Obituary: Louis Kaufman
Monday 14 February 1994
THE AMERICAN violinist Louis Kaufman was one of the last of that diminishing generation of romantic virtuosos who, in addition to a faultless technique, sought above all else beauty of sound, perpetuating the school of Elman, Kreisler and Heifetz. During his long career he was heard by millions in broadcasts and on the concert platform, and made more recordings than any other violinist of his time. He was also a soloist in some 400 film scores including Gone with the Wind and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Kaufman was born in 1905, in Portland, Oregon, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrant music-lovers who took him to concerts when he was a toddler. When his family returned to Bucharest for a brief period, he was further exposed to music from gypsy cafe fiddlers to soloists in the concert halls.
In 1912 the family decided to return to the United States and made reservations on the Titanic. Fate intervened and, due to a booking error, they were obliged to change boats at the last moment.
Kaufman had his first lessons with Albert Kreitz when he was seven and within six months had won a prize in a local competition. At the age of 10 he teamed up with a dancer as her accompanist and travelled on a vaudeville circuit. The standards were low, but he earned dollars 125 a week - then a vast sum.
The following year he studied with Henry Bettman, a pupil of Ysaye, and at the recommendation of Efrem Zimbalist was taken into the class of Franz Kneisel - then one of the most celebrated teachers in the United States - at the Institute of Musical Art in New York. He reckoned that this was when his real training began. None the less he considered Kneisel to be a severe, often cruel taskmaster, but 'a master musician fanatically devoted to the highest aesthetic ideals'. Kaufman was still at school, so could not fulfil Kneisel's demand for six hours' practice a day; he left and received some teaching from a Jesuit priest, but resented being subjected to religious indoctrination and in two weeks his formal education came to an end.
In 1927 Kaufman won the institute's Loeb Prize and the following year received the prestigious Naumburg Award which brought a Town Hall recital. He also made his first solo recording of his own arrangements of popular tunes of the day. Meanwhile he had also become proficient on the viola and earned a few dollars playing with amateur quartets. The word got around that he was a useful player and eventually he was called on to join Kreisler, Elman, Casals and Zimbalist in chamber music. This led to his joining the Musical Art Quartet, with whom he played viola until 1933.
It was then that he made his first down payment on Zimbalist's JB Guadagnini violin and at last had an instrument worthy of his talent.
In 1932 Kaufman met and married a young pianist, Annette Leibole; they were destined to become a harmonious professional and domestic partnership that lasted for over half a century. It was soon after his marriage that Kaufman decided to leave the quartet and develop his career as a soloist. Together they gave recitals and broadcasts all over the US, while Kaufman continued to play concertos with most of the leading orchestras.
In 1934 he was spotted by the orchestra contractor for MGM and was engaged to play in Ernst Lubitsch's film The Merry Widow, and for the next 14 years he played solos for countless films, but at the same time continued to give regular recitals in Los Angeles and New York.
In 1948 the Kaufmans decided to break away from Hollywood and return to the international concert scene in Europe, making Paris their base. This was a time of great changes in the recording industry with the advent of the LP, and Kaufman subsequently recorded over 100 major works with leading orchestras and celebrated conductors, and although he was such a fine exponent of the traditional repertoire he was also sought after for his interest in interpreting contemporary music: Milhaud, Toch, Poulenc and Copland were champions of his playing and he gave many first performances of works by Martinu, Dag Wiren, Lars-Erik Larsson, Henry Sauguet, Leighton Lucas, Vaughan Williams and others.
In 1956 the Kaufmans returned to Los Angeles, where they finally settled. Kaufman was still enchanting audiences with his superb playing into his late seventies, but following a detached retina operation he decided to retire, because he did not want to 'decay in public'. He once said: 'My credo has been simple. I never felt music owed me anything: whatever came my way I did to the best of my ability and never yielded to the self-pity and frustration that blights the lives of so many excellent musicians. I have always exerted myself to the full and striven to give more than I received.'
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