There’s a lot more to the Trapp Family Singers than you’ll find in The Sound of Music, one of the most beloved (and lucrative) movies of all time.
In the film, an Austrian novitiate named Maria leaves the convent temporarily to work as a governess for the seven children of Georg von Trapp, a wealthy widower. She sings with the children and plays outdoors with them. The widower and the novitiate fall in love as Hitler rises to power. They win the Salzburg Festival and start singing professionally. Finally they decide to flee when Hitler annexes Austria. In the final scene, they carry their luggage to freedom over the Alps.
The broad outlines of the story are true. Baron Georg von Trapp was indeed a widower, and Maria a young novitiate. The von Trapp family did live in Salzburg and they did sing professionally, starting in 1934.
The rest of the real story takes place elsewhere. They toured internationally, then arrived in the United States in late 1938 with little money. They continued performing to critical and popular acclaim. Within four years they could buy a 660-acre farm in Stowe, Vt., which they turned into a summer camp and later a ski lodge. Until 1956, the Trapp Family toured extensively. Then they followed separate careers, though they kept the ski lodge in Stowe.
The movie came about because Maria published her memoirs in 1949. She called it The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.
A West German film company, Gloria, bought the rights to the book and made a musical comedy drama called Die Trapp Familie, released in 1956. A sequel, The Trapp Family in America, followed in 1958. Rodgers and Hammerstein turn it into a Broadway musical in the fall of 1959, and it ran for more than three years.
Then in 1965 came the big one: The Sound of Music, the film
But what really happened before – and what happened after — the film now viewed as a cultural treasure? Here are seven fun facts.
1. Georg von Trapp was a war hero.
The patriarch of the von Trapp Family, Baron Georg von Trapp, was a highly decorated naval hero for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He served as commander of two U-boats during World War I, sinking 13 Allied vessels.
He received the Military Order of Maria Theresa, Knight’s Cross, for sinking the French armored cruiser Leon Gambetta – the first underwater nighttime attack on a vessel in the Adriatic. While Georg had been born a hereditary knight due to honors bestowed on his father, his valor earned him a knighthood in his own right. Then he was later elevated to baronetcy.
But the collapse of the Austro-Hungary Empire after World War I left Austria landlocked and Georg without a naval post.
He didn’t need to work for a living, but he did.
Georg lectured and wrote on military history and strategy, published his memoir, To the Last Salute, and ran several international shipping companies.
He married Agathe Whitehead, the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, who invented and manufactured the torpedo. Agathe inherited quite a bit of wealth, but died of scarlet fever in 1922. Georg then married Maria in 1927, when he was 47 and she was 22.
2. Some of the Trapp Family Singers wanted out.
Not all the children wanted to spend their lives singing The Carol of the Drum on stage. By the time the group disbanded, most had reached their thirties and forties and were ready to focus on their own careers, families and interests. Both Rupert and Werner served in The Tenth Mountain Division during World War II and had already spent long stretches not performing during their service.
Only Maria’s iron will kept them together until 1956.
The real Maria was indeed a novitiate in an Austrian convent. However she bore little resemblance to the sweet, lovely character played by Julie Andrews. She could be difficult and demanding, with an explosive temper.
Maria herself told the Washington Post in 1978 that the characters “were too gentle — like girls out of Bryn Mawr.”
The Trapp Family Singers actually included Georg’s seven children by his first wife and three with Maria. Later non-family members joined the group as the children moved on to their own careers.
Rupert went to medical school and became a doctor. Agathe taught kindergarten in Maryland, and Werner went into farming, Hedwig taught music and Johanna married and eventually returned to live in Austria. Martina also married and died in childbirth; Rosmarie and Eleonore both settled in Vermont.
When the group broke up, Maria and three of the children went to Papua New Guinea as Catholic missionaries. Maria Franziska worked there as a missionary for 30 years. Johannes ran the Stowe lodge as a ski resort.
Years later, the von Trapp grandchildren and great-grandchildren continued the family tradition. Elisabeth von Trapp, Werner’s daughter, became a folk singer who toured, recorded albums and sang the Star Spangled Banner three times at Fenway Park. And four of Werner’s grandchildren formed a singing group, recording five albums over 15 years before disbanding in 2016.
Others record and perform in various groups, and some perform with professional symphony orchestras.
3. The Trapp family traveled in a bus for their first two years in the U.S.
The bus had “The Trapp Family Singers” painted on the side. They had arrived in the United States in 1938 with only $4.00, having left all their possessions behind. To support themselves, the von Trapp family traveled the country performing. Their first big U.S. concert happened at The Town Hall in New York on Dec. 10, 1938.
For 15 years their Town Hall performance was a Yuletide tradition in the city.
In December 1940 they performed at Jordan Hall in Boston. They also visited the Massachusetts Statehouse and signed Gov. Leverett Saltonstall’s guest book. Baron Von Trapp gave their address as 252 Merion Rd. in Merion Pa.., where a music lover had offered them refuge.
