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.

Watch John Krasinski Interview Steve Carell About The Office's 15th Anniversary

John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
NBC Universal, Inc.

The Office just passed a major milestone: It has been 15 years since the American adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's hit British sitcom made its way to NBC, where it ran for nine seasons. To celebrate the show's big anniversary, former co-stars John Krasinski and Steve Carell reunited in the best way possible: Carell appeared as a guest on Krasinski's new YouTube show, where the two decided to spread some positivity.

Krasinski just launched his very own news show titled Some Good News, and it's exactly what we've all been needing. During this segment, he interviewed Carell via video call, and the two shared their favorite memories of working on the beloved workplace comedy.

"It's such a happy surprise," Carell said of The Office's continued success. "After all these years people are still tuning in and finding it." The two also addressed the question that's been on every fan's mind: is there a chance that we'll see the Dunder Mifflin crew reunite in some way?

"Listen, I know everyone's talking about a reunion," Krasinski said. "Hopefully one day we'll just all get to reunite as people."

You can watch the full episode below. (Carell joins the video around the 5:50 minute mark.)

15 Facts About John Brown, the Real-Life Abolitionist at the Center of The Good Lord Bird

John Brown, circa 1846.
John Brown, circa 1846.
Augustus Washington/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, was meant to start an armed slave revolt, and ultimately end slavery. Though Brown succeeded in taking over the federal armory, the revolt never came to pass—and Brown paid for the escapade with his life.

In the more than 160 years since that raid, John Brown has been called a hero, a madman, a martyr, and a terrorist. Now Showtime is exploring his legacy with an adaption of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Like the novel it’s based on, the miniseries—which stars Ethan Hawke—will cover the exploits of Brown and his allies. Here's what you should know about John Brown before you watch.

1. John Brown was born into an abolitionist family on May 9, 1800.

John Brown was born to Owen and Ruth Mills Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. After his family relocated to Hudson, Ohio (where John was raised), their new home would become an Underground Railroad station. Owen would go on to co-found the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and was a trustee at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, one of the first American colleges to admit black (and female) students.

2. John Brown declared bankruptcy at age 42.

At 16, Brown went to school with the hope of becoming a minister, but eventually left the school and, like his father, became a tanner. He also dabbled in surveying, canal-building, and the wool trade. In 1835, he bought land in northeastern Ohio. Thanks partly the financial panic of 1837, Brown couldn’t satisfy his creditors and had to declare bankruptcy in 1842. He later tried peddling American wool abroad in Europe, where he was forced to sell it at severely reduced prices. This opened the door for multiple lawsuits when Brown returned to America.

3. John Brown's Pennsylvania home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania
The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sometime around 1825, Brown moved himself and his family to Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, where he set up a tannery and built a house and a barn with a hidden room that was used by slaves on the run. Brown reportedly helped 2500 slaves during his time in Pennsylvania; the building was destroyed in 1907 [PDF], but the site, which is now a museum that is open to the public, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown moved his family back to Ohio in 1836.

4. After Elijah Lovejoy's murder, John Brown pledged to end slavery.

Elijah Lovejoy was a journalist and the editor of the St. Louis/Alton Observer, a staunchly anti-slavery newspaper. His editorials enraged those who defended slavery, and in 1837, Lovejoy was killed when a mob attacked the newspaper’s headquarters.

The incident lit a fire under Brown. When he was told about Lovejoy’s murder at an abolitionist prayer meeting in Hudson, Brown—a deeply religious man—stood up and raised his right hand, saying “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."

5. John Brown moved to the Kansas Territory after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which decreed that it would be the people of Kansas and Nebraska who would decide if their territories would be free states or slave states. New England abolitionists hoping to convert the Kansas Territory into a Free State moved there in droves and founded the city of Lawrence. By the end of 1855, John Brown had also relocated to Kansas, along with six of his sons and his son-in-law. Opposing the newcomers were slavery supporters who had also arrived in large numbers.

