A Fiddler's Tale
by Louis Kaufman with Annette Kaufman
The sweet violin voice of more than 400 golden-age film scores shares his memories
From Kaufman, Louis, with Annette Kaufman. A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me. Copyright 2003. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
In the 1930s and '40s, violinist Louis Kaufman served as concertmaster for
hundreds of classic American movie scores, lending his uniquely expressive
musicianship to virtually every violin solo from films of that period:
Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and The Grapes
of Wrath are just a handful of the most famous.
Arriving in Los Angeles in 1934, Kaufman and his wife Annette, a pianist,
got their first break performing a weekly fifteen-minute radio recital. Their
efforts soon caught the ear of an influential film director, and immediately
Louis Kaufman was playing solos created by the legends of film-scoring history.
As radio personality Jim Svejda notes in his introduction to A Fiddler's
Tale--the memoir from which these excerpts are drawn--"If one were to judge
solely on the basis of how many people actually heard his playing, then Louis
Kaufman should be the most famous violinist who ever lived...It was Louis
Kaufman, perhaps more than any other single performer, who gave American film
music its voice."
After fourteen years in Hollywood, Kaufman moved on to a successful
concert career. He was among the first violinists to rediscover the concertos of
Vivaldi; premiered works by Copland, Milhaud, and Martinu; and made the premiere
recording of Barber's Violin Concerto. Along the way, he set down his memoirs
with Annette's help. In them he recounted lively details of the personalities
and working methods of Hollywood's greatest composers and directors. Kaufman
died in 1994. A Fiddler's Tale was published in August of this year by
The University of Wisconsin Press.
Word traveled fast in the film-music industry that I was capable, adaptable,
and dependable. For about fourteen years, I recorded film scores for Max
Steiner, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
Victor Young, Roy Webb, Hugo Friedhofer, and others. With this work I juggled
yearly solo recitals in Los Angeles and Pacific Coast cities, and from 1938 on
annual recitals at New York's Town Hall. Annette and I prepared new concert
programs each year, which we played in transcontinental tours during March and
April, the studio's quiet time.
Max Steiner, a most charming and witty Viennese composer-conductor, had
arrived in Hollywood in 1929, after success in English theaters, often under
pseudonyms. He requested me for one of his first RKO scores, The Life of
Vergie Minters, then for his compelling, Oscar-winning score for John Ford's
masterpiece, The Informer.
Max, an extraordinarily gifted composer, created film music which intertwined
thematic cues for actors, their moods and motivation, in rather Wagnerian
fashion, manipulating his beautiful Lehár-inspired melodies to great effect. I
always enjoyed working with him. He was invariably polite and good-natured,
exceedingly meticulous, and knew exactly what orchestral color fitted each
scene. Time pressures did not permit him to orchestrate, so he carefully
prepared notes for orchestrators. If they did not achieve the effects that Max
envisioned, he would call out corrections on the recording stage, such as
"Woodwinds play at bar B to D, horns tacet." Or "Flutes play that phrase instead
of oboes." Orchestrators and copyists on the set hurriedly copied out parts for
Among the Steiner scores I played were The Gay Divorcee and Shall
We Dance with Fred Astaire, I Dream Too Much (featuring operatic
solos by soprano Lily Pons), and a daring score for She, from H. Rider
Haggard's fantastic novel about an Egyptian princess, eternally young for
centuries, discovered by a young archeologist. Max's exotic, inventive music
enhanced that sci-fi "hocus-pocus." I played solos in Max's scores for The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre and his Oscar-winning Since You Went
Another unforgettable Steiner score I played at RKO, the first version of
Of Human Bondage, dramatically demonstrated how skillfully Max saved that
film: RKO had previewed the film, starring British actor Leslie Howard and a
young Bette Davis, without a musical score; technicians fitted it with
prerecorded sound tracks. A complete disaster! Each time Miss Davis raged at
lame Mr. Howard, the audience roared with laughter. It was impossible to
sympathize with the actors' plight, and the audience left with a total
misunderstanding of Maugham's tale. The producers, foreseeing box office
disaster, called Max, who composed a remarkable, psychologically poignant score
that placed audiences in an emotional vise. The film won outstanding success,
stardom for Miss Davis, and artistic recognition for Mr. Howard and Mr. Maugham.
