A new production of The Sound Of Music will be visiting our theatre this summer. As most people probably know, it’s based on a true story – but how close to reality is it?
Published in 1949, The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Von Trapp, inspired no less than three films. First came two German films, The Trapp Family (1956), and The Trapp Family In America (1958). The book was then adapted into a 1949 Broadway musical by the famous duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, before finally becoming the film we all know in 1965.
However, as you might expect, show business took a few liberties with the truth, in the interests of a good story. The bones of the story are correct – Maria, a postulant nun, was employed to teach the children of retired naval captain, Georg Von Trapp, and later married him. The family fled Austria in 1938 after Captain Von Trapp was summoned to join the navy of the Third Reich, following the Nazi take over of the country.
The differences between the Hollywood version and real life are in the details. The real Maria was born Maria Kutschera, in January 1905, on a train between her parents village in the Austrian Tyrol, and a hospital in the Austrian capital Vienna. She was an orphan by the age of seven, and was sent to live with a violent uncle, whom she ran away from. Not quite the isolated and naive girl from the mountains she’s portrayed as in the film, Maria graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna aged 18. A year later, in 1924, she joined the Nonnberg Abbey, in Salzburg, intending to become a nun (the abbey kept no record of postulants, so this information comes solely from Maria’s autobiography).
Maria spent two years as a postulant at the Abbey, working as a school teacher. In 1926, she was asked to teach one of the seven children of the widowed naval commander Georg Von Trapp. Eventually, she began to look after the other children as well, and it was this relationship which prompted Georg – 25 years her senior – to ask her to marry him. As in the film, Maria led back to her convent to ask the advice of the Mother Superior – who informed her that it was clearly God’s will that she should marry Captain Von Trapp.
Since Maria had always been taught to follow God’s will, she did exactly that. But far from the romantic scene shown in the movie, Maria writes that on her wedding day in 1927 she was furious, with both God and her husband, because she really had wanted to be a nun. She says: “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.” The romantics among you will be pleased to hear that she adds that later, “I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”
It is worth noting that that far from the sugar-sweet character portrayed by Julie Andrews in the film, the real Maria’s quick temper and strong will were a matter of family legend. Her son Johannes (born after the family moved to America) said “She was a complex person, incredibly strong with a formidable will, literally an indomitable will. And sometimes running into that will was not so pleasant.” He put her sometimes difficult personality down to an unhappy childhood. Maria herself said that the portrayal of her in the film and the Broadway musical it was based on was, “too gentle – I was a wild creature.”
Johannes was the third and youngest child of Maria and the captain. Two daughters were born to the couple in 1929 and 1931. As you will have spotted if you know the film well, it compresses events which really took place over many years into a very small time frame. Another difference lies in the circumstances in which the family began their singing careers. In 1935, the bank in which Georg’s savings were held collapsed, part of the global financial crisis caused by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The family faced financial ruin – they sent away their servants, moved into just one floor of their home, and began to let the remaining rooms to students. Giving concerts was a useful way of earning extra money.
Life became increasingly difficult for the family as the Nazis began to take control of Austria – as in the film, Georg refused to fly the Nazi flag on his house – and they eventually made the decision to leave Austria. They did not, however, flee in secret by climbing over the mountains. They took the train, having told their friends and family (although not the authorities) that they were leaving.
The family settled in Vermont, in America, where as well as continuing their singing careers, they bought a hotel. Two of Maria’s stepsons even served in the American army during negotiations the Second World War. Post-war, Maria’s autobiography (published in 1949, two years after Georg’s death from lung cancer) was a best-seller, and the family’s fame grew after the release of the 1965 film. Despite her disapproval over the portrayal of her, Maria makes a cameo appearance in the film – she can be seen in the background alongside one of her daughters and a grand-daughter during the song I Have Confidence. The family’s continuing fame even led to them performing alongside Elvis Presley.
Maria died in 1987, aged 82, survived by her three children, and numerous grandchildren and step-grandchildren. The hotel the family bought in Vermont is still owned and run by the Trapp family.
The Sound Of Music: Monday 25 to Saturday 30 July. Book here.