The Real History Behind The Sound of Music

The von Trapp family performs on a London radio show in December 1937.
The von Trapp family performs on a London radio show in December 1937.
Imagno/Getty Images

In March 1965, the von Trapp family gathered in a New York theater for a special presentation of 20th Century Fox’s new film The Sound of Music, about their early life in Salzburg, Austria. When Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, glided down the aisle to her suave, soon-to-be husband, Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the real Maria rose from her seat, entranced, and began to walk toward the movie screen.

While Maria von Trapp might have been the only viewer who got to watch her own wedding reenacted with a Hollywood-sized budget, audiences everywhere were equally captivated by the idyllic charm of the seven talented von Trapp children and their pleasantly lawless governess-turned-stepmother. The Sound of Music became one of America’s highest-grossing films of all time, and the beloved soundtrack—written and composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—is probably the main reason that generations of non-musicians can effortlessly spout off the notes of the tonal scale.

Unsurprisingly, certain elements of the von Trapps’ story were altered for the silver screen. The movie had been adapted from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 Broadway musical of the same name, which was inspired by a German film from 1956, which was based on Maria von Trapp’s 1949 book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.

"It's like the parlor game where you whisper a word in your neighbor's ear and he whispers it and it goes around the room,” Johannes von Trapp, Maria’s youngest child with Georg von Trapp, later told BBC News in 2015. “By the time it comes back, it's usually changed a bit."

How Do You Find a Tutor for Maria?

In 1926, when one of Georg von Trapp's children, Maria, fell ill with scarlet fever and could no longer manage the 4-mile walk to school with her siblings, he asked the Reverend Mother at a nearby abbey to send him a suitable tutor. She chose Maria Augusta Kutschera, a 21-year-old novice with a teaching background.

maria von trapp with her five eldest daughters
The would-be nun flanked by her five stepdaughters in 1940. In the back row, from left to right, are Agathe, Hedwig, and Johanna; Maria and Martina are in the middle.
C.M. Stieglitz, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Kutschera, who was orphaned at age 9, had endured a difficult childhood in Vienna at the hands of uncaring, sometimes abusive relatives, and entered the State Teachers College of Progressive Education once she finished school. While there, she stumbled into a Palm Sunday mass (which she thought was a Bach concert) and found herself so moved by the priest’s address that she completely abandoned the atheistic values with which she had been raised.

"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,” von Trapp wrote in her autobiography, Maria, My Own Story. "But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed."

After graduating, Maria relocated to Nonnberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg, where she—like her movie character—had a tough time adjusting to the regimented nature of life in a religious institution. Kutschera’s health began to suffer, too, since the abbey didn’t allow her the fresh air and exercise that she was used to. So when the opportunity to head off to the von Trapps’ lavish villa for what was supposed to be a 10-month assignment presented itself, Kutschera immediately accepted.

Brown Paper Packages and Wedding Rings

Baron Georg von Trapp was a 46-year-old decorated war hero who had retired from the navy after World War I. When his wife, Agatha, passed away from scarlet fever in 1922, von Trapp was left to raise their seven children—Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina—on his own. Though von Trapp did design a unique whistle call to summon each child, he wasn’t much like the cold, unfeeling father that Plummer portrayed throughout the first part of The Sound of Music; Johannes von Trapp described him to BBC News as “a very charming man, generous, open, and not the martinet he was made out to be.” Kutschera had entreated the filmmakers to soften that characterization, to no avail. She herself, on the other hand, was much more volatile than Julie Andrews’s doe-eyed, mild-mannered depiction ever implied.

“One moment to the next, you didn't know what hit her,” Georg's daughter, Maria, said in an interview. “We were not used to this. But we took it like a thunderstorm that would pass, because the next minute she could be very nice."

georg von trapp
Georg von Trapp in 1910.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In spite of her sometimes ill temper, each of the von Trapp children formed close relationships with Kutschera as she tutored young Maria. Music had always been a central part of the von Trapps’ upbringing, and their mother had often played the violin or piano while they sang along. By Maria’s recollection, the von Trapps had already memorized more than 100 songs before they met Kutschera, meaning she hardly needed to introduce them to do, re, or mi. What she did introduce them to were madrigals, complex pieces of music first made popular during the Renaissance that featured multiple voices and were often performed a cappella style.

While Kutschera passed her time teaching, singing, and cavorting around the grounds with her jolly companions in tow, Georg von Trapp began to fall in love with the woman who had quickly become such a vital member of the family. The feeling wasn’t exactly mutual.

"I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him,” Kutschera, who was nearly 25 years younger than Georg—and only six years older than his eldest child—wrote in her autobiography. She did, however, love the children dearly; so when Georg asked her to marry him and become a second mother to his children, she accepted.

“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,” Kutschera wrote. She did struggle with her decision to desert the abbey, but the nuns helped convince her that God had simply shown her a different path.

von trapp family in 1939
Maria and Georg von Trapp with their 10 children in 1939.
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Georg and Maria married on November 26, 1927, and their union proved to be a happy one. “I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after,” Kutschera wrote. They had three more children, bringing the total to a round 10: Rosmarie in 1929, Eleonore in 1931, and Johannes in 1939.

The von Trapps were not untouched by the wide-reaching effects of the Great Depression, and they took in boarders to escape financial ruin when their bank shut down. One of those house guests, Father Franz Wasner, became an unofficial talent manager for the family—though Georg wasn’t keen on letting his family make their act public.

“It almost hurt him to have his family onstage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one,” Eleanore told The Washington Post in 1978. He eventually relented, accepting that it was God’s will for the family to share their musical gifts with others. The concerts, of course, also provided additional income.

Not Climbing Every Mountain

The von Trapps toured all over Europe during the mid-1930s, and even nabbed first place at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936. At the same time their international renown expanded, so too did the Nazi influence in Austria. But when the family received an invitation to sing at Hitler’s birthday party, they declined.

the von trapp family singers perform in 1950
Father Franz Wasner conducts Maria von Trapp and her children in 1950.
George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

It wasn’t the only time Georg spurned Hitler’s advances; he also turned down a request to join Hitler’s navy, and refused to fly the Nazi flag at the von Trapp villa. Increasingly concerned with their family’s safety in the midst of a regime so quick to silence even a whisper of opposition, Georg and Maria, who was pregnant with Johannes, decided it was time to evacuate. Rather than traipsing across the Swiss Alps, the 11 von Trapps, along with Wasner and their secretary, Martha Zochbauer, embarked on a transcontinental concert tour that took them first to Italy by train, and later to New York on the SS Bergensfjord in September 1939.

Johannes was born in Philadelphia that same month, and the family kept touring intermittently. In the early 1940s, they purchased a farm in Stowe, Vermont, which they eventually developed into a vacation resort called the Trapp Family Lodge.

Rupert and Werner automatically became naturalized citizens by serving in the U.S. military during World War II, and their stepmother and sisters were granted citizenship in 1948—one year after Georg died of lung cancer.

By the time the Von Trapp Family Singers formally disbanded in 1955, most of its members weren’t even relatives. The children had grown up, started their own families, and pursued their own, rather varied, careers: Rupert practiced medicine, Hedwig became a music teacher, and so on. Maria, ever the matriarch, kept managing the lodge until her own death in 1987, at the age of 82.

Though filmmakers might have blurred Maria’s rough edges, added a high-stakes escape from right under Nazi noses, and taken many other liberties in the retelling of the story, The Sound of Music still immortalized Maria’s legacy and maintained a focus on the most important themes in the von Trapps’ lives: devotion to family, resilience in the face of adversity, and, of course, a boundless love of music.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.