Follow Every Rainbow – the Life of the Real Maria and the Von Trapp Family Singers
By Malcolm Sharps
As an article on this blog of 6 December 2023 records, the Von Trapp Family Singers paid a visit to Lowell on a very unfortunate day, 7 December, 1941, the date of Pearl Harbor. Anyone who didn’t see them, or whose memory of the occasion was blotted out by news of darker historic events coming through from the Pacific, possibly thinks, ‘The von Trapps? Ah, yes, I know exactly who they were, I saw the Sound of Music’. But those people couldn’t be more wrong.
The Sound of Music tells its own tale, sometimes matching real life events, but most often it differs from the true story of Maria van Trapp and her formation of an internationally successful music group from the members of her family. The aim of Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote the lyrics, and composer Richard Rodgers was never to write a historically faithful biography but to create an entertainment based loosely on Maria von Trapp’s life and inspired by the spirit of the times and the increasing menace of Nazism in Europe prior to the start of the Second World War. Their musical deals with the Austrian years of what eventually became the Von Trapp Family Singers, leading up to their forced departure from Austria falling under German occupation and their escape towards safety and a new life in the United States.
In order to maximise the emotional impact of the story, the book and song writers chose to give us a somewhat dramatized and romanticized version of events. And in one case, which I’ll come to later, they played fast and loose with both the events and the realities of Central European geography.
Assuming most readers have seen The Sound of Music in some form or know of the general outline of the story, I’ll run through the most obvious discrepancies in the fictional narrative. Firstly, Captain Georg von Trapp was not a stern martinet controlling his seven children with a rod of iron, but a gentle, warm-hearted man whose career in the navy was curtailed by the fact that Austria was on the losing side in the First World War. The country lost its coastline, and thus its navy, and Georg was prematurely retired. This latter point is common to both the life and the musical.
Conversely, Maria was not the goody-two-shoes of the musical; she had many sides to her, both good and not so good. She was formidable when opposed and she exerted an inflexible will on the family and once locked one of her daughters in her room because she did not approve of the boy she was seeing. Originally, she was taken on as a tutor to just one child and later took on all seven as governess. After their marriage, Captain von Trapp was frequently the target of Maria’s frustrations and outbursts of anger. He absorbed these attacks with aristocratic dignity but often took weeks to recover his composure entirely. Unlike Christopher Plummer in the film, he played no part in the family’s music making and very little later in the overall direction of the activities of the von Trapp organisation. However, many have claimed his calming influence kept the family together and acted as an anchor to Maria’s impetuosity. The real and stage Marias were both full of ideas and enthusiasm for music making but in the actual Maria there was also a driving ambition above all else to raise the family’s name in the wider world of music.
There are too many other divergences from fact, both large and small, to list them all, but one big difference which is overlooked is the connection Maria von Trapp felt between her faith and her music. In the Sound of Music, there is a picturesque and cultural involvement with Christianity, and several mentions of the importance of God’s will, but in Maria von Trapp’s own book The Story of the von Trapp Family Singers, God is mentioned on virtually every page as a guiding force in her life and career. Her faith and a sense of mission played a major part in the group’s performing of liturgical works. And she passed the sense of a mission and duty on in her upbringing of the children, four of whom would later take part in Church missionary work.
What God’s will really was, became an interesting point when Maria was proposed to by Captain von Trapp, a man twenty-five years her senior whom she professed she was not in love with at the time. It was the Abbess at the convent where Maria had been a novitiate who assured her it was God’s will she marry the Captain, and, in this instance, she obeyed. Maria claimed that later she grew to love Georg.
For all the divergences of the stage and film musical and real life in regard to personality and behaviour and historical events, no divergence is so crucial as the representation of the kind of music the von Trapps actually performed. In fact, it is no stretch to call The Sound of Music a ‘misrepresentation’, understandable perhaps though that is. In a theatrical context, it was desirable to make the group as accessible as possible and appeal to the widest audience.
But what kind of ensemble were the von Trapps? The range of their music extended from the Renaissance with the Madrigalist composers, through to the Baroque with Schütz, Monteverdi and JS Bach, and all of it was accompanied by period instruments, which each of the singers also became adept at. The group was thus conceived as an early music ensemble.
Whether it’s the Beatles or the Vienna Boys’ Choir, there are musical groups which manage to produce a unique sound. One listens and within two bars one says it’s them. The von Trapp Family was just such a group. Many of their recordings survive to demonstrate this fact; the timbre of the ensemble was exceptional, unique in its purity and control of vibrato. Without being facetious, one can say they managed to produce an evenly controlled ‘warble’ that did service for both the folksong and the classical and religious repertoire.
This was something that would not have been arrived at with the Julie Andrews sing-along approach of Favourite Things and So Long, Farewell; it would take many hours of practice, breaking the group up into individual parts and rehearsing them, then combining the parts to get them to mesh by listening and adjusting to each other. Even the folk songs, which played a big part in the encores rather than the main items of the concerts, were sung in this very disciplined, yet fresh and spontaneous-sounding, way.
Who was responsible for this von Trapp sound? Perhaps it was a joint achievement because at the time only Maria was teaching them, the world-famous singer Lotte Lehmann heard them and remarked in astonishment that they had ‘voices of gold’; later they met their ‘George Martin’ in the person of an amateur musician priest Dr Franz Wasner. He introduced more religious music into their repertoire along with the madrigals they had been singing, and made arrangements of various types of music to suit their style. As well as teaching them, he became very much a part of the von Trapp’s stage performances, accompanying on the keyboard. In later years, into the time when the ensemble lived in and toured America, the group consisted of the seven original children together with three more that were the offspring of Maria and Georg, Maria herself, Father Wasner on the spinet and a viola da gamba player.
The group enjoyed phenomenal success in America until their break up in 1957 after more than two decades of music making. They toured every major city and performed at prestige venues and before distinguished audiences. The home which they made in Vermont, Cor Unum, later the Trapp Family Lodge, became their base as well as the centre for a series of ventures: farming, running courses in music and singing, providing a country retreat for visitors. Their brand sold books of original works and reprints of the period works they performed, as well as course books on the von Trapp singing method.
Maria lived a long life and enjoyed a retirement as a celebrity in her own right, as well as being the namesake of a character in the most successful musical of all time. She became popular as a guest on talk shows; interviewers could rely on her warmth and her ability to provide a good anecdote. Baroness von Trapp didn’t so much play the grand old lady as everyone’s favourite grandmother. And she still seemed touched with a certain wide-eyed naivety about life that recalled the novice she once was, together with a charm which had the audiences eating out of her hand.
So now I come to the glaring mistake in The Sound of Music narrative. According to the musical, the von Trapp family escaped from Austria and Nazi dominance by putting on their hiking clothes, packing a few bags and going up into the mountains beyond Salzburg under cover of night to walk to freedom. In reality, they toured Italy for a while with official permission, not unlikely since by dint of his birthplace, Georg had joint Italian-Austrian citizenship. They then made their way to England before going to the USA. So the dramatic and daring escape under Nazi guns did not occur. But it isn’t the factuality of this non-happening that bothers me, let writers use their imaginations as they will; it’s the fact that it couldn’t in all reason have happened this way at all. The mountain border skirting the land of Salzburg leads in an unfortunate direction for a family seeking liberation and safety: it was part of Austria’s border with Nazi Germany. And further to the West, adding to the folly of climbing every mountain without looking where you are going, a mere 30 miles from Salzburg was Adolf Hitler’s personal retreat at Berchtesgaden. A place not offering the kind of welcome they would want. It just shows you: it’s worthwhile investing in a Baedeker.