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The Real-Life Story of Maria von Trapp

‘The Sound of Music’ was based on the true story of her life, but took a few liberties

Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp in a publicity photo for 'The Sound of Music,' the musical that debuted on Broadway on this day in 1959. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

“The hills are alive….” you know the rest.

The Sound of Music is an iconic film based on an iconic play that made its Broadway debut on this day in 1959. It chronicles the life of Maria von Trapp,whose aspiration to become a nun gets derailed when she becomes a governess to the von Trapp children. Both the musical and the film were massive successes. Both were based on the true story of Maria von Trapp’s life.

The musical, and then the movie, were both based on a book published by von Trapp in 1949 titled The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. That book told the story of how Maria Augusta Kutschera grew up as an orphan raised by a court-appointed guardian before entering a convent as a novitiate and being sent by its abbess to tutor one of the children of Baron Georg von Trapp (in the version you're probably familiar with, she becomes governess to all the children.)

The baron was “a highly decorated submarine commander during World War I,” wrote Peter Kerr for The New York Times in von Trapp’s 1987 obituary, “who had retired with his seven children after his first wife’s death. The young woman quickly won the affection of the children and, when the Baron proposed marriage, she was torn between her devotion to the church and the family.”

In the end, the family won out and she married the Baron in November 1927, Kerr wrote.

maria.jpg
The real-life von Trapp family. Maria is seated in the middle holding a baby. (Library of Congress)

“In the mid-1930s the family began singing German and liturgical music under the tutelage of the Reverend Franz Wasner, who continued as their director,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “In 1937 they made their first European tour as professional singers—the Trapp Family Choir.”

The next year, they escaped from Austria, which had been annexed by the Nazis, because they did not want to be complicit in the regime and wanted to continue singing. The family eventually settled in America, where their first major concert took place in New York on December 10, 1938. “In a review of their performance,” Kerr writes, “The New York Times commented:”

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.

Their fame only spread, and the family performed internationally until 1955. Von Trapp continued to work on music and faith-related projects throughout her life, although according to Kerr, only made about $500,000 in royalties when the blockbuster film about her life came out. However, she believed that the film would help restore people’s faith in God, one of her personal priorities, and do “great good” by spreading hope.

As with anything “based on a true story,” The Sound of Music diverged from von Trapp’s life in a number of places. For instance, writes Joan Gearin for the National Archives, the family was already musical before Maria came along.

Additionally, “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, warm-hearted parent who enjoyed musical activities with his family,” she writes. “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.”

What’s more, the von Trapp family’s daring escape from Austria didn’t involve walking over the Alps singing and lugging their belongings. The Baron’s daughter Maria von Trapp said,“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."

Perhaps the biggest difference, Gearin writes? The real-life Maria von Trapp “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.”

Wonder how Julie Andrews would have handled that role.

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