Other outstanding Steiner scores I played included Selznick's A Star Is
Born (with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor), The Charge of the Light
Brigade, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, The Life of Emile
Zola, and Intermezzo (which introduced Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood, with
Leslie Howard as the concert violinist). I was concertmaster and soloist for the
entire score, while Toscha Seidel was engaged to record the theme used for the
main and end titles. Miss Bergman was shown listening to that theme in an
emotionally charged scene. What a challenge for me to try to match Toscha's
unusually beautiful sound! Max's great musical gifts made all these films
unforgettable. I still remember many of his inspired themes. He had a delicious
sense of humor, once commenting on the behavior of some Hollywood character, "He
is every other inch a gentleman."
One Sunday morning, Max called unexpectedly. "Louis, are you free today?"
"Yes, Max." "Come right over with your violin. I have some themes to submit to
Selznick for Gone with the Wind. He wants to hear them. It's not very
interesting with just piano." Annette and I drove to Max's home, where he had
set up a small recording machine. Max and I tried out and played over the themes
for Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Tara, etc. Selznick enthusiastically approved
these samples. I recorded this poignant score with Max and consider it a
historical achievement in film music. Even today, excerpts of Max's compelling
score are widely recorded.
Alfred Newman came to California from New England. He was an excellent
conductor and accomplished pianist. Alfred conducted Gershwin musicals on
Broadway while in his teens. Fritz Reiner thought that young Alfred might
achieve a career as a symphony conductor. Alfred was the sole support of his
mother, two sisters, and three brothers (Papa Newman had abandoned the family).
He was always interested in the finest possible performance of his scores and
his orchestra and music were of virtuoso quality.
Among many of his scores I played in were Dodsworth (for one scene I
performed Debussy's "La fille aux cheveux de lin" as a violin solo with staff
pianist Urban Thielmann; visually the music floated across a lake) and
Wuthering Heights. Alfred was so pleased with my solos for that score,
virtually a nonstop series of solos, with occasional obbligatos by cellist
Nicolas Lhevienne, that he expressed his appreciation by paying us triple scale.
I also played orchestral solos for They Shall Have Music, which featured
Jascha Heifetz playing a concert to benefit a neighborhood music school, and for
The Rains Came and Stella Dallas.
We Live Again, a version of Tolstoy's Resurrection, directed by
Rouben Mamoulian, was an epic Goldwyn chose to launch the ill-fated Russian
actress Anna Sten, hoping she would become another Garbo. The film's climax was
a Russian Easter service composed by Newman for orchestra, chorus, and solo
soprano, sung by an enormous Russian coloratura, Nina Koshetz. (Mamoulian told
me that Koshetz, who was thin and glamorous in Russia, attracted Sergey
Rachmaninoff, who occasionally played her piano accompaniments.) It was tonally
overwhelming--Madame Koshetz's beautiful soprano soaring over a splendid chorus
and orchestral performance under Newman's masterly baton. Ecstatic praise from
Mamoulian immediately brought Goldwyn to the set.
Due to the sound engineer's inattention (his wife was in labor and he called
the hospital at every break), the Easter service emerged in reverse from the
loudspeakers. The entire orchestra, Newman, and Madame Koshetz, realizing the
engineer's error, remained frozen in silence as Goldwyn enthusiastically
declared, "It's the greatest thing I've ever heard!" But even the glorious
recording (played in proper sequence) could not save that film and star from
disaster! Alfred, who always spoke in the English manner of Ronald Colman,
stated, "We can dress up a corpse but we can't make it live!"
