Elisabeth von Trapp will be the guest artist for the May 19th presentation of The Flagpole Radio Café. She is the granddaughter of the legendary Maria and Baron von Trapp whose story inspired the beloved play and film The Sound of Music. Elisabeth has been singing professionally since childhood and has enthralled audiences from European cathedrals to Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Inspired by her father Werner von Trapp’s guitar playing and singing, Elisabeth has carried on the legacy of the internationally renowned Trapp Family Singers. Building on her famed family’s passion for music, Elisabeth has created her own artistic style, at once ethereal and earthy, delicate and powerful. Critics have called her voice “hauntingly clear,” “joyfully expressive” and “simply beautiful.”
Elisabeth has released five self produced albums, and has performed across the United States, Austria and Russia. Her music has been featured on National Public Radio, BBC-Radio, Japanese National Radio and CNN Spanish Radio. She has appeared on CBS’s Eye on People, ABC’s Good Morning America and BBC-TV.
No one leaves an Elisabeth von Trapp performance unchanged. As someone once said, “Audiences of all ages are drawn by the promise of her famous name. Awed by the beauty of her voice and musical arrangements, their hearts are touched forever by the astonishing sound of her unique new music.”
In anticipation of her appearance at The Flagpole Radio Café show on Saturday May 19th at the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, Elisabeth was kind enough to speak with me about her family and her craft. I found her to be candid and fascinating. She has experienced music from an authentic multicultural perspective and it has shaped her life. Her story may begin with The Sound of Music, and her experiences as a Von Trapp no doubt shaped her destiny, but after speaking with her or hearing her perform for a few minutes, you realize that is only the beginning of her artistry. She is a musician of great depth, experience and even wisdom. She characterizes her musical life as a “journey.” She said she “needs to find the link between what my family has given me and what I bring. I have done that all along, but this is a journey that is ongoing.”
Martin Blanco: You were born into a family that has an extraordinary story to tell. How has the experience of your parents and grandparents shaped your life?
Elisabeth von Trapp: As you know, the original story that many people link me to was a story about my grandfather and grandmother, my father and his siblings as seen through the eyes of my step grandmother,
Maria von Trapp. I have nothing but the utmost love and respect for my family. They became the Trapp Family Singers. The Trapp Family Singers were musicians; they were true artists. They were dedicated, devoted, incredibly talented professional musicians who sang as a group for nearly 20 years. When I see pictures of them it almost makes me cry. They were so beautiful, my aunts so young and lovely, my father and uncles, so handsome and strong. Their life was an incredible story; it would make a great movie.
The public Maria and the private Maria were often conflicting anomalies, especially to her family and those closely connected with her. Like so many highly- driven and creative persons, she could be unpredictable. She was not above being formidable when she believed in an opinion or a cause and would move mountains to achieve her objectives. This hard driving, sometimes austere woman created a legend. She was a mother, a step mother, a grandmother, a musician and performer. She was a speaker, author, educator and public personality.
She was also my grandmother… my Mutta. She spoke at my college graduation and I was at her bedside when she died. I hold her memory dear. Maria’s story is a saga of a remarkable and courageous woman whose life continues to inspire and fascinate those who encounter it.
MB: Where did you grow up?
EVT: For the first several years of my life I lived on the grounds of the Trapp Family Lodge, surrounded by family history, hearsay and lore, always in close proximity with Maria, with whom I shared many experiences. Life as a young von Trapp was for the most part very quiet and uneventful, then at other times it was almost surreal. We grew up on a small Vermont farm, insulated from the world. I have one sister and four brothers, we all grew up with a sort of quasi-celebrity status. We were well known, almost famous, because our family; my father, all of my
aunts, uncles, my grandmother and grandfather had been involved in something which made them famous.
MB: Was coming from such a famous family ever difficult?
EVT: At times it seems that being a member of a famous family can be tricky. I’m known
before my music is heard, which isnʼt bad but it isnʼt easy. Often with that knowing
comes a host of preconceived notions of what I must be about. Growing up as a child
of a famous family can be difficult. Being a musical child from a famous musical family
can be extra challenging.
Even though I come from a musical family and the interest and musical
ability was in me, I found the more important experience in my life, that of
understanding my own musical journey really only crystallized when I moved beyond
my musical roots, traveled, met and performed with other musicians and explored
different musical genres.
MB: HAVING PERFORMED ALL OVER THE WORLD, ARE THERE ANY COUNTRIES OR VENUES WHERE YOU HAD SUCH A GREAT TIME, YOU CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK?
