The Von Trapps Are Back With a New Musical Sound | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
The von Trapp family overlooking Portland, Oregon. (Susan Seubert)

The Von Trapps Are Back With a New Musical Sound

The hills are alive again with a new American generation of the singing family made famous by the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical

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A divided staircase in the middle of an elegant entrance hall painted white. Crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, gold brocade-upholstered furniture, views through spacious windows of manicured lawns leading to a lake. And a baker’s half-dozen of children continually popping up to harmonize.

That, of course, is Sound of Music world, first glimpsed in the 1965 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show, and by now embedded in the brains of most inhabitants of the actual world. The house is the movie studio version of the von Trapp villa near Salzburg, Austria, and the children are the movie studio version of the von Trapp children.

Picture, by contrast, a mostly unfurnished four-bedroom town house in northeast Portland, Oregon. The neighborhood is called Hollywood, which is ironic, because this is real life. The bedrooms are occupied by the real grandchildren of one of the real von Trapp children immortalized in the movie. That would be Kurt, “the incorrigible one,” whose name was actually Werner. The house is unfurnished partly because the four siblings—Sofia (known as Sofi), Melanie, Amanda and August, who range in age from 25 down to 19—haven’t lived there very long, but mostly because they use the house to rest their heads at night and eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. They spend the rest of their time doing a very Sound of Music-y thing. Singing.

They’ve been singing together since they were mere babes, and doing their public “shtick,” as Sofi calls it, for about 13 years: most of their lives, that is.

The road to the town house in Holly­wood started with a decision made years ago by the von Trapp kids’ father, Stefan—son of Werner, grandson of Capt. von Trapp (otherwise known as Christopher Plummer), step-grandson of Maria (Julie Andrews). He had grown up in Vermont with a bunch of cousins, and ultimately decided the atmosphere and the real and cinematic bloodlines were a bit oppressive. With his wife, Annie, he moved far away—to Kalispell, Montana, where he learned stonemasonry skills, opened a business, and had three girls and a boy. Werner would visit in the summer—to the kids he was always “Opa,” German for “grandpa”—and teach them the Austrian folk songs he had sung as a child. One summer he was too ill to make the trip, and the kids recorded their first homemade CD so he could hear it back in Vermont.

In 2001, the New Age pianist George Winston heard the children sing at a festival in Montana, and was impressed enough to have them open for him while he was touring the state. Gradually, they began to get gigs of their own. At the start, their set list consisted of Austrian folk songs and Sound of Music selections. August, who joined his sisters when he was 7, wearing lederhosen to their dirndls, was first soprano.

Stefan had done masonry work for television-series wildlife guru Jack Hanna , who has a house in Montana, and through him became friendly with Wayne Newton, whom the kids knew from the Chevy Chase movie Vegas Vacation. Newton gave them what Amanda calls “amazing advice.”

Thomas Lauderdale of the pop group Pink Martini (at home in Portland, Oregon), a fan of the original von Trapp singers, nurtures the current generation. “When I met them, they were at a crossroads,” he says. “It was perfect timing.” (Susan Seubert)
The von Trapp family. (Susan Seubert)
The von Trapps (with Pink Martini in Portland) see their vocal cohesion as a legacy. “Our grandparents were known for their familial blend,” says Sofi. “People tell us: You sound like one voice.” (Susan Seubert)
The von Trapp family overlooking Portland, Oregon. (Susan Seubert)
The von Trapp family overlooking Portland, Oregon. (Susan Seubert)
After fleeing Austria, the von Trapps began concert tours (from left, daughters Maria, Martina, Hedwig, Agathe and Johanna in New York City, 1938). “The children were wonderful,” their stepmother, Baroness Maria von Trapp, recalled. “I loved them from the start.” (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

“It was right when August’s voice was changing,” Melanie says, “and so you asked him—”

Sofi picks up the story: “Somehow, I asked him how he went through his voice change. Obviously, he had such a high voice. And he said he just kept singing the high notes and he was able to keep his falsetto.”

"It was good advice,” August says, “but man, it was hard. I never knew when my voice would, like explode. It was like a time bomb.”

Touring the country, the siblings began to comprehend the magnitude of the Sound of Music story, and what it meant to people. “After the show, people would come up to us and would be like, ‘I met your grandmother....I heard her sing in this hall 50 years ago,’” Melanie says. “That’s when we started to kind of understand that we were carrying on something.”