Among other Newman scores I played were The Little Foxes (Alfred
conducted Meredith Willson's score), These Three (based on Lillian
Hellman's play The Children's Hour), Captain from Castile, Dark
Victory, Foreign Correspondent, Blood and Sand, and The
Greatest Story Ever Told. I also played in Alfred's scores for Young Mr.
Lincoln and Gentleman's Agreement.
For The Hunchback of Notre Dame Alfred had the collaboration of Robert
Russell Bennett and Ernst Toch. Toch composed a vivid contrapuntal sequence
underlining Charles Laughton's (the hunchback) vertiginous climb to the great
cathedral's tower. Newman, delighted with this exciting sequence, achieved an
impressive performance, stressing Laughton's extreme anxiety and fear. At a
preview, Laughton, outraged that his groans and grunts for this scene were
obscured, demanded the music be eliminated. Later when Annette and I saw the
film, we were dismayed that the silent climb, except for Laughton's groans, was
so completely ineffective without the music.
When Arnold Schoenberg arrived in Hollywood, Newman briefly studied
composition with him. It became fashionable to study with this great master. For
a limited period, he had such unlikely pupils as orchestrator Edward Powell,
composer David Raksin (I played in Raksin's score for Laura), and
acid-tongued pianist Oscar Levant. The Schoenbergs lived in our area. He taught
composition at nearby UCLA, and Annette and I often encountered them while
shopping for groceries or at our bank, and we would briefly discuss his music.
Alfred asked me to organize a string group to perform Schoenberg's sextet
Verklärte Nacht when the Schoenbergs attended our next chamber music
soirée at Newman's Beverly Hills home. We worked assiduously to prepare the work
as we assumed it would please the composer. To my surprise, when we finished,
Schoenberg approached me and said, "Let yourself go. Be more free,
Kaufman, play it more romantically!"
I played for Newman's scores for Charles Chaplin's Modern Times, his
French satire, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Great Dictator. Chaplin
supervised every detail of his masterpieces, creating little tunes and perfect
themes for his films, as well as simulated languages for French or Italian. In
Modern Times, Newman usually agreed with Chaplin's suggestions; however,
for one sequence where Chaplin described to the girl, Paulette Goddard, what
their future dream house would be, he wanted the music "Mickey Moused" for
Alfred insisted this would destroy the mood of the dream and convinced
Chaplin to accept a lyric passage. Alfred placed me with muted violin very close
to a microphone, separated from the orchestra by a large screen for greater
clarity, which permitted the muted violin to soar over the orchestral texture.
He used this device for many solo passages in this score. Chaplin, who knew how
to play violin backwards, fingering with the right hand, was delighted with the
results. I greatly enjoyed my rare encounters with that unique film genius.
Franz Waxman arrived from Germany's Universum Film AG films, after being
brutally attacked by Nazi thugs. Waxman fled Berlin in 1933, with his wife,
Alice. After a brief Paris sojourn, they reached Los Angeles in 1935, where they
made a large contribution to the city's musical life. Franz saved his father and
mother from the Holocaust, bringing them to Hollywood, somewhat reluctantly on
their part, as they so loved their fatherland.
I played in Franz's first American score, Bride of Frankenstein, a
seminal work which influenced many later horror-film composers. There were many
solos in his MGM score for Boom Town. Other effective Waxman scores I
played in were Suspicion, Rebecca, and Magnificent
Obsession, where he introduced the theremin to film music, which added an
ominous intensity to the plot. Clara Rockmore, who had been a colleague of mine
in Kniesel's class, became devoted to popularizing this eerie-sounding
For Sayonara, Franz wanted an exotic sonority for the Japanese
American love story. I suggested a muted viola, and then recorded solos on my
small French viola, which provided the desired color. In Franz's score for To
Have and Have Not, the film that introduced Lauren Bacall (supposed to be a
singer--a Hollywood convention of that period, everybody sang), I softly played
a "sweetener track" close to her ear to keep her on pitch. I frequently recorded
such inaudible "sweeteners" at Fox for Sonja Henie's singing during her film
career. Her skating expertise was not matched by a tonal sense. However, she had
a great eye for painting and collected a splendid group of French modern
masterpieces, now the core collection of a museum in her native Norway.
