The real Sound of Music: the Von Trapp Family in America

You have probably heard of the classic story depicted in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music”. A young, struggling nun named Maria leaves Nonnberg Abbey to become a governess to the children of a widower Naval Captain named Georg von Trapp. As Maria becomes closer to the children, she does so also with the Captain. The film ends with the family crossing the Alps to escape the Nazis (sorry for the spoilers!) and we are left to wonder where they will go next. (In reality, it does not actually make sense that the family would have crossed the hills to escape the Nazis, as they would lead them straight into Germany, rather than Switzerland as the film suggests.)


You may not know that the story is actually based on the true story of the real von Trapp Family and the Trapp Family singers. The Captain was a widower, left with seven children. But he was not as detached and disapproving as music as the movie portrays him to be. He did, in fact, hire a nun named Maria Augusta Kutschera, but only to tutor his young daughter Maria, who was recovering from scarlet fever.


She immediately fell in love with the children, but not so much with the Captain. It was not until a few years into their marriage that she truly felt love for him. They were married on November 26, 1927, Maria aged 22 and Georg aged 47. They lived for 11 years together in Salzburg before the Nazi takeover and had two children. They were, in fact, able to escape Austria when the family suffered financial difficulties and the Nazis commissioned Georg for a position in the German Navy.


The cast of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, headed by Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews (1965).


The real von Trapp family in front of their lodge in Stowe, Vermont (1965).

The film takes place in Salzburg, Austria, and was actually partially filmed in the idyllic city that rests along the Alps. The city is known for three things: being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the annual Salzburg Festival for music and theater held every August, and The Sound of Music. I am actually Austrian-American and visited Salzburg with my family this summer and did one of the most stereotypical things I ever will: I took the Sound of Music tour. The 4 hour bus tour takes you to all the major filming locations throughout the Salzburg area, including the church where the marriage scene took place, the villa where the von Trapps lived (now a music school), and the gazebo where Liesl and Rolfe sing “Sixteen going on Seventeen”.

The tour got me to thinking about the life the family lead in the United States. I knew they had settled in Stowe, Vermont (their mansion is now a resort and event space). So I got to digging and here is what I found:


The von Trapp butler (depicted in the film as stern and one-dimensional) was a devout Nazi, but loved the family. He knew the family did not support the Nazi cause and would want to leave the country for other opportunities. He was able to tell the family when the Austrian borders would close, and so they could plan their escape. The family members were in fact Italian citizens as Georg was born into what would later become the then-Italian territory Zadar (now in Croatia), and so were able to take a train into Italy.


They dressed up as if they were going hiking in the hills, but instead got onto the train. They got to Italy in June 1938 and boarded a boat headed to England. By September, they were on a boat to New York to performed a concert tour. They had the equivalent of $4 when they landed. They had a hard time when they first got to America. They spent one year living in a bus doing concerts in every small town they came to. Maria was pregnant with her third and final child during the journey. Johannes was born in January 1939 in Philadelphia.


They went on a short Scandinavian tour when their visitors’ visas expired, but were back in New York by October 1939. They were actually investigated and detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for two days because they had not responded that they would stay in the country for “six months” as their visas specified, but instead Maria exclaimed “Oh, I am so glad to be here—I never want to leave again!”


After another short concert tour, they settled and bought a 300-acre farm in Stowe, Vermont in the early 1940s with just enough space for the family. But people started coming to stay and listen to the Trapp Family Singers. When not on tour, they ran a music camp at the farm. Their home got bigger and bigger, and now is a full Alpine lodge called the Trapp Family Lodge, which opened in 1950.

The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT

Everyone but Georg eventually became a U.S. Citizen, either through naturalization or application. Georg died in 1947 aged 67 and the Singers stopped touring in 1955. The family went on to pursue other endeavors, including a stint doing missionary work in New Guinea, and Maria continued to run the Trapp Family Lodge for years.

Maria von Trapp's Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. citizen

Maria von Trapp’s Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. citizen

Visa documents of the von Trapp children.

Visa documents of the von Trapp children.

The children became successful in their own rights, true representations of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the U.S. during and after World War II. Their names will not seem familiar as they were changed in the film. Rupert became a medical doctor; Maria remained a missionary in New Guinea for 30 years; Werner was a farmer; Hedwig became a music teacher; Agathe was kindergarten teacher in Maryland; Martina married and died in childbirth; Johanna married and eventually returned to live in Austria; Rosmarie and Eleonore both settled in Vermont; and Johannes managed the Trapp Family Lodge. Maria died in 1987 aged 82.


The family’s legacy lives on today, though their fame is probably stronger in the U.S. than in their native Austria. One possibility of this may be the fact that the Sound of Music film, written and produced by the American production company 20th Century Fox and based on the musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, did not portray a completely truthful representation of the family’s story and Austrian culture, for example, the song Edelweiss is not actually a traditional Austrian folk song. The film was also not translated into German and distributed in Austria until the 1990s, 30 years after its’ original release.


Information source: The National Archives,

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I grew up in a bi-cultural household and have lived a tri-cultural life. I carry with me the political wit and hard-working nature of an American, the resourcefulness and love for culture of an Austrian, and the hot-headedness and desire to be ...

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