Born and raised in Norway, August Werner moved to Brooklyn, New York, as a young man and made a name for himself as a singer in both the Norwegian American and wider musical communities. By 1931, having performed across the country as a soloist, Werner settled in Seattle and began a three-decade career teaching at the University of Washington School of Music. As a Norwegian American, August Werner gave new voice and direction to a multitude of operas, music compositions, and choral groups with his wide-ranging knowledge of European composers and languages. Known for his directness, passion for music, and reverent self-belief in his own talent, Werner was a recognized leader in the advocacy of music and the arts within Scandinavian communities from Seattle to the international scene. Nor were his talents limited to music. Werner also worked in a variety of visual arts, in particular sculpture, creating busts of famous composers and UW colleagues and designing the 16-foot-tall statue of Leif Erikson that stands at Shilshole Marina in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.
Move to America
From an early age in his native Bergen, Norway, August Werner had many vocational interests and pursuits. Initially, he studied agriculture and received a bachelor of science degree from the College of Agriculture in Stend, Norway. He also considered careers in both architecture and the ministry. Superseding all of these was a passion for music and singing and, by extension, for being a concert performer specializing as a baritone or "basso" soloist. Werner's natural singing ability remained the cornerstone of his career in the arts throughout his life. Beginning in 1915, he traveled back and forth between Norway and the United States as a crew member for the Norwegian American Line. Eventually he settled in Brooklyn, New York, and in 1925 he filed a petition for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen.
Shortly after his arrival in Brooklyn, Werner set out to further his career as a singer and performer. He sang at churches, local concert halls, and civic clubs, at equal ease performing in English or Norwegian. During rehearsals for one of his soloist performances, Werner met his first wife, Gertrude Gunston (1890-1958), who was an accomplished piano accompanist in her own right. The two shared a love for music as well as their Norwegian ancestry, and they were married two years later in 1920. Over the next decade, Gertrude would occasionally accompany August on either the piano or flute for local concerts, but always felt in his shadow, as she explained in a 1932 interview: "There wasn't room in a family for two artists striving for recognition, but now that my husband has attained success, I have begun to think of my own musical career" (Mara).
Werner sought to further train his baritone voice by completing studies at the Master School of Music in Brooklyn under Mme. Melanie Guttman-Rice (1874-1961), who prepared him for his professional New York debut in 1924. (Rice had also trained Gertrude Werner in voice.) His career as a professional singer was bolstered by three years on Broadway, performing as a solo baritone at the Rivoli, Rialto, and Criterion Theatres under Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld (1879-1939). Werner also worked in the recording industry, producing more than 50 solo vocal performances and seven motion-picture soundtracks on both 10-inch and 12-inch records for the Victor company label between 1919 and 1927.
Bolstered by his successes on radio and in New York, Werner was invited to sing with the United New York Singers as a soloist as the group toured Europe in 1926. In the same year, he honored a request from the Norwegian government to represent Norway in concert at the U.S. Sesquicentennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.
West Coast Debut
As his public exposure grew, so did demand for his talent. Fans would also write to him, entreating him to perform for a seasonal concert series or with special requests for songs by Scandinavian composers, such as Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), C. L. SjÓ§berg, and Hakon Børresen (1876-1954). The Mozart Club of New York hosted him as a featured soloist for four consecutive seasons, as did the Schola Cantorum ("singers' school") in New York City under the direction of composer Kurt Schindler (1882-1935) for three seasons.
On November 5, 1929, "direct from New York," Werner sang with the Norwegian Male Chorus at the Eagles Hall on 7th Avenue in Seattle (concert ticket). The concert was his first-ever performance on the West Coast and, as word of his ability spread, resulted in bookings at additional Northwest venues through 1929 and 1930. In a letter several months after the Eagles Hall concert, John Arntson of Tacoma wrote to fellow chorus member Andrew Anderson in Seattle about the prospect of hosting a repeat visit:
"I presented your letter to the singers last evening but they felt they could not do anything until the last part of February at least ... I also spoke to Mr. Jetland, President of the Norden Lodge No. 2, this morning and he stated that Norden was in the same predicament. I regret to have to report this because Mr. Werner made a wonderful impression upon those who heard him sing" (Arntson to Anderson).
