Werner von Trapp

Member of the Trapp Family Singers
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The Independent Online

Werner von Trapp, singer and farmer: born Zell am See, Austria 21 December 1915; married 1949 Erika Klambauer (four sons, two daughters); died Waitsfield, Vermont 11 October 2007.

Werner von Trapp was a member of the famed family of singers who became world renowned when their life formed the basis of the durable stage musical The Sound of Music, filmed with enormous success in 1965. The stepson of Maria von Trapp, the ex-postulant who became nanny to the children of a former submarine commander, Baron Georg von Trapp, whom she later married, Werner, a tenor, was the model for the character of Kurt in the dramatisation. In the musical, Kurt (played on screen by Duane Chase) introduces himself to Maria with: "I'm Kurt. I'm 11. I'm incorrigible." Werner was the fourth child and second son of the Baron, whose first wife, Agathe Whitehead, died of scarlet fever while nursing her seven children through the disease.

Born in Zell am See, Austria, in 1915, Werner studied the cello and other musical instruments as a youth. One of the strongest objections the Trapp children had to the film's depiction of their life was the characterisation of their father. He was a keen musician who ensured that all the children studied piano, violin, guitar, cello, clarinet and accordion, as well as singing. They had been entertaining family and friends with evenings of Viennese folksongs before the arrival of Maria (born Maria Kutschera in 1905 in Vienna) as their nanny in 1926. The Baron, whose title and right to use the word "von" were conferred on him because of his heroic wartime record, had never, however, considered that his children should sing for profit.

Although the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left Austria without a sea coast and ended Von Trapp's career as a naval officer, he had been left a rich man by his first wife, whose grandfather Robert Whitehead had invented the torpedo. But when Austria's economy was threatened by a hostile Germany, Trapp displayed his faith in his homeland by transferring his fortune from Lloyd's of London to an Austrian bank, which subsequently failed. Maria, whom he had married in 1927, then persuaded him that the children – who comprised four sopranos, an alto, a bass and a tenor (Werner) – could make money performing. (Maria and Georg had three children who, when they were older, became part of the group.)

The Trapp Family Singers made their début in 1935, and quickly won fame throughout Europe. In 1938 they fled the Nazis, though less dramatically than in the show and film, which have the family crossing the Alps on foot into Switzerland. In fact, they took a train to Italy, then sailed to the United States. Though virtually penniless, they bought a rundown farm in Stowe, Vermont. Later it became a holiday and ski hotel, the Trapp Family Lodge. Georg died there in 1947, and Maria died in 1987.

Werner served with the US Army during the Second World War, fighting in Italy, then returned to his family to continue touring. In 1949 his stepmother wrote a book about their exploits, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and a film version was made in Germany in 1956. Paramount took an option on the rights as a possible vehicle for Audrey Hepburn, but they were subsequently acquired as a Broadway musical to star Mary Martin as Maria. It opened in 1959 and was the last show to have a score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and went on to be an even bigger hit in London than it had been in New York. The screen version, starring Julie Andrews, became a phenomenon, and for several years held the record as the highest grossing film ever made.

After the singing group retired in 1956, Werner von Trapp helped to found a music school in Reading, Pennsylvania, then he returned to Vermont with his wife and six children to become a dairy farmer in Waitsfield. Described as "a real craftsman" by one of his sisters, he was an expert weaver, and made carpets from the wool of his own sheep.

Tom Vallance