Von Trapp, Maria (1905–1987)
Von Trapp, Maria (1905–1987)
Mother of the world-famous Trapp Family Singers, whose flight from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 inspired the musical play and motion picture The Sound of Music . Name variations: Baroness Maria Von Trapp. Born Maria Augusta Kutschera on January 26, 1905, on a speeding train en route to Vienna, Austria; died on March 28, 1987, at Copley Hospital, Morrisville, Vermont; daughter of Karl Kutschera and Augusta (Rainer) Kutschera; educated in Austrian primary and secondary schools; graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education, Vienna; married Baron Georg Ritter Von Trapp (1880–1947), on November 26, 1927; children: Rosmarie (b. 1929); Eleonore (b. 1931); Johannes (b. 1939); stepchildren: Rupert (1911–1992); Agathe (b. 1913); Maria (b. 1914); Werner (b. 1915); Hedwig (1917–1972); Johanna (1919–1994); Martina (1921–1951).
Merenti (Papal Decoration, 1948); Golden Book Award of Catholic Writers Guild for The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1950); Catholic Mother of the Year (1956); Austrian Honorary Cross for Science and Art (1967); numerous honorary degrees, civic honors and citations.
Worldwide concert tours with the Trapp Family Singers (1935–56); emigrated with family from Salzburg, Austria, to U.S. (1938); organized and directed Trapp Family Music Camp, Stowe, Vermont (1944–56); organized Trapp Family Austrian Relief,Inc. (1947); recorded with family for RCA Victor, Concert Hall Society and Decca recording companies (1938–59); lectured and appeared on radio and television (1938–84); managed Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont (1948–69).
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949); Yesterday, Today and Forever (1952); Around the Year with the Trapp Family (1955); A Family on Wheels (1959); Maria: My Own Story (1972); When the King was Carpenter (1976); and numerous magazine articles.
For Maria Von Trapp, the 1965 Academy Award-winning film The Sound of Music forever captured a portion of her early life and immortalized her as a modern heroine. Starring Julie Andrews as Maria, the movie depicted the tale of a young Austrian nun who left her Salzburg convent to serve as governess to the seven motherless children of Baron Georg Von Trapp. The romantic courtship of Maria and Georg, their marriage and escape from Nazi Austria in 1938, summarized a segment of the Trapp saga.
The true story of Von Trapp's life far outshines the movie version in drama, excitement, and fame. Her life was rooted in belief in following God's will for herself and her family. This religious conviction led her through Nazi oppression, loss of home, life as a refugee, and life as a world-famous musician. "You have inside of you a very fine voice which you train yourself to listen to. When that moment of great importance comes which can significantly change your life, it will tell you the right decision for you to make," Von Trapp explained.
Nothing in Von Trapp's early life suggested her future role as a devoutly religious matriarch of a large family. Her childhood was a lonely one, full of insecurity and disdain for her Catholic faith. As the only child of Karl and Augusta Kutschera , she was orphaned by age nine. In the Vienna home of her guardian, an agnostic, Von Trapp constantly heard the Catholic Church described in derisive terms. After World War I, Austria dismissed its emperor, and the new regime secularized the country. "All the Bible stories I had loved in my early childhood were now branded as silly old legends," Von Trapp recalled. "[S]uddenly God was out of my life."
Von Trapp entered Vienna's State Teachers College for Progressive Education, a school known for innovative teacher training. There she spent four years during the early 1920s. In her final year, she claimed she was given "a special mercy of God" and rediscovered her Catholic faith. While on a class trip high in the Austrian Alps, Von Trapp committed her life to God and decided to enter a convent. Nonnberg, the Benedictine convent in Salzburg, accepted her as a candidate to the novitiate.
Von Trapp's earthy, active manner and liberal ideas of education were often at odds with the cloistered nuns and the school they operated. Though she was frequently corrected by her superiors, she remembered her two years at Nonnberg as momentous in her religious life and the development of her character. "The marvelous Benedictines of Nonnberg worked first to make a girl out of a boy, and then to make a nun out of that," she said.
In 1926, Von Trapp was sent by Nonnberg to fill a temporary need for a governess at the home of Baron Georg Von Trapp. His first wife Agathe Whitehead had died in 1922, leaving seven children. Captain Von Trapp was known throughout Austria as a World War I naval hero. His work with primitive submarine warfare produced daring feats. When Austria was stripped of its seacoast after World War I, the much-decorated captain retired to a villa in the Salzburg suburb of Aigen.
When the 21-year-old governess reported to the Trapp villa, she was met with seven children, ranging from five to fifteen in age: Rupert, Agathe, Maria , Werner, Hedwig, Johanna , and Martina . The lonely children fell under the spell of the athletic, outgoing, musical Maria, who joined them in games and noticed their musical abilities. Soon she started introducing them to group singing of folk songs and madrigals. Though Von Trapp expected to return to convent life, the captain proposed. With the blessing of Nonnberg, the two were married on November 26, 1927. Maria was 22; her husband 47.
