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August 20, 2003
A Fiddler's Tale
Virtuoso violinist Louis Kaufman's autobiography is published
by Jon Burlingame

A new book, just out this week from the University of Wisconsin Press, will be of more than passing interest to film-music buffs.

It's the memoirs of Louis Kaufman, titled A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me. Kaufman, perhaps the finest violin player to regularly work in Hollywood, had nearly finished the 400-page book when he died in 1994. His widow Annette – an accomplished pianist who often served as Louis' accompanist during chamber-music recitals – completed and edited them for publication.

Kaufman was concertmaster and frequent violin soloist in some of the most beloved movies of all time. He played in nearly 500 films for virtually every great composer in American movie history, beginning in 1934 and continuing into the early 1970s.

Kaufman violin work can be heard in many of the classic film scores of the '30s, '40s and '50s, including Herbert Stothart's music for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Max Steiner's Gone With the Wind (1939), Alfred Newman's Wuthering Heights (1939), Franz Waxman's Rebecca (1940), Bernard Herrmann's The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), Victor Young's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Miklos Rozsa's Spellbound (1945) and Hugo Friedhofer's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). His later work included Herrmann's Psycho (1960), Newman's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Jerry Goldsmith's The Mephisto Waltz (1971).

Kaufman played the demonic fiddle for Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch in Herrmann's Oscar-winning 1941 score for All That Money Can Buy (The Devil and Daniel Webster). Herrmann had Kaufman play "Pop Goes the Weasel" at breakneck pace and overdubbed it five times for an especially diabolical sound. That, and many other tales of music-making in Hollywood and elsewhere, are recounted in the book.

Composer David Raksin, whose music Kaufman performed in Laura (1944) and Forever Amber (1947), remembered: "Louis was an absolutely marvelous violinist. He was a concert violinist who was among the best, and very possibly the best, because of his adaptability and great style. A very sweet, gentle, very nice and very smart guy."

About a quarter of the book is devoted to Kaufman's Hollywood career. He writes at length about working with Stothart, Steiner, Korngold, Newman, Rozsa and especially Herrmann. The Kaufmans and the Herrmanns became good friends; Herrmann often enlisted Kaufman as violin soloist on his radio programs, and they shared each others houses when they were on opposite coasts.

Jim Svejda, a popular program host on Los Angeles classical-music station KUSC, penned the introduction to Kaufman's book. "Louis was this unbelievably sweet, gentle, generous guy," said Svejda, "maybe the only guy in the history of Hollywood who never said a bad thing about anybody, and about whom no bad thing was ever said."

Of Kaufman as a performer, he added: "He had a big, rich, sweet sound, never cloying, wonderfully warm. He was a chameleon – he knew exactly how to get into whatever particular style or moment (the music) needed, but it was always recognizably Louis."

The Vivaldi reference in the book title concerns Kaufman's other great claim to fame. He was the first artist to record the Italian composer's Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), now one of the most famous pieces in the basic repertoire of classical music.

"When Louis recorded The Four Seasons, Vivaldi's name wasn't even in most musical histories at that time," recalled Annette Kaufman. "Like everything in our lives, it was by happenstance. It wasn't that he looked for it. Eighteenth-century Venice was far from our thoughts," she says, referring to the time and place of the work.

The Vivaldi was a last-minute substitution, suggested by CBS conductor Alfredo Antonini, for a Lev Knipper concerto that Kaufman had been scheduled to play. His December 1947 recording won France's Grand Prix du Disque in 1950 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. (Naxos is scheduled to re-release the Kaufman Four Seasons on CD early next year.)

Mrs. Kaufman, who will be 89 in November, still resides in the unpretentious two-story house on a woodsy corner in Westwood where she and Louis lived for most of their 62-year marriage. Lloyd Wright, son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it for them in 1934.

Throughout his life, Louis Kaufman was a consistent champion of obscure and undiscovered composers. He was among the first violinists to perform works by American composers William Grant Still and Robert Russell Bennett, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu and Swedish composer Dag Wiren. The Kaufmans became friends with, and debuted works by, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Samuel Barber and others.

"It was such fun being with Louis," Annette Kaufman said. "He had the most delightful enthusiasm about fine achievement in art, in the theater, in performance. But Louis was extremely modest. I think most people, here in Hollywood, had no idea of what he had done in his youth, and in the concert world. I felt that the story should be set out."

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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