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Maria von Trapp - From Fact to Fiction

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The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years.

Many people see Maria von Trapp as a fictional character brought vividly to life by actresses such as Julie Andrews in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The Sound of Music, but Maria actually did exist.

Maria Augusta Kutschera was born on 26 January, 1905, on a train headed for Vienna. Her mother died when she was only two years old and her father, unable to cope, left her in the hands of an elderly cousin. Maria was raised as an atheist and socialist who was cynical about all religions. So when Maria accidentally attended a Palm Sunday service at the State Teachers' College of Progressive Education you'd think that converting to religion was the last thing she would do, but that is exactly what she did on hearing the words of the Jesuit priest, Father Kronseder.

Now I had heard from my uncle that all of these Bible stories were inventions and old legends, and that there wasn't a word of truth in them. But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed by it.

On graduating from college, she joined the Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg in Salzburg. At the convent she struggled to adhere to the rules and discipline that were felt necessary to be a nun, but was determined and willing to be shaped by the experience.

These...two years were really necessary to get my twisted character and my overgrown self-will cut down to size.

It wasn't just her upbringing that restricted her from living her life as a nun though, her general health was deteriorating due to the strict regime. So when Georg Ritter von Trapp, a retired naval captain, asked the Reverend Mother of the Abbey to help him find a teacher for his sick1 daughter, the ideal choice was thought to be Maria. Eventually, Maria formed relationships with the Captain's other children: Rupert, Agathe, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina. She also forged a connection with the Captain, which led to him falling in love with her.


Maria was not in love with the children's father when he asked her to marry him, but the nuns' persuasion and her love for his children influenced her to consent.

I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children... By and by I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.

Maria and Georg married on 26 November, 1927 and together had three children Rosmarie, Eleonore, and Johannes. During the 1930s the family was hit financially by the Great Depression and Maria had to dismiss their servants and take in lodgers. She looked to her family for inspiration in finding alternative ways in which to make money and found it in the family's talent for singing. The children were able to sing different parts: alto, tenor and soprano, and they learned madrigals under Maria's tuition. However, when it came to performing in front of people, her husband Georg was not keen, as their daughter Eleonore revealed to the Washington Post in 1978:

It almost hurt him to have his family on stage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one.

Despite this they did appear on stage, coming first in the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936 and later toured throughout Europe.

Nazi Occupation

In 1938, Nazi occupation grew to incorporate Salzburg and Georg was asked to join the Nazi regime, but he refused. Instead, he embarked upon a short hiking trip with his family, his musical conductor Reverend Franz Wasner and his secretary Martha Zochbauer, to the nearby train station. They boarded a train destined for Italy. Once in Italy, they reformed as a singing group and travelled to London and New York on six-month visitor visas. They also visited Scandinavia before returning to New York.

Starting Again in the US

During the 1940s the von Trapp family settled down and lived on a farm in Stowe, Vermont, in the US. From there, the family ran a music camp, which encouraged other people to sing. The family also applied for US citizenship. Georg died in 1947 and was laid to rest in a cemetery on their farm. In the year that followed, his children gained US citizenship. The Family Lodge was set up in 1950, and the family stopped touring five years later. In 1956, Maria accompanied some of the children on a mission to help people in New Guinea, before returning to their lodge in the US.

Musical Mayhem

Maria never intended to write her autobiography, but after much persuasion from a friend of hers, she finally put pen to paper and The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was born. Once her autobiography had been released in 1949, it wasn't long before German producers bought the rights to her life story. They produced Die Trapp-Familie (1956), and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958).

The rights were eventually sold to the American musical directors Rodgers and Hammerstein, who turned the book into a Broadway musical, which was released on 16 November, 1959. The role of Maria was played by actress Mary Martin and the Captain was played by Theodore Bikel. The show ran for 1,443 performances. The von Trapp family received very little for their contribution in helping create the musical.

The Film

In 1965, Rodgers and Hammerstein released the film The Sound of Music, which featured Julie Andrews as Maria. During the filming of the musical the von Trapp family visited the set and were asked whether they would like to have a walk-on part. They agreed and the real Maria and her daughter can be seen in the background when Julie sings 'I Have Confidence'.

People in America and across the pond flocked to see it, enabling the film to be the second highest earning film ever. The film obtained several Golden Globes, numerous Tony Awards and five Oscars. The family were hurt by the film's portrayal of Georg von Trapp, who appeared detached from his children in the film, but in reality was gentle and supportive of all his family's pursuits.

Petula Clark's Portrayal

In 1981, the musical role of Maria was revived on the stage by Petula Clark, despite the perception that she was too old to play the part. The real Maria believed that of all the people to portray her, Petula was the best.

The Passing of Maria

Maria died of kidney failure in 1987; she was buried alongside her husband and his child Martina, who had died in 1951.

Posthumous Portrayal

In 2006, musical director Andrew Lloyd Webber promoted his version by holding a talent contest on the BBC. Presented by Graham Norton, the programme How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? encouraged British viewers to vote for their favourite singer to play the lead part of Maria. Many people voted and Connie Fisher was crowned the winner after receiving the majority of the votes. Summer Strallen, an actress who used to play Summer Shaw in Hollyoaks on Channel 4, took over from Connie in 2008. In the lead-up to her final performance on Hollyoaks, Summer was seen following her dream to be a singer and Lloyd Webber had a walk-on part in which he hired her. The musical director said:

I thought, 'Do you know what? It's never been done before and it's funny'.
1Georg von Trapp's daughter, also called Maria, suffered from scarlet fever.

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