Singing and hiking became the predominant hobbies of the Trapp family. They made frequent excursions into the Austrian Alps and to the Adriatic Sea. Von Trapp joined her seven stepchildren in singing, and the eight voices blended in unique harmony. They particularly enjoyed singing church music for religious devotions.
Maria Von Trapp added two children to the family: Rosmarie and Eleonore . World events disrupted their life when the captain's fortune was wiped out by the Depression. The Trapps economized by taking over duties on their estate and opening the house to paying guests, mostly students and priests. In 1935, Father Franz Wasner arrived at the Trapp home to celebrate Mass. Wasner (1905–1992) was an eminent musician, an organist and instructor of Gregorian chant at
Seminarium Majus in Salzburg. When he learned of the Trapp family's interest in choral singing, he offered to coach them.
Under Wasner's guidance, the Trapps mastered music of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. "We sang for the joy of singing," Von Trapp recalled. All of their music was learned from memory and despite their talent for group singing, the early efforts were limited to church services. "When you sing, you pray twice," she remarked. In addition to harmonizing, the Trapps learned ancient instruments: recorders, viola da gamba and spinet, but most of their singing was a capella.
In 1936, opera diva Lotte Lehmann overheard the Trapps singing in their garden. Urging them to become professional, she persuaded them to enter a Salzburg competition for group singing. The family was so well received that radio performances and a command performance for the chancellor of Austria followed.
The most important thing in life is to find out the Will of God and then go and do it.
—Maria Von Trapp
Von Trapp clearly thrived on the growing fame of the family choir, despite her husband's initial discomfort at the notion of his children singing in public for money. When the group appeared at the Salzburg Festival in 1937, they were offered contracts to tour throughout Europe and America. A December 1937 tour took them to Italy, Belgium, Holland, and England.
As hobby evolved into profession, the Trapps were shaken by Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938. The Trapps hated the Nazi philosophy, and found it increasingly difficult to hide their sentiments. They refused an invitation to sing for Hitler, would not fly a Nazi flag at their home, and the captain turned down an offer to command German submarines. Son Rupert Von Trapp, a newly graduated doctor, rejected a Nazi offer to serve at a hospital. The Trapps understood that to preserve their faith and ideals they must flee their homeland.
Nine members of the Trapp family, along with their musical conductor Franz Wasner, left home for a vacation to Italy during the summer of 1938. Their ultimate destination was America and freedom, using a singing contract offered by a New York concert manager as their means of escape. In October 1938, the family arrived in New York and began their first tour as the Trapp Family Choir.
The Trapp experiences in America constitute a typical refugee-immigrant tale. They struggled with the language and new customs. "We were pitiful ill-fits," Von Trapp remembered. Their combined capital when they arrived was four dollars. Fees from their concerts supported them during the first months, but Von Trapp was expecting a child, and the tour came to an end in December 1938. The family settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where the tenth and last child, Johannes, was born in January 1939.
When their visitor visas expired, the Trapps returned to Europe to tour Scandinavia during the summer of 1939. Fortunately, they were readmitted to the United States in October 1939. Eventually, they found excellent management from the Columbia Concerts Agency in New York. With a varied and less formal repertoire, the Trapp Family Singers became a popular attraction. Their friendly, sincere manner, colorful Austrian costumes and folk pageantry, combined with exquisite musicianship, made them one of the concert world's most sought-after attractions.
Von Trapp served as on-stage hostess, introducing the family and the selections they performed. Her communication skills added to the aura the Trapp Family Singers projected to audiences. A 1942 concert reviewer in Bangor, Maine, commented on the singers' charm and Von Trapp's role:
Baroness Von Trapp, exceedingly charming, acted as the spokesperson. Her rare loveliness and restraint, as she introduced the numbers, was a high point…. The Trapp family always sing without accompaniment and their infallible pitch is a marvel…. [It] brought an ovation from [the] audience. Music of the highest order was heard when this talented family presented a program ranging from church music to the lovely songs of the Austrian Tyrol.
The Trapp Family Singers became one of America's most heavily booked attractions. For 17 consecutive seasons (1938–55), they toured in 49 of the States and in Canada. Each season brought a new repertoire. Father Wasner required constant rehearsals and strict discipline. His musical research produced music that was sometimes performed for the first time in America. The group sang in dozens of languages, as they incorporated folk music from many lands in their programs. Christmas concerts added to their renown as they reenacted customs and music familiar from their Austrian home. With proceeds from their singing, the Trapps bought a farm in the Green Mountains near Stowe, Vermont, in 1941. Between tours, they worked to farm the land and build a house. The farm became known as "Cor Unum," meaning "One heart, one soul."
During World War II, Rupert and Werner Von Trapp served in the American army. Rupert then resumed his medical career and no longer performed, while Werner rejoined the singers and grew interested in farming. The Trapp Family Singers eventually included the three youngest children: Rosmarie, Eleonore, and Johannes.