Annette and I spent many pleasant evenings with Franz and Alice at their
Hollywood hillside home or ours. Sometimes we played music together, discussing
art, music, composers, and conductors. A mutual pleasure was listening to
Toscanini's and Koussevitzky's symphonic programs, broadcast nationally each
week. Koussevitzky's innovative programs introduced works of Sibelius, Britten,
Martinu, Bart—k, Copland, Roussel, etc. Toscanini's performances of traditional
symphonic and operatic great works were infinitely superior to what was
generally heard in America and Europe. We still remember his thrilling
performance of Verdi's Requiem, then rarely heard.
We admired Franz's unflagging devotion to classic music. He founded (and
partly funded) the Los Angeles Music Festival, which presented unusual modern
and classical repertoire at UCLA's Royce Hall for many years. He was the only
conductor to program major Stravinsky works during that composer's residence in
Beverly Hills, while the Los Angeles Philharmonic virtually ignored his
compositions. I vividly remember Franz's eloquent and stirring performance of
Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.
In spring 1952, Franz invited me to play and conduct baroque concerti of
Bach, Bonporti, Telemann, and Vivaldi with a chamber orchestra, which received
gratifying praise from the audience and press.
Franz had most unusual courage and integrity in his personal and musical
life. He composed excellent concert music and used a baton expertly. His
masterly orchestrations were influenced by Mahler, then unfamiliar to most
musicians. He was invariably pleasant and polite to musicians and colleagues,
and his scores were always interesting to play. Our friendship continued in
Europe and America (he conducted in the Soviet Union and Israel), until the
premature death of Alice from cancer, followed a few years later by Franz, who
suffered from the same malady.
Orson Welles's masterpiece Citizen Kane, with Bernard Herrmann's
innovative score, greatly impressed Annette and me, so I was especially pleased
to meet and work with Herrmann, an enthusiastic young conductor, on his score
for Welles's next film, The Magnificent Ambersons. A highlight of the
score was a nine-minute violin solo with only woodwind accompaniment to
underline Richard Bennett's long soliloquy about the Ambersons' decline, which
we recorded in one take. (However, later the scene and its music were
eliminated, and the film was dramatically cut and given a "happy ending."
Herrmann protested this mutilation of his score by removing his name from the
screen credits. Roy Webb was hired to patch up a musical conclusion to close
this botched production.)
After that first encounter, I reported to Annette how stimulating the day's
session had been and how fascinating Bernard's comments about music, composers,
and conductors had been during orchestral breaks. About 10 p.m. that evening,
Bernard was walking in our neighborhood (he had rented a house nearby) and
observed our lights on. He knocked at the door and entered to say how very
pleased he was with my performance of the long solo (he, too, played violin).
Attracted by our paintings, sculptures, and books, he became engrossed in
speaking about music, art, and books, only departing about 2 a.m. We were
equally entranced by his conversation and thoughts about the vast universe. He
mused, "Imagine an ant in this living roomÉcould it envisage the size of your
house with many rooms, on a block with several houses, in a city containing
hundreds of thousands of buildings, the extent of Los Angeles County, the state
of California, the entire United States, Canada, Mexico, Latin and South
America, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Asia, Africa, and Europe?" Benny
continued, "Whenever I am annoyed that some music isn't well played, I think of
the universe's infinity and how insignificant such matters are!"
We became close friends of Benny and his wife, the screenwriter Lucille
Fletcher, and admired their adorable little girl Dorothy (Taffy) and baby Wendy,
who arrived a year later. With Lucille and Benny we browsed in bookstores and
visited the Huntington Library and Art Collections. The museum's impressive
collection of English paintings delighted Bernard and Lucille, who greatly loved
England and its arts. They introduced us to the delights of travel, painting,
and musical books of the Sitwells.
