Tuesday 6 December 2016

The real Sound of Music daughter

Published 08/01/2011 | 05:00

Agathe von Trapp, who has died aged 97, was the eldest daughter of the von Trapp family, whose singing talent and dramatic flight from Austria and the Nazis after the Anschluss is recounted in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (1959) and the Oscar-winning film of the same name in 1965.

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Agathe inspired the character of Liesl, the eldest child in the film (in real life Agathe had an elder brother). However, unlike the bubbly Liesl (played by Charmian Carr in the film), Agathe was shy and reclusive, and had not in her teenage years had a boyfriend.

"In those days people didn't date like they do here, and teenage boys didn't deliver telegrams," von Trapp said, referring to Liesl's Nazi, telegram-delivering beau in an interview given in 2003.

Von Trapp wept on seeing the musical for the first time, upset by the severe portrayal of her father.

Only months before she died she said: "The movie is a very nice story, but it is not our story. And it misrepresented my father. He was not a dictator. He was very kind, and did whatever was good for us."

This was the chief inaccuracy of both film and musical, but von Trapp enumerated a number of others -- her stepmother had come to the von Trapp household as a tutor to a sibling weakened by scarlet fever rather than, as musical and film suggested, a governess to all.

In addition, Captain von Trapp's seven children were already musical by the time of their future stepmother's arrival. Their own mother, Agathe Whitehead, had played the violin and the piano. Their stepmother, Maria Augusta (known as 'Gustl'), had, however, taught them to sing madrigals.

After the death of Captain von Trapp in 1947, Gustl wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, an account of how the family -- she had had three children of her own with her husband -- had been saved from financial ruin by forming a choir that went touring around Europe.

However, as Gustl sold the rights for the book for a flat fee, the von Trapps did not profit greatly from the musical, or the subsequent film starring Julie Andrews as Maria. Agathe once commented that the real Maria was far less gentle than the apple-cheeked sweetness of the character played by Andrews.

A woman of forceful character and uncertain temper, the real Maria developed the habit when the musical first opened of standing up in the audience to receive the applause that theatregoers were directing to her onstage counterpart Mary Martin. Eventually, Martin began to blow kisses towards her.

Both film and musical also downplayed the strong Catholic faith that had, according to Agathe, sustained the von Trapps through difficult times.

"My family lived through some of the 20th Century's most trying times without compromising deeply held beliefs," Agathe wrote in her autobiography in 2004.

The autobiography, amply illustrated with photographs and her own sketches and entitled Memoirs Before and After the Sound of Music, was written "to set the record straight".

Agathe von Trapp was born in 1913, the eldest daughter of Georg von Trapp, an Austrian naval captain, and his wife Agathe, a granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, an English engineer who invented the torpedo.

After Agathe's mother died, a postulant from a local convent, Maria Augusta Kutschera, arrived in the von Trapp household as a tutor to Maria, a child weakened by scarlet fever and unable to manage the 45-minute walk to school.

Soon Gustl was introducing lighter pastimes such as mountain hikes and volleyball (a sport Agathe detested) into the children's highly regimented routine.

When Agathe was 14, her father summoned her into his study and asked: "Do you think I should marry Gustl? You know, she's quite pretty."

"I remember the exact words of my answer to Papa: 'I think if it is the will of God, then you should marry her.' At the age of 14 this was not my usual way of thinking, but the words just flowed out," Agathe said in her memoir.

When, in 1927, Gustl married Captain von Trapp, she had not been, she candidly admitted in her autobiography, in love with her husband. "I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children," later adding: "By and by I learnt to love him more than I have ever loved before or after."

When the family lost their fortune, Gustl took swift action, dismissing servants, letting out rooms in the family home in Salzburg to lodgers and forming her stepchildren into a choir and -- despite initial opposition from her husband -- taking them on singing tours.

Von Trapp, who as well as singing had played the guitar, was 43 when the choir was dissolved.

For the next 40-odd years she ran a kindergarten attached to the parish of the Sacred Heart in Glydon in Baltimore.

She did not marry. Her death leaves four surviving members of the Trapp Family Singers: Maria (96); Rosmarie (81); Elenore 'Lorli' (79); and Johannes (71).

Agathe von Trapp, singer and kindergarten teacher, was born on March 12, 1913. She died on December 28, 2010, aged 97.

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