The Sound of Music: Summary, History & Characters

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  • 0:01 The Sound of Music &…
  • 0:46 The Real Life of Maria…
  • 1:43 Musical Plot Summary
  • 3:05 Fact vs. Fiction
  • 5:07 Rodgers & Hammerstein
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Many have enjoyed some version of 'The Sound of Music' only to later learn that parts of it are untrue. This lesson will acquaint you with the real story of the von Trapp family, explain how the musical play and film evolved, and explore some of the differences between them.

The Sound of Music & the von Trapp Family

How would you feel if someone wrote a story about you and your family only to discover that many of the facts were either distorted or completely changed? You might feel dismayed, frustrated, confused, or even betrayed. This was the case with the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music, which was both a 1959 musical play and a 1965 musical film. These works were based on two German films produced in 1956 and 1958 about the von Trapp family, which were themselves based on the real-life story of Maria von Trapp, published in 1949. However, there are many discrepancies between the musicals and reality.

The Real Life of Maria von Trapp

After finishing high school, Maria joined the Benedictine abbey of Nonnberg with the intent of becoming a nun. Monastic life was not a good match, and in 1926, she was sent to tutor the second daughter, a young girl bedridden with rheumatic fever, of widower Captain Georg von Trapp. Maria married the Captain the following year and became governess to his seven children. Maria and Georg also had three children together. Maria helped coach the children musically, and they went on to perform at festivals and on tour. When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Italy and eventually made their way to America. They used their singing skills to earn money and later bought a farm in Vermont, where they established a music camp in the early 1940s, which was later developed into a resort.

Musical Plot Summary

Both the musical play and film are based on the portion of Maria von Trapp's book for the period of 1926 to 1938, with numerous alterations. In these depictions, Maria goes to Nonnberg Abbey after graduating high school to act on her desire to become a nun. She is sent to the von Trapp family and finds the Captain cold and detached, but the children are quite musically inclined. She wins them over and teaches them to sing.

As the children's singing abilities develop, so does the relationship between Maria and Georg. The family begins performing publicly; Maria and the Captain marry. Hitler invades Austria, and the Captain, a retired naval officer, is conscripted into the German navy. He quickly departs the country with his wife and family.

For the sake of the fictional story, there is a romantic subplot between the eldest daughter Liesl von Trapp and Rolf, a young messenger who eventually becomes a Nazi soldier, but there was no child named Liesl in the von Trapp family. Also, there is a love interest between the Captain and Elsa Schrader; the Captain is engaged to Elsa but breaks it off to marry Maria. According to Maria's autobiography, there was actually a relationship between Georg and a Princess Yvonne.

Fact vs. Fiction

Maria von Trapp initially sold her rights to a German film company. Through interviews and memoirs, the von Trapp family explains that, as a result, they had no control over content in The Sound of Music. They also understood that the stage play and later film were musicals made for entertainment and were never intended to be a documentary about the family. There were certainly a few disappointments, however, in the way some of them were portrayed.

In these renditions, there were only seven children, not ten, with their names as well as some ages and sexes changed. The Captain was presented as cold, detached, and disapproving of music, when, in reality, he was none of those things. Maria, whose maiden name was changed in the musical, could be quite temperamental in real life, not necessarily the sweet and gentle character depicted. The real family choir also performed madrigals and other serious music, not just the lighter type of songs in the musical, such as 'Do-Re-Mi', 'The Lonely Goatherd', and 'So Long, Farewell.' The fictional impresario Max Detweiler represented the family's friend and priest, Rev. Franz Wasner, who was the von Trapp family musical director for over 20 years.

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