The Sound Of Music is one of the most popular musical films ever made. It is the story of the von Trapps- seven motherless children, their stern sea-captain father, and most of all, their feisty, but sweet governess. Yet, the von Trapps Family is not just a Hollywood creation. They are an actual family-and the story of the real von Trapps could not be more different from the musical version. Georg von Trapp, a widowed Austrian aristocrat did marry the governess, Maria Kutschera, in 1927. When the von Trapps lost their considerable fortune in a bank crash, Maria took over.
The von Trapp family had always been musical, even before Maria joined them. However, the Baroness saw their talents as a way to help them out of a financial crisis, as much of their money was lost in the economic upheaval of the 1930's. With the help of a local Catholic priest, Franz Wasner, she took the family hobby-singing-and turned it into the family profession, and the family began performing together under Franz Wasner as their Musical Director. Soprano Lotte Lehmann heard the family sing, and she suggested they perform at concerts. When the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg heard them on the radio, he invited them to perform in Vienna. After performing at a festival in 1935, they won a singing competition in 1936, and became a popular touring act. They went on a European tour the following year as the Trapp Family Choir, and before long, the von Trapp Family was performing all over Europe.
In March of 1938, the Nazis marched into Salzburg and the von Trapps decided it was time to leave Austria. Maria arranged an American concert tour, and the family was able to escape Hitler. They left behind their home and all that remained of their wealth, and would never return. They did not need to climb any mountains to escape. They left by train (the local stop was directly behind their estate) and made their way to Italy and then to America without incident.
Once in the USA, the von Trapps struggled to establish themselves as a choral singing group. They sang mostly in German, had a repertoire of difficult classical music, and dressed like refugees. But Maria would not let them fail. Initially calling themselves the "Trapp Family Choir", the von Trapps began to perform in the USA and Canada. They performed in New York City at The Town Hall on 10 December 1938. The New York Times wrote: "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." Charles Wagner was their first booking agent, then they signed on with Frederick Christian Schang. Thinking the name "Trapp Family Choir" too churchy, Schang Americanized their repertoire and, following his suggestion, the group changed its name to the "Trapp Family Singers". The family, which by then included ten children, was soon touring the world giving concert performances. Before long, the family singing group became quite a phenomenon Alix Williamson served as the group's publicist for over two decades. After the war, they founded the Trapp Family Austrian Relief fund, which sent food and clothing to people impoverished in Austria.
Even when the family was at the height of their popularity, Maria would not let them rest. The ten children (Maria and Georg had three children together) toured up to eight months a year. During the summer they worked their Vermont farm and ran a music camp. The isolation of a life on the road or on the farm, combined with constant work and Maria's volatile temper, took its toll. Rosmarie, Maria's eldest child, suffered a nervous breakdown and her mother sent her for electro-shock therapy. Another daughter ran away to elope. Before long, Maria was forced to hire non-family members for the family singing group. The family suffered, but Maria made them sound harmonious and heroic in her book, The Trapp Family Singers, which she wrote as a way to help promote the group. To her surprise, the book was a success and it would eventually find its way into the hands of the reigning Broadway star of the 1950's, Mary Martin. Martin and her producers started to work on the project that would become The Sound Of Music - the musical that vaulted a family of Austrian immigrants to worldwide attention and made Maria a celebrity. In 1957, the Trapp Family Singers disbanded and went their separate ways.
While The Sound Of Music has been an extremely successful and profitable property, the von Trapps themselves profited little from the musical interpretation of their lives. Maria had sold the rights to her book for a flat fee-no royalties-long before Mary Martin came into the picture. Today, most of the surviving von Trapp Family live down-to-earth lives in rural Vermont. The Sound Of Music continues to captivate audiences around the world. On March 12, 1998, the revival of the musical opened on Broadway, and every year some 500 to 600 high schools perform their versions the show. The von Trapps take pride not in The Sound Of Music, but in their own music-music that they performed together as a family for almost twenty years.