Today is the birthday (1905) of Maria Augusta von Trapp (née Kutschera), also known as Baroness von Trapp, the stepmother and matriarch of the Trapp Family Singers. She wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers which was published in 1949. The story served as the inspiration for the 1956 West German film The Trapp Family, which in turn inspired the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1959) and the 1965 film of the same name. Maria was the daughter of Augusta (née Rainer) and Karl Kutschera. She was delivered on a train heading from her parents’ village in Tyrol to a hospital in Vienna. She was an orphan by her 10th birthday. Maria was put in the care of an abusive uncle who was a radical atheist and staunchly anti-Catholic. She graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna at age 18, in 1923. While working as a teacher she happened to attend a Palm Sunday service at a local Catholic church, thinking she was going to a concert of Bach organ music. She was inspired by the priest’s sermon and decided to live a religious life.
Maria was actually a wild child, and her temperament did not soften after conversion. In 1924 she entered Nonnberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg, as a postulant, intending to become a nun. Contrary to Sound of Music, she did not “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” whilst a nun. In fact she was very sickly. She did cause a lot of trouble, though. In 1926, while she was still a schoolteacher at the abbey, Maria was asked to teach one of the seven children of widowed naval commander Georg von Trapp. His wife, Agatha Whitehead, had died in 1922 from scarlet fever, contracted from one of the children. Eventually, Maria began to look after the other children as well (Rupert, Agathe, Maria Franziska, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina). Thus, she was not hired as a nanny, and she did not introduce the children to music; they already had a music tutor. Nor was Georg the distant father portrayed in Sound of Music. He was a loving and devoted father who encouraged music in the home.
Georg von Trapp, seeing how much she cared about his children, asked Maria to marry him, although he was 25 years her senior. Frightened, she fled back to Nonnberg Abbey to seek guidance from the mother abbess. The mother abbess advised Maria that it was God’s will that she should marry the Captain. Because Maria was taught always to follow God’s will, she returned to the family and told the Captain she would marry him. She later wrote in her autobiography that on her wedding day she was blazing mad, both at God and at her husband, because what she really wanted was to be a nun: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” Maria and Georg married on 26 November 1927. They had three children together: Rosmarie (born 1929), Eleonore (“Lorli”) (born 1931), and Johannes (born 1939).
In 1935, the Trapps faced financial ruin. Georg had transferred his savings, held until then by a bank in London, to an Austrian bank run by a friend, Frau Lammer. Austria was at the time experiencing economic difficulties during a worldwide depression, because of the Crash of 1929. Lammer’s bank failed, and the family faced a financial emergency. To survive, the Trapps sent away most of their servants, moved into the top floor of their home, and rented out the other rooms. The archbishop sent Father Franz Wasner to stay with them as their chaplain, and this began their singing career.
Soprano Lotte Lehmann heard the family sing, and she suggested they perform at concerts. When the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg heard them on the radio, he invited them to perform in Vienna. After performing at a festival in 1935, they became a popular touring act. They experienced life under the Nazis after the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938. Life became increasingly difficult as they witnessed hostility towards Jewish children by their classmates, the use of children against their parents, the advocacy of abortion both by Maria’s doctor and by her son’s school, and finally by the induction of Georg into the German Navy. They visited Munich in the summer of 1938 and encountered Hitler at a restaurant. He invited them to perform for him, but they refused. In September, the family left Austria and traveled to Italy, then to England and finally the United States. The Nazis made use of their abandoned home as Heinrich Himmler’s headquarters.
Initially calling themselves the “Trapp Family Choir”, the von Trapps began to perform in the United States and Canada. They performed in New York City at The Town Hall on 10 December 1938. The New York Times wrote:
There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.
Charles Wagner was their first booking agent, then they signed on with Frederick Christian Schang. Thinking the name “Trapp Family Choir” too churchy, Schang Americanized their repertoire and, following his suggestion, the group changed its name to the “Trapp Family Singers”. The family, which by then included ten children, was soon touring the world giving concert performances. Alix Williamson served as the group’s publicist for over two decades. After the war, they founded the Trapp Family Austrian Relief fund, which sent food and clothing to people impoverished in Austria.
