Friday, July 27, 2012

The Baron, the Novitiate and the Submarine in American Musical Theatre

This story is going to need a little buildup before it starts going, so please bear with me.   It will all become clear, eventually.

As cynical members of our modern society, we have learned through experience that many of the things we are told through the media and education system are at best simplifications, and often just outright fabrications. "The winner writes the history", and it is usually, nearly always, a self-serving version. But every once in a while you come across a story that you just know has to be a fabrication, completely implausible, and utterly improbable. Oh come on, people, you think, give me a break.

The particular work I am referring to is a well-known play by Rodgers & Hammerstein, "The Sound of Music", which later became a successful film. It has been said that society can be divided into two very broad categories, those who like Rodgers & Hammerstein and those who find them a little hard to take. I fall into the latter category for the most part and never much cared for "The Sound of Music", even though it is beautifully photographed in TODD -AO, has some very entertaining songs and, of course, Julie Andrews is completely perfect.

The problem is the plot. Not even a child could believe this story. "An Austrian naval officer, a war hero and a widower, has become alienated from his life and his family after the death of his wife. A young woman who is training to be a nun from a local convent is hired to be the teacher of his seven children who are growing up without their mother. But as it turns out, all of them, from the Baron down to his youngest child, knows how to sing. He falls in love with this teacher, they start singing together, the family is reunited, they become internationally known as a folk singing troupe, the Trapp Family Singers, and they have to run for their lives when the National Socialists annex Austria in 1938. They live happily ever after."

Oh please, spare me, I thought. Obviously this was some sort of pleasant fantasy, a structure that one could naturally hang some songs onto, have a romance, a little danger, a happy ending. Austria doesn't really even have a navy, being a landlocked country (just showing my regrettable ignorance of history at the time) and it never occurred to me in a million years that this story might be even partially true, let alone true in all major points. In fact, the story is not only true, its possible they even toned it down a little bit.

There the matter would have remained except that I believe that as a well-rounded member of our society,  I have a responsibility to study the fascinating history of submersibles and semi-submersibles with diligence. What could be more relevant and helpful for living in our modern and complicated world than the study of this technology? And what else could lead to such an improvement in character and morals?

Many navies and individuals contributed to the invention of the submarine from the mid-19th century on, including people from  England, Germany, France, Austria, Russia, Italy, Ireland, North America and others. Their professions included at least one priest, a well-known writer of science-based fiction (Jules Verne), a shoemaker, a wagon-maker, an army officer, many naval officers, a professor of mathematics and an innkeeper. Important supporters in the very early days, when no one was sure if this idea would ever really work, include the Irish Republican Army and the Confederate States of America.  Robert Fulton, an artist and inventor living in Paris, proposed the concept of the submarine to Napoleon and was awarded a commission to study the idea. 

Patience, we are almost there.

Then one day I came across an aspect of this story that had been completely unknown to me.  One of the major participants in WW1 had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course.   For some reason it had never occurred to me that they had a navy, but they did.  Although it was small, it was apparently well-regarded and they had looked closely into the submarine and built a very small fleet to explore the idea.   Although their fleet was small, and their equipment primitive, they were led by men with spirit and intelligence.  And they had an impact, apparently.   One of their captains was particularly successful, invented many techniques which would later be used by all sides in WW2, and famous for being the first submariner to sink a major enemy surface combatant by moonlight.   He was from a family with a history of service to the emperors of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was a member of their nobility.   A dashing and handsome submarine commander, he was decorated and promoted, and his name was Georg Ritter von Trapp.

"von Trapp", I thought, "Hmm, that name seems familiar somehow. How do I know that name?"

So I looked him up, and as I read, my blood ran cold with horror.  It was all true.  All of it.

OK, so it wasn't ALL true, but it was mostly all true.   Rodgers & Hammerstein had, it turned out, dramatized the departure from Austria and in reality it was no where near as exciting.

I was devastated by the realization that Hollywood had come very close to accurately portraying this story.  If you can't trust Hollywood, of all institutions, to lie to you, who can you trust?

Those of you who have had enough of this story can stop right here.  Those who want the details of this heartwarming and improbable story should read on.

Captain von Trapp had married for love a woman from England named Agathe Whitehead, the daughter of the man who had invented the torpedo in England. She had come to Austria to commission von Trapp's first command, the U-Boat U-6, fell in love and married him. They had seven children. After the war, one of those children became ill with scarlet fever and Agathe caught it from her and died. Georg Ritter von Trapp (the "Ritter von" is the title of nobility and means "knight") was unemployed and unemployable because after the war, the Austro-Hungarian empire was broken up and Austria was not allowed to have a navy. Thus von Trapp was a man without a profession. To make matters worse, the family fortune had been lost in a bank failure during the depression after the war. He had a very sick child, and many other children, who did not have a mother. He was financially devastated and heartbroken at the loss of his wife. He moved his family into the top floor of their house, and rented the rooms below to students to support his family. Eventually, since his sick child could not attend school easily, he decided to hire a tutor from the local convent, and educate his family at home.

You know what happens next. 

The teacher he hired was Maria Augusta Kutschera who had been born on a train and was an orphan by the time she was seven years old. She had graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna at the age of 18. She entered Nonnburg Abbey in Salzberg as a postulant intending to become a nun.

She lived with the family and became very attached to her students.  Georg and Maria fell in love.  As part of a well-rounded education, this being Austria between the wars, music was part of the children's education.  Apparently they were talented.  When Georg made an honest women out of Maria, in other words, when they got married, their first child arrived two and a half months later.   If you know what I mean.   They had three children together, making a grand total of ten children.

Somehow the well known German soprano, Lotte Lehmann, had heard the family sing and suggested that they should start performing. The Austrian Chancellor heard them on radio and invited them to come to Vienna and give a performance. They were able to get a booking manager and agent and toured parts of Europe, the United States and Canada.

In a review, the New York Times said
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.
To conclude the story, the National Socialists offered von Trapp a commission in the German Navy, but he declined.  The way the Austro-Hungarian empire was broken up, the region that von Trapp was born in was now a part of Italy and thus he had Italian citizenship.  The movie has them dramatically hiking out of Austria through the mountains, but in real life they took a train like normal people.   Eventually they settled in Vermont and started a lodge which is still in business. Their descendents live in this country, so far as I know.

In conclusion, I think that this anecdote clearly demonstrates the importance of the study of the history of submarines, and its value in understanding American musical theatre.

Pictures of Captain Georg, Maria and one of his submarines.


The lodge that Georg and Maria started when they came to this country is still in business, see

For more on the history of submarines in the navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, see

Captain Ritter von Trapp wrote a short book on some of his experiences as a captain of a submarine. A Google Books preview is at

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