Werner also had repeat performances in Seattle, for the University of Washington's baccalaureate commencement service and later, in the fall, for the Santa Cruz Women's Club at Parish Hall, where he demonstrated his wide command of multiple languages, singing pieces by Handel ("Judas Maccabaeus," "Dank Sei Dir, Herr"), Gertrude Ross ("Serenata"), Christian Sindling ("Rav"), Oskar Meriwanto ("En Barnsaga vid Brasan"), and A. Bussi-Peecia ("Lolita") in Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Italian, among others.
In the spring of 1931, Werner briefly turned his professional attention toward California and the promise of Hollywood notoriety. Paul Ralston, an accompanist and voice coach, acted as a proponent for the singer as "Orpheus" with a concert scheduled on June 2:
"They are so damned slow in ever reaching a decision. Without any desire to knock, we are unfortunate in having a very poor executive as President this year. Anyway, it has now come to a proposition of either yourself or a man by the name of Argel ... my argument to them is that he will be available next year and in all probability you will not be. As we are going to close the season more in the hole than the club has ever been before, price may enter in, regardless of the merits of the artist" (Ralston to Werner).
Werner prevailed in the competition for the Orpheus production and would continue to sing in operas and musicals throughout his career, in roles that included Count Robinson in Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage, Pissarro in Beethoven's Fidelio, Bartolo in Paisiello's The Barber of Seville, along with roles in La Bohème and Tosca.
Despite Werner's popularity and growing fame, he was often at a disadvantage when it came to compensation for his time and effort. An intermediary in Los Angeles tried to secure him a concert with the Grays Harbor Symphony Orchestra in Aberdeen, but no contract was forthcoming "due to the present business depression" (Giles to Little). Another reply, from a representative of the Bellingham Male Chorus, countered Werner's offer of $125 to come sing at a future date with just $50 and a portion of tickets sold, owing to the difficulties of filling a concert hall where there was "singing only" (Olsen to Belstad). Another performance, at the Ideal Theatre in Stanwood, Snohomish County, on November 10, 1929, netted the singer just $65. Creditor bills for an advertisement Werner had placed in the Musical Courier dating back to 1929 further added to the singer's financial pressures.
Teaching at the University of Washington
Werner was able to finally achieve some stability in income with a new teaching opportunity at the University of Washington. On March 15, 1931, he was invited to perform as the featured baritone for the UW Music Department's final program of the winter quarter. The soloist spent the next several months in negotiations with the UW over his qualifications and starting salary, with the latter finally agreed upon at $4,000 for the academic year. He was appointed as a Professor of Music teaching "Voice" at the University of Washington on August 22, 1931.
August Werner relocated to the University District of Seattle a month before the start of the academic year in 1931, while Gertrude remained living in Brooklyn with her younger brother in order to continue her own pursuits in music. She joined him in Seattle two years later, where the couple remained together until her death on July 27, 1958.
As both a director of choruses and as an instructor in voice training, Werner expected high standards from those around him: "He didn't have to say a word -- just a look was enough to tell a singer he was off key ... he demanded perfection ... and he could be really mean with his students" (Cole, "August Werner ...").
After joining the UW, Werner also became more selective in his choice of concert performances away from the university, with potential commitments impacted by both his class schedule and what compensation might be offered by the venues. This selectivity was informed by increasing demand for Werner as a singer, by the economic times that impacted singers around the country, and by the fact that, as Werner put it, "I have had more than my share of work and my voice and most of all my self needs rest" (Werner to De Ridder). Tryggve Siqueland (1889-1937), chairman of the Finance Committee for the 1933 International Exposition in Chicago bemoaned the ability of the group to adequately acknowledge Werner for his contributions to the event:
"I wish to thank you most heartily for the splendid cooperation which you gave us by coming to Chicago to sing the solos on Norway Day. On June 22nd, Scandinavian Day, we had hoped to make money sufficient to be able to pay our expenses as well as to reimburse some others who rendered exceptional gratuitous services. However instead it was a financial flop, and we have a large deficit. It will therefore be impossible to send you such renumeration [sic] as we had hoped to do, and hope that the pleasure given to your audience while you were in Chicago will at least be some compensation to you ..." (Siqueland to Werner).
Over the next two years, Werner turned down invitations for a performance with the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association (a group he would later lead as Director-in-Chief in 1960) at the 27th Sängerfest in Vancouver, British Columbia; a solo from "Valkyries" for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; another Sängerfest concert in Fargo, North Dakota, with the Orpheus Male Chorus; and a concert organized by the Norwegian Glee Club of Portland.
