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Spotlight on Louis Kaufman

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The Violinist Behind the Silver Screen

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Violinist Harumi Furuya (Pre-College ’91) was doing research on the legendary Hollywood composer Franz Waxman when she started learning about violin alumnus Louis Kaufman. Intrigued, she began researching this incredibly prolific musician. Furuya and her sisters, Sakiko Furuya (Pre-College ’92; BM ’96, MM ’98, piano) and cellist Mimi Furuya (Pre-College ’96), perform as a trio.

Louis Kaufman

Alumnus Louis Kaufman won the Walter W. Naumburg Award for violin in 1928 and, as a result, made his Town Hall debut later that year.

(Photo by Aldene N.Y., courtesy of the Juilliard Archives)

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Everyone has heard alumnus Louis Kaufman. He is the violinist playing the solos in Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1943), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Rebecca (1940), Now, Voyager (1942), Laura (1944), Cinderella (1950), The Sound of Music (1965)—and about 400 more Hollywood movies from that era. In addition to being one of the most widely heard violinists in history, Kaufman reintroduced Vivaldi to modern audiences, recording a then little-known collection of violin concertos called The Four Seasons in 1947. Also, he invented the Kaufman chinrest.

Kaufman (1905-94) was born in Portland, Ore., to Romanian immigrants, and he studied violin at Juilliard, then the Institute of Musical Art; he received degrees in 1923 and 1925 culminating in a Diploma in the Artists’ Violin Course with highest honors in 1927. In his posthumously published autobiography, A Fiddler’s Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), which he wrote with his wife, Annette Leibole Kaufman (’33, piano), he recounted amusing anecdotes about his I.M.A. days. His teacher was Franz Kneisel, who taught here from the opening of the Institute, in 1905, until his death, in 1926. In occasional mellow moments, Kneisel would speak to his class about his conversations with Johannes Brahms. But Kaufman, while respectful, said he couldn’t understand Kneisel’s frequent “ogre-like behavior” and “outbursts of temper.” Music students of all eras will surely appreciate Kaufman’s comment, “I have always wondered why teachers who obviously know infinitely more than their pupils speak so sarcastically and unpleasantly to students who lack stylistic or instrumental skills. I think one should be kind and helpful to young people who hope to acquire mastery of the violin.” 

After graduating, making his Town Hall debut, and a stint as the violist of the Musical Art Quartet, Kaufman relocated to the West Coast. His Hollywood start came unexpectedly when the famous director Ernst Lubitsch heard him playing a 15-minute recital (which he did weekly) on the radio. Lubitsch had tried out all the violinists at MGM and didn’t like any of them, so he offered Kaufman a double salary to play the violin solos for The Merry Widow (1934) starring Maurice Chevalier. Hollywood was fast at recognizing, and generously rewarding, talented musicians. Over the next several decades, Kaufman’s elegant and romantic playing made a perfect match for the beauty conveyed by classic Hollywood films.

One of the film composers with whom Kaufman worked frequently was Max Steiner. One Sunday morning in 1939, Steiner called Kaufman and told him to come over with his violin. “Max and I tried out and played over the themes for Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Tara, etc. Selznick enthusiastically approved these samples,” Kaufman wrote, adding that he and Steiner subsequently recorded the poignant score for Gone With the Wind

In his autobiography, Kaufman reminisced about his Hollywood days, describing Errol Flynn as “invariably polite and good-natured at recording sessions, although meticulous in achieving precisely what he wanted.” In the 1940 Disney version of Pinocchio, Kaufman recalled that the title character slid “down into the whale to the sound of a glissando on my E string!” In Intermezzo (1939), which starred Leslie Howard as a concert violinist and introduced Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood, Kaufman played all the solos and Toscha Seidel recorded for the opening and closing credits. Seidel had once humorously reproached Kaufman for working for the film industry, saying “Louis! How can you, a serious musician, work in Hollywood films?”—but that was before Seidel became the concertmaster at Paramount Studio. 

Nevertheless, the Hollywood years were not always rosy for Kaufman. He abruptly left Fox in the 1940s, he wrote, “due to the atrocious behavior and language of an incapable relative working there” as the studio’s conductor. “I noticed untalented, incompetent conductors (hired via nepotism) were often rude, loudly berating musicians to conceal their own lack of knowledge and skill. My Hollywood colleagues were astonished when I refused to play for such types!”

Kaufman also wrote about chamber music evenings where George Gershwin played his enchanting pieces with spontaneous improvisations; and the violinist Fritz Kreisler played his operetta Apple Blossoms on the piano with the same tonal beauty and charming appeal that he brought to the violin. Both Gershwin and Kreisler were enthralled and fascinated by each other’s performances. Jascha Heifetz also hosted chamber music parties. “It was always elating to perform with Heifetz, his lordly virtuoso approach was infallible,” Kaufman wrote. “In sight-reading a new work he was unusually sure-footed, and like a cat he always landed on the right note at the right time!” 

One story Kaufman told struck a parallel to current times. NBC asked him to broadcast the Khachaturian Concerto with its orchestra without payment, saying that soloists who performed with the orchestra gained so much prestige that even Joseph Szigeti and Isaac Stern had contributed their services for free. Enraged, Kaufman declined, saying CBS had always paid him for his radio performances. “I have always thought it unreasonable that managers, printers, stage movers, and piano movers are paid without protest, but soloists and composers are considered mercenary for expecting big corporations to pay them for their services,” he wrote. 

Aside from Kaufman’s contributions as a legendary musician behind the silver screen, he is also largely responsible for bringing Vivaldi to us all—in 1947, CBS asked him to record The Four Seasons concertos by the then little-known composer. Entranced by the music, Kaufman subsequently traveled far and wide to “discover” the rest of Opus 8—the eight concertos that follow The Four Seasons—and then made the first complete domestic recording of them. Kaufman found it incredible that “Vivaldi’s immense output should have practically vanished, nearly forgotten for 200 years.” 

During World War II, Kaufman and his wife often performed for the troops. At one hospital concert, he concluded with Schubert’s Ave Maria, after which a lad in a wheelchair responded, “Thanks, I really liked that.” A nurse told Kaufman that this young man, gravely injured by a bomb blast, had not spoken in six months—his emotion at hearing the music led him to speak naturally. Such a touching story reveals the true greatness of Kaufman as a musician and as a human being.

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