The von Trapps didn’t move to Stowe until 1943. They chose it as their home because it reminded them of the Austrian Tyrol.
4. They didn’t hate The Sound of Music. But they didn’t love it.
Some people find The Sound of Music too saccharine. Among those critics were Maria von Trapp and her youngest son, Johannes.
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.”
The family especially didn’t like the film’s portrayal of Georg as a cold martinet. In reality, he was a warm, attentive father.
Maria complained the film got geography all wrong. “Don’t they know geography in Hollywood? Salzburg does not border on Switzerland!” Had they crossed the Alps from their home in Salzburg, they would have reached Germany.
And in reality, they didn’t walk over the Alps. They just crossed the railroad tracks behind their house to the train station. And they went to Italy, not Switzerland.
However Maria, a devout Catholic, praised the film for its religious sensibility. She said it brought joy and hope to millions of people, according to her New York Times obituary in 1987.
“The great good the film and the play are doing to individual lives is far beyond money,” she said. “So many people write about how much the film has helped them in restoring their confidence in God.”
The von Trapp family only made very little money from the movie, which grossed $180 million.
5. Maria didn’t turn the family on to music.
The family, including Georg, already sang together when Maria arrived in 1926. They all had grown up with music in the household, and all played instruments. Maria did teach them to sing madrigals.
In 1935, the von Trapps lost a large portion of their money in an Austrian bank collapse. Maria, who had married Georg eight years earlier, dismissed the servants and took in boarders to make ends meet.
A local priest, Father Franz Wasner, came to their home to perform a Mass. He was a musical genius who recognized their talent. He taught them Baroque and Renaissance music, ultimately becoming their musical director and helping to mold them into professionals.
According to Maria’s book, Trapp Family Book of Christmas Songs, their repertoire included a sixth-century Ambrosian chant, medieval lullabies, dance carols from France and Sweden, a somber Spanish song, a majestic Polish air, a bagpiper’s tune from Naples, gay and haunting German and Austrian music and American folksongs. At Christmas they sang Carol of the Drum, Shepherds Come A-Running, and Il est ne, le Divin Enfant.
6. When the Trapp Family Singers fled their home, they had already been to the U.S.
They had gotten their big break when a famous opera singer, Lotte Lehman heard them sing in their home. She suggested they compete at a folk song festival in Salzburg. Then they decided to go on stage.
Then known as the Trapp Family Choir, they performed in Austria and Germany in 1936. In 1937 that expanded into Italy, France, the U.K. and Scandinavia.
Georg didn’t like the idea of the family performing in public because he felt protective of his children and was uncomfortable with the attention. But Eleonore told the Washington Post in 1987 that he “accepted it as God’s will that they sing for others.”
From 1937 to 1938, they toured France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy and the United States. In 1939 they returned to Europe where they toured Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
Several developments led to the family’s decision to leave Austria. Rupert, who had just finished medical school, was offered a post at a hospital that had sudden vacancies left by known Jewish doctors who had gone missing. Then Hitler offered Georg a naval commission and invited the family to sing at his birthday party. The von Trapps realized they could either go with Hitler or go against him. So they left for the United States.
Heinrich Himmler, who engineered the Holocaust, later moved into the von Trapps’ Salzburg home, turning one of the children’s bedrooms into his office.
7. The family went to court over the Trapp Family Lodge.
Johannes von Trapp, Maria’s youngest son, was one of several family members who managed the lodge as president. Maria had run the lodge after Georg passed, then Johannes ran it. His nephew George took over for a time until Johannes returned.
He said he resented his older siblings because they couldn’t or wouldn’t run the business.
Johannes had earned a master’s degree in forestry at Yale while still an undergraduate at Dartmouth and designed the ski trail system. In the late 1960s he hired a Norwegian ski instructor to teach guests to cross country ski.
The original lodge, a rustic chalet with 28 small rooms and shared bathrooms, expanded but in 1980 burned to the ground. The von Trapp family lost the contents of the lodge and some of their personal effects. They replaced the lodge with a 73-room, $7.5 million building, since expanded to 96 rooms.
When Maria died in 1987, 32 family members owned stock in the lodge. By 1994, they wanted to leave the business. The rest of the family sued, believing they didn’t get enough money for their share of the business. Five years later, they won the lawsuit.
He regretted it, according to a New York Times interview on Dec. 24, 2008. He said he really wanted to ranch in Montana, and would have preferred a tasteful, dignified hotel to the Trapp family tourist resort.
Johannes was horrified when he discovered the gift shop sold a stuffed goat that sings The Lonely Goatherd. The staff hid it from him, and when he found out about it he let it stay because it sold well.
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Images: The Sound of Music poster By May be found at the following website: https://www.etsy.com/listing/125297296/the-sound-of-music-movie-musical-poster, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639403. This story last updated in 2023.