Organizers of the Fargo event in particular seemed to pressure Werner to attend. Although offering only $250 for his anticipated performance from June 21 to 23, the Sängerfest organizers petitioned the Luther College Musical Union and other acquaintances of Werner's "in the east" to try to persuade the singer to change his mind about attending the concert. In a diplomatic reply letter, Werner outlined his rationale to one such petitioner:
"Letters from Fargo stated at first the limited amount of funds and also that one soloist was already engaged and others available. Not being in the habit bargaining with my countrymen any more about pay for my services I at that time gave reasons for not feeling I could come ... $250 would not cover my own expenses such as traveling from Seattle to Fargo and back again, hotels, Pullman fare, meals, and the loss of earnings at the summer school while away" (Werner to Olsen).
Werner's time with the UW's School of Music served him well in the coming years, allowing other musical and arts pursuits outside the university, including his direction of the Norwegian Male Chorus of Seattle (1935-1974), as well as the Norwegian Ladies Chorus and the Nile Temple Chanters in Seattle, and service as Choral Director for the Knights Templar (1954). Over the years he amassed such a record of singing parts for the UW's Opera Theater that he found himself repeating some of the same roles from years before, such as the character Don Pasquale in Donizetti's opera of the same name in 1951 and again in 1957. Werner became a close associate of Dr. Stanley Chapple (1900-1987), who joined the School of Music as Director in 1948 and founded the Seattle Opera Guild. Many of the orchestra and choruses that followed counted Werner among those who contributed to the guild's success.
Werner taught at the University of Washington for a total of 33 years, finally retiring in 1965.
A Lifelong Passion for the Arts
In addition to his work as a singer and teacher of music, Werner expanded upon his deeply rooted passion for both music and Nordic culture in other artistic forms. In the 1930s he experimented with photography by taking studio portraits of fellow musical performers, close friends, and his wife Gertrude. He wrote about musical scores ("Bolero," "The Kiss of Love," "Milkmaid's Song") for musical textbooks and wrote articles on "Scandinavian Music," "Finnish Music," and "Danish Music" for The Encyclopedia Americana. As a self-taught artist, he created caricatures of Norwegian trolls ("bogies") in drawings, watercolor paintings, and on furniture, as well as ceramics with Norwegian motifs.
Werner also demonstrated an accomplished hand at portrait sculpture. He completed sculpture busts of composers including Grieg, Beethoven, and Jean Sibelius, and others of a more personal association, such as music school director Stanley Chapple, UW Vice President David Thomson (1871-1953), Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature chairman Edwin J. Vickner (1878-1958), and fellow Nile Shrine Temple member Frank B. Lazier (1860-1954).
For his approach to sculpture, Werner worked from life masks of his subjects made with plastelina, which permitted sculpting prior to casting the plaster busts, or modeled portraits in clay from live models. He also chose to work out of his home, rather than maintain a studio elsewhere. Such pursuits were always in competition with his other musical interests and commitments, as Werner himself acknowledged in an interview after completing his monumental bust of Beethoven: "I haven't had much time to work on my sculpture or to touch my painting this spring" (Guzzo, "Meet August Werner ..."). The busts of Sibelius and Grieg became international hallmarks of Werner's career, finding their way to Turku University in Finland and the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., respectively.
A new opportunity from the local Nordic community led the sculptor to create his largest and most public work ever: a monumental statue of Viking explorer Leif Erikson sponsored by the Leif Erikson League in Seattle. Werner designed and modeled in plaster a four-foot model of the explorer on his dining-room table in 1960. After considerable debate within city government, the statue was approved by the Municipal Arts Commission later that same year, with the proviso that it be installed at the Port of Seattle's Shilshole Marina in Ballard. The 16-foot statue of the figure in bronze was dedicated on June 17, 1962 (Norway Day) in the summer of the Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle. The year of the statue's unveiling also saw Werner obtain an additional measure of happiness with marriage to his second wife, Agnes Enge (1910-2011).
Werner received substantial recognition for his many other achievements and contributions to the Norwegian American community and for promoting Scandinavian culture and the arts. On May 1, 1967, he became a life member of Lodge No. 1, Sons of Norway, in Seattle. For his contributions to Scandinavian music and culture, Werner was decorated by King Olav V of Norway (1903-1991) and King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden (1882-1973), and received an Honorary Distinguished Citizen award from Washington Lieutenant Governor John A. Cherberg (1910-1992) in 1979.
Werner died on August 10, 1980, at the age of 87.