Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A Baroness Named Maria

A Baroness Named Maria

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 11, 2008

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.



  1. 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.

    I wish, in 1965, we (the US) had learned and applied the lesson she was teaching. We would be much better off than where we find ourselves today in 2008.

    Comment by David Richey — July 11, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  2. Ardis, I am a huge Maria Von Trapp fan. I read “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” when I was a little girl. It was my first introduction to Catholic traditions, and I was interested in them and in the “real story.” Thank you for sharing this!

    Comment by Emily M. — July 11, 2008 @ 7:31 am

  3. Clarissa:
    I didn’t know that Maria was a real person. I think its kind of funny that what you could call her un-dramatized life (although it is very dramatic) life lasted, well, a lifetime, and the dramatic version lasted about an hour and a half. Cool post.

    Comment by Researcher — July 11, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  4. That last comment was written by Clarissa and she forgot to change the name. :-)

    Comment by Researcher — July 11, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  5. A great story, Ardis! Thanks.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — July 11, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  6. Wonderful! Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — July 11, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  7. Wonderful post – and wonderful woman – and wonderful juxtaposition of what caused riots at Berkeley and BYU in that day. :)

    Comment by Ray — July 11, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  8. I attended that Forum at BYU in 1965, and don’t remember much about it except that it was quite enjoyable and it was a full house. (I’d been in “The Sound Of Music” at the Valley Music Hall in North Salt Lake the first two weeks in September, so was quite familiar with the story and wanted to hear what the Baroness had to say.) It was quite interesting to read her account of that day.

    Comment by Dan Knudsen — July 11, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  9. It’s interesting what one’s memory keeps. As a seventh-grader in Provo in November 1965–who had not seen The Sound of Music, either the play or the movie–I had no idea that Baroness von Trapp was in Provo that month. My dad, who was on the faculty at BYU and went to most of the forum and devotional assemblies, didn’t say anything memorable about it–at least not memorable enough for me to recall nearly 43 years on.

    But I do remember a plane crash that month at the Point of the Mountain, when a DC-3 (!) carrying a group of BYU football fans down to Albuquerque went down. It was to have picked up Pres. Wilkinson and some others in Provo and continued on, but when it didn’t arrive on time, he took a different plane from Provo. (I do remember hearing a comment at the dinner table about the kind of person who would go to a damnable football game in those circumstances–although ELW may not have known (or cared enough to find out??) whether a bunch of his friends had just been killed.)

    And, when I found an old article about that crash, I read that it was the second plane crash in SLC in two weeks. A commercial jet had crashed and burned at SLC airport, killing about half of the 100 people on board. I remember going to the airport sometime that month and seeing the burnt out fuselage sitting near the end of the runway. (It seems odd that they would have left it there–do you really want people coming to the airport to see the wreck?)

    I guess plane wrecks were more interesting to me than Austrian governesses turned Baronesses. Probably still are. :-)

    Comment by Mark B. — July 12, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  10. You can’t move the wreck until the invcestigators are through examining the site. That could take a while.

    I read Maria von Trapp’s memoir long ago. I also read part of it in German. Some of the material, particularly about the Baron’s previous fiance appeared to me to have been edited out in the German edition. It was a great read.

    Cor unam!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — July 13, 2008 @ 8:03 am

  11. Your timing is perfect…we were just talking about Maria Von Trapp yesterday and I have recommitted to read her book. This was an awesome post. I love hearing more about the Real Story in her own words.

    Comment by m&m — July 28, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

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