The Trapps became so well known as a symbol of family togetherness that they were often asked for advice on successful family life. In 1944, they opened the Trapp Family Music Camp near their home in Stowe, to serve as a summer retreat for music-making and an example of group living and customs. The camp operated for 12 successful seasons.
In 1947, Georg Von Trapp died at 67 and was buried near the family home. Through his family's concertizing, he had not sung on stage, but he accompanied them on tours and assisted in their work. Before his death, he helped form the Trapp Family Austrian Relief, a charity founded to assist the needy in postwar Austria. The Trapps were credited with shipping over 275,000 pounds of supplies to their homeland. After the captain's death, the singing group was reorganized almost annually. Rosmarie no long wished to sing and four of the others married between 1947–49. Meshing individual lives with the demands of the singing career was taxing, and non-related singers sometimes filled gaps left by family members.
As leader of the group, Von Trapp was anxious to continue the Trapp Family Singers, whose demand persisted unabated. In 1950, they toured South America and Europe. In 1952, their travels included the Hawaiian Islands. In 1955, the group concertized for six months in Australia and New Zealand. "For twenty blissful years we had traveled the world together, bringing music to the people," Von Trapp reflected. But in 1956, the group retired from the stage. Despite their adventures and the experiences of exotic travels, the family members had made many personal sacrifices to achieve a log of 2,000 concerts for millions of listeners in over 30 countries.
Von Trapp noted that "in the adventure of faith there is no such thing as a closed door." Three of the Trapp children served as missionaries in New Guinea, while their mother and Father Wasner toured the mission fields of the South Pacific for the Catholic Church. With the family home in Stowe increasingly vacant, it was turned into the Trapp Family Lodge, a year-round resort. Von Trapp continued to live there, but was often absent. She forged a career for herself on the stage alone—as a much sought-after lecturer.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Von Trapp took her message of faith to audiences across America. She related the story of her family and stressed that "if God's Will had turned out so well in the case of the Trapp Family, it can also work for you." She emphasized "the art of loving" and the need for compassion and charity in everyday life. With the proceeds from her appearances, Von Trapp helped support missions and carried on quiet charity work for the remainder of her life.
When The Sound of Music debuted on the Broadway stage in 1959, a new measure of fame surrounded the Trapp Family. With Mary Martin in Maria's role and Rodgers and Hammerstein's music, the play became a Broadway legend. It was a money-maker for everyone but the original family. Soon after her book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was published, Von Trapp sold rights to the story for $9,000. Despite huge profits earned by the play and the movie, she never received more than a tiny fraction of one percent of the profits. This money was divided among the family and Father Wasner, who returned to Europe. "It's simply not so that we are rolling in millions," Von Trapp stated in 1980. "People write that Sound of Music strengthened their trust in God. That is enough for me."
Crowds came to the Trapp Family Lodge to catch a glimpse of "the real Maria from The Sound of Music." Von Trapp operated a gift
shop on the property, where she mingled with visitors, visiting each table in the lodge dining room. She oversaw the lodge operation until her son Johannes became manager in 1969.
The Von Trapp children were occasional visitors at the lodge, but none ever resumed a musical career. Rupert became a New England doctor, with six children. Werner operated a Vermont dairy farm, with help from his six offspring. Agathe participated in operating a Maryland kindergarten. Maria served 30 years as a missionary in New Guinea. Hedwig assisted at the lodge and taught until her death. Johanna raised seven children in Austria. Martina died with her first baby. Rosmarie studied nursing and retained an interest in music. Eleonore raised seven daughters. Johannes graduated from Yale Forestry School; his two children were raised on the Trapp Family Lodge property.
In 1980, the Trapps lost their home for the second time when a flash-fire sent guests fleeing the wooden lodge. Von Trapp escaped unharmed but saw her home leveled by flames. "I lost just plain everything," she said. The Trapps were encouraged by former guests and friends to rebuild their lodge, and a new version was opened in 1983. At a celebration of the reopening, the family gathered in one of their rare reunions. Once again they sang and reminisced over their lives. "My life," Maria Von Trapp remarked, "has been like a story, a very, very beautiful story." Her experience included both tragedy and success, fame and public adulation. Most significant to Von Trapp was the concept that God had guided her through all her experiences.
Von Trapp spent her last years living quietly in Stowe. When she died at the age of 82 in 1987, she left behind her the image of a determined woman, true to her convictions, and the image of the heroine of one of the most popular films ever made.
Anderson, William. "America's Trapp Family," in American History Illustrated. December 1986, p. 36.
Von Trapp, Maria Augusta. Maria: My Own Story. Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1972.
——. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1949.
Von Trapp Family members. Interviews with the author, 1980, 1984, 1993.
Hirsch, Julia Antopol. The Sound of Music: The Making of America's Favorite Movie. Contemporary Books, 1993.
The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1965.
Trapp Family Singers. "The Best of the Trapp Family Singers" (2-cassette set), MCA Corporation, 1991.
Trapp Family Singers. "Everywhere Christmas" CD, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, VT, 1993.
William Anderson , author of numerous books and magazine articles, including The World of the Trapp Family