The real story of the Von Trapp family

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Maria von TrappIn doing research before directing The Sound of Music, I came across a terrific article from the National Archives about the real story of the von Trapp family. While most people realize that The Sound of Music is a fictionalized account of what happened to the family, some of the things I discovered may surprise you:

  • Maria came to the von Trapp family in 1926 as a tutor for one of the children, Maria, who was recovering from scarlet fever, not as governess to all the children.
  • Maria and Georg married in 1927, 11 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.”
  • There were 10, not 7 von Trapp children.
  • The names, ages, and sexes of the children were changed.
  • The family was musically inclined before Maria arrived, but she did teach them to sing madrigals.
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • The von Trapps traveled to Italy, not Switzerland. Georg was born in Zadar (now in Croatia), which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zadar became part of Italy in 1920, and Georg was thus an Italian citizen, and his wife and children as well. The family had a contract with an American booking agent when they left Austria. They contacted the agent from Italy and requested fare to America.
  • Instead of the fictional Max Detweiler, pushy music promoter, the von Trapps’ priest, the Reverend Franz Wasner, acted as their musical director for over 20 years.
    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.”

The entire article, written by Joan Gearin, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region–Boston, is a fascinating read, with lots of photos of the real von Trapps, plus other historic images from the period. You’ll find the article here:

http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/von-trapps.html

Happy reading!

Marilyn Langbehn
Director, The Sound of Music

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