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 waiting players.

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 Away.

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 laughs.

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 instrument.

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 films.

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 fine composition."

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 envisioned.

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 enduring admiration.

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 leave."