Book: Fiddler’s Tale, A (2003)

November 15, 2010 | By

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Rating: Very Good

Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press / ISBN: 0-299-18380-7 / Format: Hardcover/ Pages: 394 / Date: 2003

Author: Louis Kaufman

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Review:

During his enormously vivacious career as a concert violinist, Louis Kaufman traveled the world and regularly indulged in his favourite pleasures: music, art, food, and friendship. His ties to the film music world began, as with many composers and musicians during Hollywood’s Golden years, as a means to support his family in a town that was busy and productive, even during the Depression years.

Kaufman’s Hollywood career came in two streams – as a musician and concertmaster for some highly memorable scores – Modern Times, The Red Pony, High Sierra, The Best Years of Our Lives, Gone With The Wind, Cleopatra (1963), and Laura – and as a regular member of musicians and composers at local venues (like the Hollywood Bowl) who performed a diverse mix of classical and contemporary concert music.

Kaufman’s huge memoirs were edited into a fluid narrative by his widow, Annette Kaufman, after his death in 1994, and published in 2003 by the University of Wisconsin, accompanied by a CD sampler (76:39) of Kaufman’s vintage recordings.

His stature is guaranteed in music history largely due to his dogged search for the various movements of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, recorded in 1949, and inducted in 2002 into the Grammy Hall of Fame. A piece that’s a standard in classic rep performances, music theory classrooms, and widely available in myriad recordings and styles, Kaufman’s insistence on finding the most complete and authoritative score sheets led him on a marvelous globe-trotting journey that’s detailed in the book’s middle section, and is the most compelling and narratively satisfying part of what’s otherwise a breezy travelogue of an artist’s life as journeyman.

Memoirs are a more stream-of-consciousness format, and here the chapters often feel like rapid-fire highlights of current places, delicious food, fine art discussions, notable guests, plus an exit line before the next locale. For film music fans, the format is insufficiently substantive, though two composers are given regular attention: Miklos Rozsa, and Bernard Herrmann.

In such a small community of brilliant musicians – many of who were ex-patriots after Nazi purges, regime changes, religious persecution, or economic tragedy – European culture was a link that led to and maintained decades-long friendships. Herrmann pops in and out of Kaufman’s narrative, and there’s some amusing anecdotes of social engagements, Herrmann’s fiery reputation, and the years spent crafting his opera, Wuthering Heights. The premiere performance in 1982 closes Kaufman’s memoirs, and there’s little doubt Kaufman remained a devoted supporter of Herrmann’s work.

Rozsa is given less attention, although there’s an amusing story of literally being called off the street in Romania while the violinist, then at the height of his international acclaim, was travelling to visit friends and family, and found Rozsa smiling at a street-side café.

Kaufman breathed and devoured music and art, and the massive inundation of cited composer, painters, and sculptors is sometimes dizzying; passages frequently become a series of name-dropping escapades with rare and minor anecdotes, and the rapid location changes leave faint impressions of the men and women that obviously mattered to the violinist. Classical music fans will perhaps find the references of greater interest, though Kaufman’s telling of leaving Romania, and becoming a top musician after convincing his father he had the talent to be the best, are fascinating slices of the long and arduous road an artist must travel, when sculpting one’s blessed gift must be tackled before adulthood and life’s greater problems can wield greater influence, and divert a noble career.

In addition to the Rozsa and Herrmann references, Robert Russell Bennett gets some attention, and there’s an all-too-brisk chapter on Kaufman’s own film music career. Comprised of fast wrap-ups of working with Max Steiner, Aaron Copland, and others, each section is briskly finished in a matter of short sentences, and we’re left with very pale impressions of these pioneering masters.

What Kaufman’s memoirs do channel to the reader is the author’s unwavering zeal for life. Short and medium-length passages are written with an inimitable verve that’s equally reflected in the selection of rare concert material, archived on the sampler CD that comes with this modestly priced book. Kaufman’s prose is energetic and engaging, and the closing chapter by his widow, written in 2003, encapsulates the man’s charm and optimism. Though he recovered from a heart condition in 1992, bedtime was frequently capped with “This was a great day and tomorrow will be fine too.”

Though not a wholly definitive portrait of the film music community in Hollywood when the studio system was in full steam, “A Fiddler’s Tale” is at the very least a rich tribute to one man’s personality, and commitment to the music art form. The last decade of his life included a steady series of CD re-issues of long deleted and rare recordings, and the disc includes the following extracts:

  1. Antonio Vivaldi. Concert No. 2, Opus 9. 1951 (9:10)
  2. Camille Saint-Saens. Havanaise, Opus 83. 1952 (8:29)
  3. William Grant Still. Pastorella. 1946 (8:48)
  4. Still. “Blues” from Lenox Avenue, conducted by Bernard Herrmann. 1946. (2:40)
  5. Darius Milhaud. Concert de Printemps. 1949. (8:58)
  6. Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Much Ado About Nothing Suite for Violin and Piano (taken from Memorial Concert in Los Angeles). 1959. (11:21)
  7. Aaron Copland. Nocturne for Violin and Piano. 1948. (4:26)
  8. Copland. Ukulele Serenade. 1947. (4:26)
  9. Copland. “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo. 1947. (2:42)
  10. Robert Russell Bennett. Hexapoda – Five Studies in Jitteroptera for Violin and Piano. 1942. (6:54)
  11. Jerome Kern. “The Song is You.” 1946. (3:14)
  12. Kern. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” 1946. (3:01)
  13. Fritz Kreisler (arranger). Londonderry Air. 1952. (3:38)

The 394 page book also contains several photos, eight colour plates of paintings, and a series of reviews, credits, and recording table in a collection of appendixes (respectively totaling an additional 68 pages).

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© 2004 Mark R. Hasan

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