6. John Brown’s supporters killed five pro-slavery men at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre.

A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry
A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, 1856, Lawrence was sacked by pro-slavery forces. The next day, Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor until he lost consciousness. (A few days earlier, Sumner had insulted Democratic senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler in his "Crime Against Kansas" speech; Brooks was a representative from Butler’s state of South Carolina.)

In response to those events, Brown led a group of abolitionists into a pro-slavery settlement by the Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24. On Brown’s orders, five slavery sympathizers were forced out of their houses and killed with broadswords.

Newspapers across the country denounced the attack—and John Brown in particular. But that didn't dissuade him: Before his final departure from Kansas in 1859, Brown participated in many other battles across the region. He lost a son, Frederick Brown, in the fighting.

7. John Brown led a party of liberated slaves all the way from Missouri to Michigan.

In December 1858, John Brown crossed the Kansas border and entered the slave state of Missouri. Once there, he and his allies freed 11 slaves and led them all the way to Detroit, Michigan, covering a distance of more than 1000 miles. (One of the liberated women gave birth en route.) Brown’s men had killed a slaveholder during their Missouri raid, so President James Buchanan put a $250 bounty on the famed abolitionist. That didn’t stop Brown, who got to watch the people he’d helped free board a ferry and slip away into Canada.

8. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was meant to instigate a nationwide slave uprising.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 men—including five African Americans—seized control of a U.S. armory in the Jefferson County, Virginia (today part of West Virginia) town of Harpers Ferry. The facility had around 100,000 weapons stockpiled there by the late 1850s. Brown hoped his actions would inspire a large-scale slave rebellion, with enslaved peoples rushing to collect free guns, but the insurrection never came.

9. Robert E. Lee played a part in John Brown’s arrest.

Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Shortly after Brown took Harpers Ferry, the area was surrounded by local militias. On the orders of President Buchanan, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee entered the fray with a detachment of U.S. Marines. The combined might of regional and federal forces proved too much for Brown, who was captured in the Harpers Ferry engine house on October 18, 1859. Ten of Brown's men died, including two more of his sons.

10. John Brown was put on trial a week after his capture.

After his capture, Brown—along with Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, and John Copeland—was put on trial. When asked if the defendants had counsel, Brown responded:

"Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with anyone ... I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial."

Brown would go on to plead not guilty. Just days later, he was found “guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and murder in the first degree” and was sentenced to hang.

11. John Brown made a grim prophecy on the morning of his death.

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown passed his jailor a note that read, “I … am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” He was hanged later that day.

12. Victor Hugo defended John Brown.

Victor Hugo—the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was also an abolitionist—penned an open letter on John Brown’s behalf in 1859. Desperate to see him pardoned, Hugo wrote, “I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World … I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown.” Hugo’s appeals were of no use. The letter was dated December 2—the day Brown was hanged.

13. Abraham Lincoln commented on John Brown's death.

Abraham Lincoln, who was then in Kansas, said, “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

14. John Brown was buried in North Elba, New York.

John Brown's gravesite in New York
John Brown's gravesite in New York.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1849, Brown had purchased 244 acres of property from Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, in North Elba, New York. The property was near Timbuctoo, a 120,000-acre settlement that Smith had started in 1846 to give African American families the property they needed in order to vote (at that time, state law required black residents to own $250 worth of property to cast a vote). Brown had promised Smith that he would assist his new neighbors in cultivating the mountainous terrain.

When Brown was executed, his family interred the body at their North Elba farm—which is now a New York State Historic Site.

15. The tribute song "John Brown's Body" shares its melody with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It didn’t take long for Brown to become a martyr. Early in the 1860s, the basic melody of “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” a popular camp hymn, was fitted with new lyrics about the slain abolitionist. Titled “John Brown’s Body,” the song spread like wildfire in the north—despite having some lines that were deemed unsavory. Julia Ward Howe took the melody and gave it yet another set of lyrics. Thus was born “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Union marching anthem that's still widely known today.