In the 1940s, the family moved to Stowe, Vermont, where they ran a music camp when they were not touring. In 1944, Maria and her stepdaughters, Johanna, Martina, Maria, Hedwig, and Agathe applied for U.S. citizenship. Georg never applied to become a citizen. Rupert and Werner became citizens by serving during World War II. Rosmarie and Eleonore became citizens by virtue of their mother’s citizenship. Johannes was born in the United States in Philadelphia on September 1939, during a concert tour. Georg von Trapp died in 1947 in Vermont after suffering from lung cancer.
The family made a series of 78-rpm records for RCA Victor in the 1950s, some of which were later issued on RCA Camden LPs. There were also a few later recordings released on LPs, including some stereo sessions. In 1957, the Trapp Family Singers disbanded and went their separate ways. Maria and three of her children became missionaries in Papua New Guinea. In 1965, Maria had moved back to Vermont to manage the Trapp Family Lodge, which had been named Cor Unum. Maria began turning over management of the Lodge to her son, Johannes, although she was initially reluctant to do so. Hedwig returned to Austria and worked as a teacher in Umhausen.
Maria von Trapp died of heart failure on 28 March 1987 (age 82), in Morrisville, Vermont, three days following surgery. Maria, her husband Georg, and four of her stepchildren (Hedwig, Martina, Rupert, and Werner) are interred in the family cemetery at the Lodge.
I visited the Lodge in Vermont 8 years ago. Johannes (Johnny) still popped in now and again, although he had nothing to do with the management any more. It’s in a beautiful setting in the Green Mountains, but I was not fully aware of its significance until I visited the Tyrol 2 years ago. Pictures and souvenirs of Maria are everywhere of course, but I was mostly taken with the uncanny resemblance of the wilder parts of the Tyrol and Vermont.
Tyrol cuisine is famous as a cross between classic Italian and Austrian cooking. Among other things, you can get strudel in any variety imaginable – not just apple. Tyrol strudels can be savory as well as sweet. For me Kartoffelteigtaschen mit Pfifferlingen (potato ravioli with chanterelles) is perfect Tyrol cooking, combining a pasta dough like northern Italian gnocchi and the mushrooms of the mountains.
Kartoffelteigtaschen mit Pfifferlingen
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup trimmed, finely chopped chanterelles
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2″ chunks
1 ½ cups “00” flour
1 tsp. sweet wine, such as moscato
4 egg yolks
2 tbsp. olive oil
½ lb. chanterelles, trimmed, larger ones torn into small pieces
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp. butter
¼ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
¼ cup small sprigs flat-leaf parsley
For the filling: Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the chanterelles and salt and pepper to taste, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley and transfer mixture to a bowl. Set aside.
For the pasta: Put the potatoes in a large pot, cover them with salted water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, return them to the pot, and let them dry slightly over medium-low heat, 4-5 minutes. Press the potatoes through a potato ricer on to a large parchment paper-lined sheet pan in a single layer. Let cool.
Put the prepared potatoes, flour, wine, egg yolks, and salt to taste in a large bowl, and gently mix them into a soft dough. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface, and divide it into 2 balls. Cover 1 ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate it. Roll out the remaining dough into a 10″ × 14″ rectangle. Cut the rolled dough in half crosswise. Spoon some of the filling in 10 small mounds (1 generous tsp. each) on half the dough, keeping them spaced about 2″ apart. Run a moistened finger around each mound to form a 2″ square. Lay the other half of rolled-out dough over the mounds. Press down in between mounds to seal ravioli. Using a ravioli cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into ten 2″-square ravioli. Transfer to a lightly floured sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Gently drop in the ravioli and simmer until floating and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chanterelles, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chanterelles to a bowl. Return the skillet to the heat, add butter, and cook until light brown, 3-4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ravioli to 4 plates. Top with mushrooms and parmigiano and drizzle with brown butter. Sprinkle with parsley.