EVT: There were so many. Coming to mind right now, I am remembering performing in Russia before the collapse. I had a powerful experience in Israel; I spent half a year in Natanya. I did not understand until I got there, that I was on a pilgrimage to meet this extraordinary musician: King David. I stayed there and wrote wrote 15 songs. It was his inner expression of music that shaped my experience.
MB: I never thought of King David as a musician, but now that you say it, clearly he was.
EVT: A prolific one and his legacy inspired me while I was there.
MB: Would you speak about your process of song writing?
EVT: For me, the most important aspect of songwriting is being aware of my musical thoughts. As I dabble in my playing of any instrument, I make up melodies that match how I feel at a particular moment. What I keep and hone to become a song are musical ideas that I love the most. Those choices are made, based upon my honest likes and dislikes while designing a melody or musical pattern.
I rely on my inner emotional landscape to sculpt in tone. I design a topography of melody and song which helps crystallize a memory or situation that I wish to remember. When I perform live, I travel and retrace these landscapes and breathe life into those memories and experiences.
I also rely on my emotional reactions, carefully listening, replaying these feelings that I have translated into tone. Sonic moments that I arrive at, in declaring my authentic feelings, are very different to me than just playing patterns or making up melodies.
That careful listening continues for days, for weeks or even years. Musical ideas that become the songs I finalize and perform must pass a test. These tonal designs usually resonate a deep feeling of joy, beauty or a sense of inner fulfillment. These songs must bring great satisfaction that continues while performing them over and over again.
Discovered melodies often play in my mind, clear and true as if I were listening to a recording. They appear during the day as I run errands, or when I wake up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Tone is a very important expression that I relate to daily.
Most importantly, I must find time to engage in tone expression alone. It is in this contemplative journey where I find my best melodies.
In exchange, these melodies have become my comfort and have guided me to what I love to do. Sing and perform.
MB: How did you select your instrument? Is there a story behind where or how it was made?
EVT: My instruments are piano, guitar and my voice. I was given a harp that I play to give me a variety of textural playing. Because different dexterity is required plucking the harp strings to playing guitar, I often arrive at new melodic patterns which opens me up to new musical thoughts and songs.
The most important thing for me as a musician is knowing that my voice is my instrument. For me, emitting tone that best emotes the message of the song is the greatest and most thrilling work of singing. My whole body is the instrument; the guitar is my accompaniment. Now my voice has changed over the years. I’ve been working on my lower range now so that songs that I sung 15 years ago can be performed. I am settling in a deeper place and it’s harder for me to attach to my emotions in a restaurant or in a festival.
MB: When you listen to music for pleasure, what music do you typically turn to?
EVT: Robert Shaw’s O Magnum Mysterium is an album I return to when I want to come to a peaceful zone. It has become one of my favorites. It’s just voice and the harmony and it takes me on a journey of all different composers who shape the tone. My father loved Mozart. He would cry sometimes at certain points. He would talk at great length about how much joy Mozart brought to him. I believed him. I am finding that same source of joy as I listen to great works of music. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and then The Beatles were my favorite. People sometimes send me hymns and I might rework the lyrics because sometimes they’re too stodgy and they don’t speak to what’s happening now.
I remember as a young girl in Vermont, on cold winter nights I would sit on my bed in the dark, picking out a Scottish ballad on my guitar as the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on the phonograph would float up the stairs from the living room below where my mother sat knitting. Some of my earliest memories are of music. Music has been a tremendous influence on my life. It has had an impact on me and continues to guide me. Music has given me a place to be.
MB: What might our audience expect from your appearance in The Flagpole Radio Café?
EVT: Well I’m bringing two remarkable colleagues, Paul Asbell and Peter Riley. Playing music with them is a joy. I always come home satisfied. I’ll learn from them and the audience. This is the greatest gift from them.
I want to foster the enjoyment of people coming as an audience. There is a dialogue we have with the audience. If I bring my new music I have to make sure the audience is comfortable; the audience needs to know they might recognize something. I work very hard in designing and choosing the material. I’m looking to find songs that create a moment. I’ll perform things they are familiar with, but then I might do something unexpected.
MB: What else would you like to share with us?
EVT: The influence of diverse music has helped me experiment with music and develop my
own sound. I am thankful for my many blessings and look forward to a life of music; creating,
performing and interpreting. I am happy, healthy and content. . . life is sweet.
MB: Thank you Elisabeth. I look forward to seeing you Saturday.
Elisabeth von Trapp with Paul Asbell and Peter Reilly will be the guest artists at The Flagpole Radio Café on Saturday May 19t at 7pm at the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown CT. For tickets and information visit www.flagpoleproductions.org or call Martin Blanco 203.364.0898.