The von Trapps: The Real Family That Inspired 'The Sound of Music' - Biography

When The Sound of Music debuted on cinema screens in April 1965, audiences fell hard and in huge numbers for the joyous celebration of music, dance, patriotism and familial and romantic love, propelling it to become one of the world’s most beloved movie musicals and turning the story of the von Trapp family into lore.

Like many true stories filtered through Hollywood’s often overly sentimental lens, The Sound of Music on-screen differs significantly from the true tale of Maria, the novice nun who takes a job as a governess in the Austrian household of the von Trapps, only to find herself falling in love with widower and retired naval captain Georg von Trapp and his seven children.

The film stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as Maria and Georg, and features enduring songs such as “Do-Re-Mi,” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Edelweiss.” It received five Academy Awards (including best picture) and is the third highest-grossing movie of all time in the U.S. after its box office is adjusted for inflation.

A cinematic recreation of the 1959 Broadway musical featuring music and lyrics by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, the Robert Wise-directed movie is based on the early chapters of Maria's 1949 memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which chronicles Maria and the von Trapp’s beginnings in Salzburg, Austria, through their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe to the family’s eventual relocation to America.

To use lyrics from “Do-Re-Mi,” when it comes to alterations and omissions contained in the movie version of The Sound of Music, “let’s start at the very beginning.”

The real Maria described herself as 'horrid'

Maria Augusta Kutschera was born in 1905 and after being orphaned at a young age, was reportedly sent to live with an abusive uncle. She attended teachers' college where she discovered religion and converted to Catholicism before becoming a candidate for the novitiate in Salzburg. Portrayed on film by Andrews as demure and self-effacing, the real Maria was in fact a real problem while at the convent, describing herself as “horrid, the worst you can imagine,” in a 1980 article which includes a list of transgressions such as breaking china, speaking during periods of silence, running in the courtyard, whistling Gregorian chants and climbing on the convent roof.

Maria von Trapp

The real Maria von Trapp

The names of the von Trapp children – and amount – were changed in the movie

In 1926 Maria was sent from the convent to tutor only one of Captain von Trapp’s seven children from his first marriage. Georg’s second eldest daughter, Maria, had contracted scarlet fever – the same disease that took his first wife’s life four years prior – and could no longer travel the distance to and from school.

Most readers by now have questioned the name of Georg’s daughter listed above. It’s no surprise the name is not familiar as one of the children’s, in fact, all the names and sexes of the seven von Trapp children represented in the movie were changed. The real von Trapp children were (in age descending order) Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina.

On screen Rupert became Liesl, a 16 going on 17-year-old girl. In real life, by the time the family fled Austria, Rupert was in his late twenties and a practicing physician.

Even the number of children was not correct in the movie. When the von Trapps escaped Austria there were in fact nine children: seven from Georg’s first marriage and two from his marriage to Maria, Rosmarie and Eleonore. The tenth child, Johannes, was born in America in 1939.

The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp singing to his children in 'The Sound of Music.'

The real family wasn't as wealthy as portrayed on screen

Though money did not appear to be of concern to the family depicted in the movie, in real life the fortunes of the von Trapp family had faltered during the global depression of the early 1930s to the extent that at the time the film is set, most of the household servants had been dismissed and the family had begun taking in boarders. The lack of funds also prompted the family to consider turning their love of singing together into a profession. “It almost hurt [my father] to have his family on stage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one,” Eleonore is quoted as saying in a 1978 Washington Post interview.

The von Trapps were a musical household well before Maria entered their lives

Both in real and reel life, the family singers won first place in the Salzburg Music Festival. But the sound of music was already well established within the household before Maria arrived. In a reversal of the stern, music-forbidding retired naval officer depicted in the film, the real Georg and his first wife encouraged song in the family home years before Maria arrived. “In reality, Georg was a warm and loving if somewhat overwhelmed father,” author Tom Santopietro writes in The Sound of Music Story. “It was actually Maria herself, with her emotionally stunted upbringing, who needed thawing.”

Maria Von Trapp and three of her children, (L-R) Eleonore, Agatha and Johannes, singing from a piece of sheet music, London, circa 1950.

Maria Von Trapp and three of her children, (L-R) Eleonore, Agatha and Johannes, singing from a piece of sheet music, circa 1950

Maria was hesitant about marrying Captain von Trapp

Like the film, Maria and Georg were in fact married only a year after the novice arrived as governess. Unlike the film, they were actually married in 1927, more than a decade before fleeing Austria in 1938. Georg was 25 years older than Maria and the match was not love at first sight. Though Georg had fallen for Maria and asked her to stay with him and become a second mother to his children, Maria was not as sure of the union, reportedly saying, “God must have made him word it that way because if he had only asked me to marry him I might not have said yes.”

The real von Trapps did not secretly cross the alps by foot

The family’s exit from Austria under Nazi occupation was also given a glossy Hollywood treatment, depicting the von Trapps as having to cross the alps on foot to avoid detection. In reality such a journey would have brought them to directly into Germany, not Switzerland as in the film. “Don’t they know geography in Hollywood? Salzburg does not border on Switzerland!” complained Maria to a reporter in 1967.

Though they left Austria only a day before the borders were sealed, their actual departure lacked the drama contained in the film according to documents and interviews contained in the U.S. National Archives. “We did tell people that we were going to America to sing,” daughter Maria told Opera News in 2003. “And we did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train in broad daylight, pretending nothing.”

The von Trapps traveled with their musical conductor, Rev. Franz Wasner, and secretary Martha Zochbauer. On film Wasner became the fictional Max Detweiler, who remained in Austria.

The real journey took the family first to Italy, where Georg attained citizenship due to his birthplace having become Italian territory in 1920, then on to London before boarding a ship for America. During the early 1940s they toured the U.S. as the Trapp Family Singers, eventually settling in Stowe, Vermont. There they opened a guest house, which is still owned and operated by descendants of the von Trapp family.