although Mary Martin and Julie Andrews “were too gentle — like girls out of Bryn Mawr,” she told the Washington Post in 1978), she wasn’t pleased with the portrayal of her husband. The children’s reactions were similar. As Johannes von Trapp said in a 1998 New York Times interview, “it’s not what my family was about… [We were] about good taste, culture, all these wonderful upper-class standards that people make fun of in movies like ‘Titanic.’ We’re about environmental sensitivity, artistic sensitivity. ‘Sound of Music’ simplifies everything. I think perhaps reality is at the same time less glamorous but more interesting than the myth.”
18) How the family’s tale continued: Their patriarch died in 1947, and was buried in the family cemetery. Their Trapp Family Lodge opened to guests in 1950. While fame and success continued for the Trapp Family Singers, they decided to stop touring in 1955. By that point, the group consisted mostly of non-family members, as many of the von Trapps wanted to pursue other endeavors. Reportedly, only the elder Maria’s iron will had kept the group together for so long.
19) And later in the story: In 1956, Maria, Johannes, Rosmarie, and daughter Maria went to New Guinea to do missionary work. Later, Maria ran the Trapp Family Lodge for many years. Of the children, Rupert became a medical doctor; Agathe was kindergarten teacher in Maryland; Maria was a missionary in New Guinea for 30 years; Werner was a farmer; Hedwig taught music; Johanna married and eventually returned to live in Austria; Martina married but tragically died in childbirth; Rosmarie and Eleonore both settled in Vermont; while Johannes managed the Trapp Family Lodge. Maria died in 1987, and was buried alongside Georg and Martina.
20) How the legacy lives on: In addition to the movie, TV production, stage plays, etc., you can stay at the historic landmark Villa Trapp in Austria (“Where it all began”), or book a stay at the Trapp Family Lodge, “a unique, four-season resort specializing in European-style accommodations and cuisine, spectacular mountain vistas, upscale amenities, and outdoor activities.”
PHOTOS: Image 1: Julie Andrews as Maria; inset: The von Trapp family with their ten children. Image 2: The von Trapp wedding in 1927; Inset: Julie Andrews in a bridal gown in the The Sound of Music movie. Image 3: Clockwise from left – The real Baron & Mrs von Trapp, the couple as depicted by Julie Andrews & Christopher Plummer in the 1965 film, and the couple as portrayed by Stephen Moyer & Carrie Underwood in the TV movie in 2013. Image 4: The von Trapp Family Singers in 1941, the same as they appeared in The Sound of Music movie.