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Baer, Werner Felix (1914–1992)

by John Carmody

This article was published online in 2017

Werner Felix Baer (1914–1992), musician, composer, and broadcaster, was born on 29 April 1914 in Berlin, second son of Jewish parents Robert Baer, merchant, and his wife Lucie, née Bendix. His family was prosperous and cultivated; his father was the proprietor of a menswear business. After secondary schooling at the Steinsche Realgymnasium and Friedrich Werdersche Oberrealschule, Werner attended the Hochschule für Musik and the Stern'sches Konservatorium in Berlin where he studied for performance and teaching diplomas. His subjects included theory, piano, organ, composition, and conducting; he also claimed to have been a piano student of Artur Schnabel.

This education ended abruptly when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Although his hoped-for career as an operatic conductor could not flourish in those political circumstances, Baer was able to do some work at the Städtische Oper (under an assumed name), and he was musical director (1935–38) of the Kleinkunstbühne. He also toured Europe as accompanist for such singers as Richard Tauber, Joseph Schmidt, and Alexander Kipnis. However, since his Jewish background limited his musical activities, most were within that community. Organist (1935–38) at the renowned synagogue in Prinzregentenstraße, and then choirmaster and organist at the synagogue in Levetzowstraße, he also played piano in the jazz band ‘Sid Kay’s Fellows,’ and taught (1937–38) organ and modern dance music at the Jewish Hollaender private music school. On 31 May 1938 at the district registry of marriages in Berlin he married German-born Ilse Presch, a journalist and dressmaker.

After Kristallnacht (9–10 November 1938), Baer was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp but was released on 27 November under unknown circumstances (though it has been suggested that a financial inducement was paid to Nazi officials). Importuned to leave the country within three days, with 54 Reichsmark, he left Berlin with his wife, crossing the Brenner Pass into Italy, and then sailed aboard the Potsdam, bound for Siam (Thailand). At Colombo he learned that a musical position was available in Singapore, and he disembarked there on 23 December. He worked as municipal organist in the Victoria Memorial Hall, as a performer on radio, and as a teacher at the Far Eastern Music School and Raffles College.

Following a day’s internment in Singapore as an enemy alien, Baer travelled to Australia with his wife and daughter aboard the Queen Mary. Reaching Sydney on 25 September 1940, they were interned at No. 3 Camp, Tatura, Victoria, where he actively participated in musical and theatrical activities. Freed on 31 January 1942 to work as a fruit-picker at Shepparton, he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces on 8 April and served with the 8th Employment Company. Promoted to acting sergeant in November (substantive April 1944), he was discharged on 26 November 1945. He was naturalised on 14 May 1946.

Settling in Sydney Baer worked at a variety of freelance jobs, including film-score writer, Eisteddfod adjudicator, musical director for the popular radio program Australia’s Amateur Hour, choirmaster at the Great Synagogue (1946–50 and 1961–64) and Temple Emanuel for many years, and conductor of the Hurlstone Choral Society. He also toured as an accompanist for such singers as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Tito Schipa, and William Warfield. He made occasional appearances as conductor of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) Military Band and as a recitalist on the renowned organ in the Sydney Town Hall. His divorce from Ilse was finalised on 18 May 1950, and on 9 June at the registrar-general’s office in Sydney he married Italian-born and Australian-raised Sybil Eva Lighezzolo, private secretary to the Italian minister to Australia.

In 1951 Baer was appointed by the ABC as New South Wales State supervisor of music (later music development officer) as successor to the composer John Antill, a position that allowed him to continue his diverse concert activities. He took the security of that position in preference to an offer of a teaching position from Eugène Goossens at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. During his time at the ABC he also acted in a number of posts, including federal director of music and music editor.

Baer was a prominent figure in the musical life of Sydney, notably as a painstaking coach of singers—the great Australian tenor Ronald Dowd said of him that ‘he made a Lieder singer out of me’ (Dowd, pers. comm.)—and, with Clarice Lorenz and Joseph Post, in operatic ventures. His involvements were legion, including: conductor of the Sydney Male Choir, musical director of the Sydney Jewish Choral Society, vice-president of the Federated Music Clubs of Australia, office bearer of the National Lieder Society, and life member of the Wagner Society New South Wales; he also supported Musica Viva, the Sydney Schubert Society Inc., the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the National Music Camps Association, the Fellowship of Australian Composers, and the Workers’ Educational Association. According to the Australian conductor Eric Clapham, he was ‘a good judge of musicians and had an immense knowledge of the repertoire’ (Clapham, pers. comm.).

As a composer Baer wrote in an essentially conservative, tonal idiom: his heart was in the German concert and operatic tradition and he had little sympathy with early music or modernist movements. Given this background, it was inevitable that many of his compositions were for singers; Joan Sutherland and Peter Dawson recorded pieces by him. He wrote a number of scores for Gertrud Bodenwieser’s dance theatre and he participated in the German-language Kleines Wiener Theater. This work included an operetta, Lotterie der Liebe (Lottery of Love), with a libretto written by Alfred Baring. 

Appointed MBE in 1977, Baer retired from the ABC in 1979. He died on 28 January 1992 at St Leonards and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, the daughter of his first marriage, and one son of his second; another son had predeceased him. While the ABC State manager for Western Australia reported to head office, after a musical tour in 1949, that he was ‘a pleasant fellow’ and ‘most helpful’ in dealings with the soloist (NAA ST1607/2), others considered him ‘severe’ (Wetherell, pers. comm.). Baer once told an ABC colleague, ‘I am not an administrator; I am a musician’ (Wetherell, pers. comm.). A prize at the Royal South Street Eisteddfod bears his name, the Sydney Eisteddfod Opera awards include the Werner and Sibilla Baer memorial award, and the New South Wales council of the Federated Music Clubs of Australia holds an annual piano competition named after him. The National Portrait Gallery possesses a photograph portrait by Max Dupain.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Baer, Sybil. Personal communication

  • Baer, Werner. Statement, c. 1975. Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Germany

  •  Brooks, Lawrie. ‘Werner Baer of the ABC, has had a Colourful Career in Music.’ Music Maker, n. s., 2, no. 7 (December 1956): 15, 48

  •  Clapham, Eric. Personal communication

  •  Dowd, Ronald. Personal communication

  •  Dümling, Albrecht. ‘Werner Baer.’ 2006, updated 29 April 2015. LexM. University of Hamburg. Accessed 2 February 2016. http://www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00001347. Copy held on ADB file

  • Musical Opinion. ‘Werner Baer.’ 115, no. 1373 (April 1992): 150–51

  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1945/4/1221

  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V377627

  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/1, Z35355

  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/2, Z35355

  • National Archives of Australia. SP11/5, BAER, WERNER

  • National Archives of Australia. ST1607/2, BAER WERNER

  •  Wetherell, Rodney. Personal communication

Additional Resources

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Citation details

John Carmody, 'Baer, Werner Felix (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baer-werner-felix-23082/text32354, published online 2017, accessed online 24 August 2019.

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