People who meet the von Trapps via The Sound of Music may be surprised that the repertoire of the real-life Trapp Family Singers was unlike the jolly musical theater songs that Rodgers & Hammerstein created. The real von Trapps sang mostly art music—madrigals, religious pieces and classically-arranged folk music. In a 1998 interview, one of Georg and Maria’s sons said, “We were about good taste, culture, and all those wonderful upperclass standards that people make fun of in movies.”
Austrians, especially the Viennese, take their music seriously. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Vienna had an irresistible cultural magnetism that drew many of the greatest composers to its concert halls, opera houses, and ballrooms. A few were born there, but the real proof of Vienna’s appeal is how many died there, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, and both Johann Strausses. Mozart, penniless toward the end of his life, refused a lucrative appointment in Berlin, preferring to stay in his beloved Vienna.
Austria also has a rich legacy of folk music. Yodeling, developed in the Alps as a means of communication, is still practiced and sung in competitions. Many Austrian musical styles are linked to folk dances such as the ländler, the polka, and the waltz. Austrian classical composers loved to allude to the country’s folk styles in their symphonies—Gustav Mahler couldn’t resist inserting the country dances of his childhood into his titanic compositions.In the 20th century, summer music festivals became Austrian institutions. The most prominent of these celebrations, the Salzburg Festival, enjoyed a golden age in the mid-1930s, with performances led by world-renowned maestros like Artur Toscanini and Bruno Walter. The Trapp Family Singers appeared in 1936, singing at the Felsenreitschule, a former riding academy converted into a theater. They were booked by a concert manager—a job performed by the fictional impresario “Max Detweiler” in the musical—but sorry, Sound of Music fans, they didn’t flee the country after their performance.
In 1938, the Festival suffered a major blow upon the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Many prominent artists cancelled in protest and many of Jewish descent emigrated. The Festival closed in 1944, but was reopened in 1945 after the Allied victory in Europe, and slowly regained its prominence as the premier summer festival. Today, it remains a popular attraction for Austrians and tourists alike.
By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate