GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: Maria von Trapp

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 April 2019

Portrait of Baroness Maria Von Trapp and three of her children, (L-R) Eleonore, Agatha and Johannes, singing from a piece of sheet music, London, circa 1950. Picture: George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Portrait of Baroness Maria Von Trapp and three of her children, (L-R) Eleonore, Agatha and Johannes, singing from a piece of sheet music, London, circa 1950. Picture: George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

2015 Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks at the life of Maria von Trapp.

One afternoon during the early 1940s a young assistant in Scribner’s bookshop on Fifth Avenue, New York, approached a prim-looking woman betraying an air of haughty impatience as she wandered among the shelves. “Can I help you ma’am?” he asked.

“Book on sex appeal, please,” she barked. “Need it for stage performances, apparently.”

Maria von Trapp had not been in the US for long but already she was learning that the showbusiness world on the far side of the Atlantic was something quite different from what she’d known in Europe.

She’d just come from a meeting with a Manhattan booking agent who, it seemed, had ideas for the direction of the Trapp Family Singers’ conquest of America that differed substantially from those of the group’s matriarch. That Maria von Trapp, who related this story in her 1949 autobiography The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, was even prepared as a former novitiate in a nunnery to countenance the investigation of sex appeal for a stage show consisting largely of German liturgical music and folk songs performed by a large family ensemble might be seen as naïve. But von Trapp had seen and been through enough in central Europe during the 1930s to do whatever it took to provide for her enormous brood of three children and seven stepchildren. She had, after all, recently brought them halfway around the world with barely a penny to their name.

So ingrained in popular culture has the film version of The Sound of Music become that it’s easy to forget that the nun-turned-governess-turned-singing-stepmother played by Julie Andrews was based on a real person. Maria von Trapp’s story was about much more than twirling giddily around Tyrolean mountain plateaus celebrating the hills being alive with the sound of music, however. It was a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches tale that entwined itself with the events of 20th century Europe, and the reverberations they sent out around the world. Throughout it all she never lost her religious faith, nor her determination that her family should not only survive but ultimately prosper.

For a woman who spent much of her life on the move it’s fitting that Maria Augusta Kutschera was born on a train, while her parents were en route to a Viennese maternity hospital. Orphaned by the age of seven, she was placed into state care under the guardianship of a virulent anti-Catholic and communist (some sources say this was her uncle).

When she began studying to be a teacher at a Viennese college Maria underwent a profound religious conversion, adopting the Catholicism that would sustain her for the rest of her life and being accepted into the Nonnberg Abbey convent in Salzburg as a novitiate.

In 1926, as Maria prepared to embark on what should have been the quiet, cloistered life of a nun, her Mother Superior received a request from Baron Georg von Trapp, a highly-decorated submarine commander during the war who had been widowed four years earlier and left with seven children.

His eldest child, he explained, was in poor health and required a home tutor. The Baron wondered whether the Abbey might be able to provide someone suitable. The 21-year-old Maria Kutschera was dispatched and soon expanded her duties to become effectively governess to the entire von Trapp brood.

So impressed was Georg that despite being more than twice Maria’s age he proposed within a year of her arrival. On the advice of her Mother Superior Maria accepted and the couple were married in 1927 despite the union being not exactly the romance of the century.

“I really and truly was not in love,” she admitted later. “I liked him but didn’t love him. I loved the children and in a way was really marrying them. However I soon learned to love him more than I have ever loved, before or after.”

It wasn’t long before the marriage was tested. During the 1920s Georg had transferred his fortune from the relative security of a London bank to an Austrian institution run by a personal friend. In the aftermath of the 1929 global financial crash the bank collapsed in 1935 and Georg lost everything short of the sprawling family seat itself. It was Maria’s idea to exploit the family’s musical talents in order to make ends meet, rehearsing religious, classical and folk songs under the musical direction of a Catholic priest named Franz Wasner.

Not long after they began rehearsing in earnest the Trapp Family Choir won a singing competition at the Salzburg festival of 1936 and began touring Europe the following year, the combination of their harmonies and charm filling concert halls across the continent.

When the Nazis rolled into Austria in 1938 the von Trapps realised they could only continue performing in their native country under the auspices of a regime whose philosophy they despised and viewed in direct opposition to their Catholic faith.

Seeing no alternative, the family opted to leave, first for Italy and then the United States. While the film portrayed their departure as a secretive flit across the mountains, carrying suitcases and musical instruments, the truth was a little more prosaic: they departed Vienna openly by train having bade farewell to friends and family. It was still a close shave, however – the Nazis closed the Austrian border the following day. Their home, meanwhile, was sequestered for the personal use of Heinrich Himmler.

The von Trapps arrived in the US with $4 to their name but within three years had, thanks to Maria’s determination, established themselves as a popular touring act, renamed the more secular-sounding Trapp Family Singers. In 1942 the von Trapps purchased a 660-acre estate on a hillside outside Stow, Vermont, a mountainous location that reminded them of their Tyrolean home and which would provide a home for the rest of Maria’s life.

She began organising an annual summer music camp there for families, on top of a gruelling touring schedule, and when Georg died in 1947 at the age of 57 Maria began to expand the operation. First, the grounds were opened to the public, then the Alpine chalet-style home became a lodge and convention centre. With the children growing up and looking to start their own careers and families, the Trapp Family Singers made their final tour in 1955.

In the meantime Maria had published her book, with a German production company optioning the adaptation rights for $9,000. When those rights were subsequently sold, first to produce a Broadway musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and then the Hollywood film starring Julie Andrews, it seemed as if Maria von Trapp had made a rare miscalculation.

“Some people are becoming millionaires on the back of this film but we are not,” she said a year after The Sound of Music’s 1965 release. “We didn’t have a lawyer when we signed the contract and are still saddled with a large mortgage on the lodge.”

She was far from bitter, however, and welcomed the film, albeit with reservations about the portrayal of Georg as a cold, distant father instead of the warm, musical man he really was. Most of all Maria was happy that the family’s religious faith remained to the fore in the film and regarded it as the ideal calling card for the missionary work she increasingly undertook once the family stopped performing. She still faced challenges, however. In 1980 the lodge burned to the ground, resulting in the death of one guest and serious injuries to seven others, the fire spreading so rapidly it forced Maria and other guests to flee in their nightclothes. The family lost everything in the blaze but the lodge was rebuilt and reopened bigger and better three years later – and remains in business today – allowing Maria to spend her final years able to relax a little, knowing the family into whose home with its lingering shadow of grief she came one day as a nervous 21-year-old was finally, incontrovertibly on its feet.

There’s a scene in the film when Julie Andrews’ Maria von Trapp leaves the nunnery carrying her guitar and suitcase and walks through Salzburg singing I Have Confidence, passing at one point through the long archway that connects Residenzplatz and Domplatz. As she emerges, three women in traditional Austrian costume are seen crossing the road at the far end of the arch just as a conflicted Andrews is telling herself in song to stop all her doubts and worries or she’ll have to turn back. The woman in traditional dress in the background, leading her daughter and granddaughter across the street with a tangible air of protective determination, is the real Maria von Trapp.

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