Julie Andrews singing in the Alps. Rolfe and Liesel in the gazebo. The whole family performing "Edelweiss." Movie musical, "The Sound of Music," is an instant serotonin boost. The music, the costumes, and the setting all come together to make movie magic.
But, the Von Trapp family’s story is not nearly as picturesque as the movie suggests. And it’s not just because of Rolfe’s tragic conversion to the Nazi ideology. (His betrayal of Liesel and the Von Trapp family destroyed me at 8 years old, and it destroys me now.)
So What Happens in The Sound of Music?
Before we go any further, let’s do a quick recap of The Sound of Music.
Maria, a young postulant at an Austrian nunnery, is carefree and mischievous, worrying the older nuns at the convent. The mother superior sends Maria to be a nanny to widower Captain Georg Von Trapp’s seven children. Captain Von Trapp runs a tight ship, and his children are strictly disciplined.
Carefree Maria transforms the children into fun-loving, boisterous individuals much to the chagrin – but later delight – of Captain Von Trapp. Maria and the Captain fall in love. They get married. They defy the Nazis. And eventually, the family ends up fleeing Austria through the Alps, musical instruments and all!
There are many inconsistencies within the Sound of Music, including Captain Von Trapp’s character (by all accounts, he was a lovely man and wonderful father), the timeline of the film’s events (Maria and Georg were married 11 years before they left Austria, not right before), and the names and ages of the children.
But how did this happen? Maria Von Trapp sold the rights to her story to a German film production company. This forfeited her right to object to anything put in further adaptations. The Von Trapp family was not consulted for most of The Sound of Music. And most of the suggestions made by the family were shot down completely.
Read on for the rest of the story that The Sound of Music doesn’t tell, including Maria Von Trapp’s brush with Hitler and the truth behind their escape from Austria.
Face to Face with the Fuhrer
While having lunch in Munich not long before they journeyed to America, the Von Trapp family came within inches of Adolf Hitler, the man who caused them so much grief in both real and movie life.
Maria exclaimed, “Look, the Fuhrer! At the next table!”
Sure enough, there was Hitler, sitting with eight SS. The family didn’t interact with him, but they were given “a first-class opportunity to look at the Messiah of the Third Reich,” as Maria so aptly put it.
"One couldn’t stand it too long, however," Maria later said. "Knowing who he was, it was too depressing.”
The run-in becomes much more awkward when you consider that Captain Von Trapp had refused a position in the German military and had rejected an invitation for the family to sing for the Fuhrer’s birthday party. Unlike the movie, where the Von Trapps start singing as a family right before they flee Austria, the Von Trapp family had been singing all over Europe for years prior to their 1938 escape.
The Von Trapp Family Singers, 1941. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Escape from Austria
The Von Trapps’ escape from Austria in The Sound of Music pulls at the heartstrings. The family, forced to flee their home so they can avoid serving Hitler’s Germany, escape on foot over the Alps, musical instruments and all.
In reality, the escape was much less dramatic, though the stakes were still high.
Rather than crossing the Alps on foot, the family traveled to Italy by train, eventually making it to London to catch a ship to New York. There was no dramatic car chase with the Nazis or betrayal by Rolfe. The family simply told friends and acquaintances that they were going to America for a singing tour – which was true, the Von Trapps merely omitted the part about never coming back. To the average person, it appeared that the family was leaving for an extended trip.
Once the Nazis figured out the Von Trapps were gone for good, they quickly commandeered the family estate as their own. It was used as Heinrich Himmler’s headquarters during much of World War II.
Life in America
In September 1938, the Von Trapp family arrived in America and began a six-month singing tour of the United States. When their six-month visas expired, they took a brief trip to Scandinavia while they renewed their visas.
Upon their re-entry to America in 1939, Immigration held the family at Ellis Island. Maria, in her excitement to be back in America, told an officer she intended to stay in the U.S. forever, rather than the six months that her visa stipulated.
Maria said, "Oh, I am so glad to be here – I never want to leave again!"
The family was released a few days later.
Maria Von Trapp (front) and five of her children (back row, left to right) Agatha, Hedwig, and Johanna; (center, left to right) Marie and Martina, in 1940. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The Von Trapps continued to tour throughout the United States. In the early 1940s, they settled in Stowe, Vermont, running a music camp at their farm when they were not on tour. Some of the family would become U.S. citizens in the coming years.
Georg died in 1948, and in 1950, the Von Trapp Family Lodge opened in Stowe. Descendants of the Von Trapp family still run it to this day.
In 1955, the family quit touring. The children wanted to branch out and do other things, and running the lodge was a full-time job.
The Von Trapp children did go on to do other things. One was a medical doctor. Another was a missionary for 30 years in New Guinea. Still another married and moved back to Austria.
As for Maria, she died in 1987 and was buried alongside her husband in the family plot at the Von Trapp Family Lodge.
The story of The Sound of Music is a delightful tale. But the reality of the Von Trapp family is rather different and, arguably, much more interesting. It goes to show that the stories we know and love aren’t always true to reality. Often, they’re more complex than we originally thought.
No matter the inconsistencies in The Sound of Music or the parts of the story left out, the musical – and the Von Trapp family – left a considerable mark on generations. Their unique story, love of music, and family bond have been an inspiration since they first started touring Europe way back in the 1930s.
Maria Von Trapp and her family have inspired so many people with their music and focus on family. And for all of the movie’s faults, it did capture one aspect of the Von Trapps – the importance of family in all things. I’d reckon that Maria and Georg would say that's a good legacy to leave behind.
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