x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Agathe von Trappe: inspiration for The Sound of Music

At the age of 90, the eldest of the daughters of the Sound of Music family finally came to terms with the phenomenon that had been made of her life.

From left, members of the Trapp family Eleonore, Agathe, Maria, Georg von Trapp, Johanna, Martina, Hedwig, Maria, and Johannes at a rehearsal in 1946. Also seen are Werner, playing the viola da gamba, and Father Franz Wasner on the spinet.
From left, members of the Trapp family Eleonore, Agathe, Maria, Georg von Trapp, Johanna, Martina, Hedwig, Maria, and Johannes at a rehearsal in 1946. Also seen are Werner, playing the viola da gamba, and Father Franz Wasner on the spinet.

While less dramatic and not quite as saccharine, the real story that inspired The Sound of Music was as moving and remarkable as the stage and screen version that has charmed audiences since 1959.

At the age of 90, after decades of living in seclusion in the United States, the eldest of the daughters of the family, Agathe von Trapp, published that story and somehow came to terms with the phenomenon that had been made of her life.

Born in Pola on the Adriatic coast, (now Pula and in Croatia), Agathe Joanna Erwina Gobertina was the second child and eldest daughter of Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe Whitehead. Agathe Whitehead was the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, who in 1866 in Fiume, with a retired Austrian naval captain, Giovanni Luppis, invented the torpedo.

Georg von Trapp's father, also a naval officer, was ennobled by the Austrian Emperor in 1876. Georg followed his father into the Austrian Navy, distinguished himself in the Boxer Rebellion and later in the First World War as a submarine captain. It was said that he met his wife as she christened his U-boat. They married in 1911 and the family lived between Pola and at Erlhof on Zeller Lake where the Whiteheads had an estate.

In 1922, by then the mother of seven, Agathe Whitehead von Trapp contracted scarlet fever from her nine-year-old namesake and died. Inconsolable at the loss of his wife and disconsolate at the loss of Austria's seaports, Georg moved the family to a villa at Aigen near Salzburg. In 1926, a younger sister (Maria Franzisca) was too enfeebled to attend school so Maria Augusta Kutschera, an orphaned novice from the Benedictine convent of Nonnberg, was engaged as her tutor. She fell in love with the children and when Georg proposed, she accepted and they married in 1927. With the collapse of a friend's bank and most of his first wife's wealth lost, Georg (at the urging of her energetic successor) reluctantly agreed to the family singing professionally. Maria did not bring music to the house - they had always sung at home, but as a hobby.

As Memories Before and After the Sound of Music: An Autobiography, reveals, Agathe had no boyfriend, much less the telegram-delivering Nazi that sixteen-going-on-seventeen Liesel had. Nor indeed did the family escape Austria carrying rucksacks over the mountains. In fact they crossed the road and took the train to Italy in June 1938, making their way to the United States, where they had a contract with a booking agent. They settled in Stowe, Vermont in 1942, by which time Agathe had three half-siblings. The family toured and ran music camps. These continued even after Georg's death in 1947 with the charismatic, volatile Maria as unifying leader.

In 1956, a year after they ceased singing, Maria sold for US$9,000 (Dh33,000) and no royalties the family story to a German producer, who, after two Die Trapp-Famillie films, sold the US rights. Attending the opening of Rodger's and Hammerstein's stage production of The Sound of Music in November 1959, Agathe was distressed at the portrayal of her father as a cold and distant whistle-blower.

By then Agathe and a friend, Mary Lou Kane, who had worked at the family lodge, set up a kindergarten in Stowe. In 1958 they moved to Glyndon, Maryland, establishing another kindergarten at the Scared Heart School where Kane taught and Agathe kept house and sketched.

For five decades she lived in the school grounds, dropping the "von" and shunning attention. Her memoirs, 20 years in the writing, appeared in 2003, 10 years after her retirement, and this time the modest recognition and the warmth of readers' reactions brought her a level of contentment with her story that she had not known.

She is survived by her sister, Maria Franzisca, now 96, and their three half-siblings, Rosmarie, Eleonore and Johannes.

Born March 12, 1913; died December 28, 2010.

* The National