“We would hear people say, ‘I saw The Sound of Music when I was 6 years old, and it made me realize what I was going to do with my life,’” Amanda says. “And then they would thank us for something we almost had nothing to do with. That weight of importance always rested on us. We knew it wasn’t just about ourselves.”

But only recently have they hit the big time. In March, they released a new CD, Dream a Little Dream, and embarked on a 24-city tour, both projects collaborations with the eclectic musical group Pink Martini. The CD features guest appearances by Wayne Newton, Jack Hanna (also a musician), Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains. And, on the Sound of Music songs “The Lonely Goatherd” and “Edelweiss” (not real Austrian folk songs, as many think, but Rodgers and Hammerstein concoctions), Charmian Carr, who played Liesl in the film.

It may seem odd, but it’s nonetheless true that the von Trapp family was famous before The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened on Broadway in 1959 and was based on a 1949 book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria von Trapp. This is the same Maria played by Mary Martin on stage and Julie Andrews on screen, a postulant who was hired by Capt. Georg Ritter von Trapp, a widower, as a tutor for one of his children (not a governess for all of them, as in the musical), and ended up marrying him. (That part was true.) As early as 1935, with the encouragement of and under the direction of an Austrian priest, Franz Wasner, Maria and her stepchildren formed a vocal group that performed professionally at the Salzburg Festival; in 1937 they went on a tour of Europe and even made a television appearance on the BBC.

The following year, the Nazis annexed Austria. Because the von Trapps’ former home, the city of Trieste, had become part of Italy, the family possessed Italian passports and used them to get on a train out of the country, eventually settling in the United States. (The musical’s exodus on foot over the mountains is another invention by the librettists, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.) Within the year, accompanied by Father Wasner, they made their first tour of the United States, capped off by a well-received concert in New York’s Town Hall. The New York Times observed, “There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.”

The family lived for a time in Merion, Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Vermont. But from the beginning, the Singers—eventually including the three children of Maria and the Captain—spent a good part of the year touring the country, offering audiences in Iowa or New Mexico exotic and ultimately heartwarming sights and sounds. In a typical concert, the family opened with sacred selections, perhaps a Gregorian chant and a Bach piece, then did an instrumental portion (recorders, spinet and viola da gamba), followed by madrigals. After intermission, they changed into their trademark Austrian outfits—dirndls for the girls, lederhosen for the boys—and did a set of Austrian folk songs, a demonstration of crowd-pleasing yodels and finally a selection of international folk songs.

Part of the appeal of the Trapp Family Singers—they judiciously dropped the “von” after settling in the U.S.—was the contrast they offered to happenings in their native country and neighboring Nazi Germany. The New York Times, reviewing their “picturesque” 1940 holiday Town Hall concert, commented that they “afforded the large audience a glimpse into an Austria, not of storm troopers, but of devout families who sing and make music at home in the evenings.” Feature reporters found they made good copy as well. One 1946 article reported, “In the hotel dining room, the Baroness Maria von Trapp, a tall, strong blue-eyed woman in radiant health, dressed like her daughters and like them, without make-up, firmly pressed our hand, and then introduced us to the Baron, a twinkling-eyed man who looked like Santa Claus with a mustache instead of a beard.”

The tour eventually expanded to as many as 125 performances a year, and according to William Anderson, author of The World of the Trapp Family, became “the most heavily booked attraction in concert history.” He doesn’t cite a source for that assertion, but with their annual tour, RCA Victor recordings, occasional television appearances and Maria’s best-selling memoir, there’s no doubt the von Trapps were a significant cultural institution.

However, by the arrival of the new decade of the ’50s, some of the siblings were marrying and having children and getting into professions like medicine and forestry, making it necessary for non-family ringers to don the dirndls and lederhosen on stage. There was also a sense, among some observers, that the act had worn a little thin. “No matter what they were up to, the Trapps did their work in a tentative, unbending manner—smiling nervously now and then—and the audience, to judge by the applause that followed each number, was pleased by this show of diffidence,” wrote Douglas Watt of the New Yorker, reviewing the 1951 Christmas concert. Watt wasn’t charmed. “There was so much Gemütlichkeit in the air that it began to grow stuffy, and I left before they got to the carols.”

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