Sue Perkins is on a journey to find out the secret of the universal appeal of The Sound Of Music – the most popular movie musical of all time. Her quest takes her from Salzburg all the way to New York and Vermont, meeting members of the real von Trapp family as well as cast members of the 1965 film.
She first travels to Salzburg, home of the von Trapps, where most locals have never seen either the stage musical or the film. The inaccuracies of the American film are glaringly obvious to the Austrians and the portrayal of Austrians as Nazi supporters is an inflammatory topic, a part of their history of which they would rather not be reminded.
Once Perkins begins her research it would appear that it was not only the American film makers who fictionalised the story, but Maria von Trapp herself. Many parts of her autobiography have little or no evidence to support them. She was born on a train in 1905 – Maria Augusta “Gusta” Kutschera but claims to have been orphaned at 9 and bought up by an uncle who treated her badly. She tells that she joined a hiking group and when in the Alps, experienced a ‘divine revelation’ that the beauty of the Alps was something she could forgo in order to give something back to God and she decided to enter an enclosed convent. Nonnberg nunnery is the oldest in the world, but in it’s extensive records there is no mention of Maria as either a nun or a teacher. It appears she taught shorthand to local children, and was not well liked, being very strict and devoutly religious.
In 1926, aged 21, Maria was sent to Baron von Trapp’s to teach one of his daughters. By 1928 they were married. Unlike the film, Georg was a warm, gentle man and Maria by contrast, was cold and strict. A character who does not appear in the film but who played a crucial role in their story was Father Wasner, it was he who taught the children to sing. The family travelled all over Austria and Germany in the 1930’s becoming popular for their traditional songs, winning folk festivals and so much in demand that they were requested for Hitler’s birthday party in 1939. As in the film, Baron von Trapp was a proud Austrian and absolutely refused to let his children perform for Hitler. Rather than fleeing over the Alps to Switzerland, the family boarded a train for Italy and from there a boat to a new life in America.
They arrived at Ellis Island, New York with a 6 month Visa to perform concerts and $4. They managed to rent a bus and travelled around the US giving concerts, finally settling in Vermont as it reminded Maria of Austria. They set up a music camp here which survives to this day. By this point Maria and Georg have had three children together, on top of the seven children from his original marriage. One of these seven still survives, also named Maria, she is 98 and still enjoys playing the accordion despite having forgotten all the English she learnt in America. Georg died in 1947, Maria and Georg’s first child Rosemarie, recalls him becoming increasingly sad and withdrawn towards the end of his life. He did not enjoy performing, nor it would seem did many of the children. Rosemarie describes her mother as “too much of a dictator”, whose mood swung up and down, wondering now whether she suffered from bipolar disorder. Rosemarie moved with her mother and two of her sisters to Papua New Guinea, after the family disbanded in 1956. Son Johannes described the split as a relief and said his mother’s “Messiah complex” caused the move to the South Pacific for 30 years to work as missionaries. When Maria died in 1987 the family fell apart, they argued over money, and struggled to find their identities in the life Maria had carved out for them.
At the Vermont music camp, Perkins wonders whether the reality of the story destroys the magic of the film, but with hundreds of visitors every year, it would seem that the impact of the film lives on. Back in Salzburg, a cast is preparing for the first ever performance of the Sound of Music in the city. Self-dubbed “Satanic Heidi” (Perkins in a Dirndl) attends the performance which is very well recieved. Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich in the film, thinks that the achievement of a happy life is what created a story “everyone wants to believe”.
Sue Perkins manages to present a well researched, in depth, uncovering of the real von Trapps, balancing the almost disappointing revelation that Maria von Trapp was not the least bit like Julie Andrews, with her enthusiasm and inimitable humour.
Climbed Every Mountain aired on BBC2 on 29 December 2012 at 8:15pm. It will be repeated on New Years Eve at 6pm and is available on BBC iPlayer.
Maria von Trapps autobiography – The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is available from many online retailers, priced around £6-8.