We all know a version of the life of Maria Von Trapp – the Austrian girl who entered the Salzburg convent, then was “loaned” as a governess to Baron Georg Von Trapp, to take care of his seven motherless children, whose story was made into the musical “The Sound of Music.” While heavily romanticized, that really is the outline of her life – she did marry the baron, the family did sing, they did escape Austria after the Nazi takeover (if not in quite such a dramatic way).
What happened afterward?
On November 18, 1965, Brigham Young University brought Maria to Provo to tell the BYU students what happened afterward. She recorded her arrival in Provo, driven from the airport in Salt Lake City by someone she described as “a Mormon bishop.”
”You know,” he said, “we are coming close to the exams of the midyear.”
“Aha,” I acknowledged.
“Our lecture series is not compulsory. The students do not have to attend.”
“So?” I answered, not knowing what he was hinting at.
“We have booked you in the fieldhouse,” he informed me.
“And what is a fieldhouse?” I asked.
After a little hesitation he informed me it was their big stadium which held 14,000 people.
Now I understood. “Bishop,” I said, “if you are worried that we might have only a small audience on account of the exams, all I ask is that you transfer my lecture from the fieldhouse into a classroom so I can see my audience, and everything will be all right.”
The bishop was visibly relieved.
At that time we were just nearing the campus. I could see the buildings already, but what was that?
Groups of students were milling around and I could hear shouting. Then I saw a look of real apprehension on the face of my driver. Only the week before the UCLA campus at Berkeley had suffered under the first student riots. The bishop asked me to wait in the car while he investigated the noise.
In no time he was back with a big smile. The students were fighting to get into the fieldhouse which had been filled to capacity for over half an hour already, and he had to raise the ban of no one being allowed to stand in the aisles so that they could all get in.
Then came a really wonderful hour together with these young people who listened in rapt attention to my story. After the last word of my speech there was thundering applause.
And what did Maria tell the attentive Cougars?
Whenever I am called upon to tell the real story, it always strikes me how very much like a fairy tale it really is. So I would like tos tart, “Once upon a time …”
Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a nun. And, I tell you, I really wanted to be a nun. I handpicked the hardest, strictest, “worstest” of all houses I had heard about, an ancient abbey in Salzburg … These good nuns spend a whole year turning a boy first into a girl, and then another year of making a novice out of her. toward the end of the second year I was called to see Reverend Mother Abbess.
The Reverend Mother told her about the request for a governess, and that she had picked Maria. Maria was “heartbroken,” she said – she loved the abbey and didn’t want to go, but agreed with Reverend Mother that “the most important thing in life is to find out what is the Will of God and then go and do it.”
Her life as a governess was nowhere near as romantic as “The Sound of Music,” evidently. She condensed that part of the story to
To make a long story short, I fell in love with the children and married the father; I got used to the father, and we were very happy.
The family (eventually increased by the births of three children to Maria) sang for pleasure and amusement. Their priest, Father Wasner, became their singing coach, introducing the family to masses and madrigals and other types of a capella music. The Von Trapps learned them all. They did sing in the Salzburg festival, and they did win first prize, as in the movie. They did not, however, leave Austria at that time. They did receive contract after contract, many of them from the United States, begging the family to go on tour. The Baron, as adamant in real life as his character was in the movie that his family would not perform for money.
Then came the Anschluss, and eventually the family decided to leave. Maria described a family meeting:
The father called his family together and said, “Now we have to find out what is the Will of God. Does He want us to keep our material goods – our big estate, our money, all that money can guy, our friends – or does he want us to keep our spiritual goods? We cannot have both any longer.”
Then he turned to his children and said, “But let me warn you, you may have money today and lose it tomorrow. On the very same day you can start all over again. But once you have lost your honor or your faith, then you are lost.”
So it was very quickly decided that we had to leave.
They, together with Father Wasner, left – by normal tourist travel, not by fleeing over a mountain path – and found themselves in Italy with very little more than the clothes they wore and their musical instruments (recorders, mostly). They also had their scrapbook filled with the contracts they had neither accepted nor declined. The refugees sang their way through Europe, to Norway and a ship to America.
Maria told a sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always tender account of their life in America, their concert tours, their humanitarian service in post-war Europe, their Catholic missionary service in New Guinea, and their distaste for communism.
I was walking alone through the jungle, and suddenly I remembered how after the first world war, Austria had also lost that war. I was a very little girl and I was so hungry. I was so hungry that it hurt – all the time. I remembered how nothing was left, and we got … “ersatz” for every real thing. “Ersatz” means a less good thing for the good one that isn’t there. So we got some brown liquid, which was called “ersatz” coffee. Or we got “ersatz” material for the real one – something made of paper and we were warned not to go out with it in the rain. We got wooden shoes, “ersatz” shoes. And so it was “ersatz” all over, until Austria picked herself up again, and after a few years quietly the real thing came back and nobody talked about the “ersatz” any more.
And here it was again: On the night before He died our Lord said, “One commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” (See John 13:34.)
The first Christian centuries understood Him. They understood the real meaning of love – not what Hollywood has made of it. They shared with each other. The ones who had much gave to the ones who didn’t have much, and everybody had enough. This must have been God’s own idea of communism.
Then we have only to turn pages in history books and we see sadly how that love vanishes – it fades out of the centuries. When it comes to the twentieth century it is gone; and what isn’t given voluntarily is now taken by force. So this is all communism is – “ersatz” for the real thing.
It is a great consolation that now we can do something about it. We have to pick up where we left off. We have to learn again the art of loving. We have to be sincere about this. And if we do this, the day will come when it will have spread into the big communities, into government, into the world, and communists will have disappeared and we won’t even know in which year. It won’t be necessary any more. This is now a great responsibility we have, but also a great honor.
Maria Von Trapp’s full address, “The Real Story of Maria Von Trapp,” can be found in BYU’s Speeches of the Year series. Her life story is found in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers; Around the Year with the Trapp Family; Family on Wheels: The Further Adventures of the Trapp Family Singers; Maria: My Own Story (which includes the story of her Provo visit); and Yesterday, Today and Forever.