Bernard became obsessed with composing an opera based on Emily Brontë's
Wuthering Heights, and over many years would perform excerpts for us,
playing on a small rented upright piano, and singing all the roles in his
hoarse, cracked smoker's voice. Lucille had created a libretto using Bront‘'s
own words as much as possible. Benny couldn't bear the idea of any cuts being
made in the completed work, so he refused several opportunities for its
production, including one with Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera.
I found it bracing to work on Benny's next score, All That Money Can
Buy, based on Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster.
This inventive score featured a reel that no one violinist could perform. I
played "Pop Goes the Weasel" with a few virtuoso tricks several times. Benny
then imposed these sound tracks on top of each other, creating a dynamic sonic
montage for the violinistic Beezelbub, Mr. Scratch! This effective score won the
coveted Academy Award for Herrmann. Jascha Heifetz asked Benny, "Who was that
violinist?" Amused, Benny replied, "Oh, a Hungarian fiddler I picked up."
Working under the baton of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a splendid composer,
conductor, and virtuoso pianist of winning modesty, fascinated me. He arrived in
Hollywood in 1934, accompanied by his wife, Luzi, and two sons, Ernest and
George, exact images of their father. By good fortune the Korngolds had escaped
the horrors of the German takeover of their Austrian homeland. The close-knit
family eventually occupied three adjoining homes in North Hollywood.
Max Reinhardt, engaged to mount and direct Shakespeare's A Midsummer
Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, transformed the hillside into a
wondrous fairyland. He invited Korngold to compose a score for his production.
Warner Brothers seized the opportunity to have this world-famous composer
write scores for their Burbank studio productions. His extraordinary melodic
gifts and masterly orchestras enhanced Warner's historic and daring adventure
Working with Korngold was pleasant. His Viennese tact and charm made him a
devoted friend of everyone he encountered. He was exceptionally modest, and his
bons mots became legendary. When someone at the Hollywood Bowl complained that
airplanes flew over the site during the softest music, he quipped, "All the
pilots have scores." My favorite was, "Even a great performance can't spoil a
I played in his scores for Juarez and all the swashbuckling films of Errol
Flynn: Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin
Hood, Anthony Adverse, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and
Essex, among others. He was invariably polite and good-natured at recording
sessions, although meticulous in achieving precisely what he wanted. He was
unfailingly cheerful, and always inquired after our morning break, "How was the
lunch, boys?" (there were also women players in Warner's orchestra).
Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, R—zsa, and Herrmann all shared a comprehensive
knowledge of music and orchestration, which their scores reflected. Many of
today's musicians and composers lack understanding of the orchestra's
capabilities, which accounts for the monotony of their sonority. Korngold,
sitting at the piano, could approximate the range and color of an entire
orchestral score and with a few gestures achieve exactly the performance he
The Nazi political and cultural blight, which forced Franz Werfel, Thomas
Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Toch, Bruno Walter, Darius Milhaud, Otto
Klemperer, Lion Feuchtwanger, and many others into the New World, cruelly cut
Korngold off from the European opera houses that competed for his premieres. His
opera Die tote Stadt was simultaneously premiered on the same night by
opera houses in Hamburg, Cologne, and Vienna with great success.
Unfortunately, American critics were merciless in their contempt for
composers, conductors, and performers who had "sold out" to Hollywood. This
caused Korngold much sorrow. When Heifetz premiered the Korngold violin
concerto, it received great acclaim from the public and press, with the sole
exception of one New York critic who couldn't resist a cheap-shot headline,
dubbing the work, "more Korn than gold," which was widely repeated. This lyric
concerto will long outlast many arid twelve-tone concertos now praised by
self-styled "Beckmessers." Time alone will sort out the music and art worthy of
My final recording under Korngold's direction was his score for the
unfortunate Warner Brothers remake of Somerset Maugham's Of Human
Bondage. I remarked to Annette, "This is where we came in; it's time to