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Book Notes

Volume CVII, No. 1January, 2007

“A Fiddler’s Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me” by Louis Kaufman (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).

Which violinist won the Naumberg Award in 1927, the Grand Prix du Disque in 1950, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002?

Can’t think of his name? Here are some clues: he made the first commercial recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in 1949, introducing the music into the general repertoire. He premiered works of Copland, Milhaud, William Grant Still, and Martinu, and made the first recording of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto.

Still no idea? He prepared editions of the works of Louis Spohr, Veracini, Telemann and Vivaldi, and was eventually awarded, along with his wife, the degree of honorary doctor by Oberlin College. For a time he was the violist of the Musical Arts Quartet, and in later life he helped launch a chamber music series still in existence today, the South Bay Chamber Music Society of southern Los Angeles. Otto Klemperer invited him to become the concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and if these last clues don’t reveal his name, it will at least hint at why it is not better known: this violinist spent much of his working life in California, working in Hollywood.

His is the sound of the solo violin you hear in over 500 movies, including some of the most famous American films: “Gone with the Wind,” “Key Largo,” “Casablanca,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “A Star is Born,” “Intermezzo,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Quiet Man,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Modern Times,” “Vertigo,” and “Psycho.” The list goes on and on, and he seems therefore to have been roundly ignored by the East Coast concert establishment.

His name is Louis Kaufman. He died in 1994 at the age of 88.

He once remarked, to some New York colleagues who resented his “betrayal” of serious music, “No one ever asked me to play badly, and the checks are always good.”

The irony is that given the current interest in film music, the book he wrote about his life is far more engaging than any musician’s biography I’ve read in a long time.

Kaufman was a splendid violinist. His artistry can still be heard on dozens of LP’s he recorded (they are particularly highly prized in Japan), and that early recording of “The Four Seasons” was re-released in 2005 as a Naxos Historical Recording, occasioning a major review in the New York Times.

A fine CD of his playing, ranging from the most serious artistry to the most silky schmaltz, accompanies the autobiography he wrote with his wife, Annette Kaufman — one of many reasons to read “A Fiddler’s Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me.”

Kaufman’s book is hard to put down. It spans almost the entire 20th century, and since he lived an active life in the highest musical circles both in America and in Europe, a host of famous names (Elman, Heifetz, Korngold, Klemperer, Kreisler, Piatagorsky, for a start) march across the pages, almost nonchalantly.

Kaufman studied at the Institute of Musical Arts (now Juilliard) with Franz Kneisel. His substantial account of that experience is the only one I know describing what it was like to study with one of the seminal violinists in America.

Kaufman assembled an important art collection, some of which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. He lived in a house built for him by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., and generally led and enjoyed as full and rounded a life as is granted to anyone. He writes absorbingly about the musical and political life of the time, including his role in desegregating AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles). He also writes about musical life in postwar Europe, where he lived for several years in the 1950’s.

This short review barely does justice to a book I enjoyed immensely. It is beautifully produced, including color plates and photographs. It provides a useful scholarly apparatus — discography, list of publications and films, reviews, a good index — but for all that, the book lies lightly in the hand. Highly recommended.

–Styra Avins

Styra Avins is a cellist, a member of Local 802, and the author of “Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters,” which was published by Oxford University Press in 1997.

“Portrait of Johnny: the Life of John Herndon Mercer,” by Gene Lees (Hal Leonard, 2004).

Johnny Mercer was one of my musical heroes, having written the music or the lyrics to a long list of my favorite songs. He also sang, with a friendly, humorous voice that bonded me immediately to him when I heard his radio broadcasts and his records. I regret never having met him, but Gene Lees’s biography is the next best thing, telling me everything I wanted to know about him, and a few things I was sorry to hear.

Lees, a fine lyricist himself, says: “I had the most immense respect for Johnny Mercer. Every American lyricist I have known considers, or considered, him the best of them all, and the volume of his output of great lyrics, at all levels, from the outright commercial (“Goody Goody”) to the reaches of high art (“Once Upon a Summertime,” “One For My Baby”) over four decades, is awesome. In 1942 alone he wrote for motion pictures twelve major standard songs that are still performed around the world.”

Mercer also founded Capitol Records, and through that company, injected a breath of fresh air into the record business. I remember those first Capitol records of Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton, Bobby Sherwood, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee and Mercer himself. The money I earned on after school jobs went mostly to adding such records to my collection.

Mercer grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and carried Southern vocal patterns and a nostalgia for the Southern countryside with him for the rest of his life. His lyrics were rich with inventive imagery, and his hits included “Moon River,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I Thought About You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Dream,” “Emily,” “Fools Rush In,” “I Remember You,” “Laura,” “Satin Doll,” “Skylark,” “The Summer Wind,” “Tangerine,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” and “When The World Was Young,” among many, many others.

Lees reveals many facets of Mercer’s personal life that were not well known, including an unhappy marriage, a long, stormy love affair with Judy Garland, and a dark, nasty side that emerged when he drank too much. But this book is essentially a well-written tribute to one of the most influential members of the music industry of the 20th century.

–Bill Crow

“Stradivari’s Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection,” by Tony Faber (Random House, 2005).

Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a perfectionist whose single-minded pursuit of excellence changed the world of music. In the course of his long career in the northern Italian city of Cremona, he created more than a thousand stringed instruments; approximately six hundred survive. Toby Faber traces the rich, multilayered stories of six of these peerless instruments — five violins and a cello — and the one towering artist who brought them into being.

Blending history, biography and detective work, Faber asks: what made this apparently unsophisticated craftsman so special? Why were Stradivari’s techniques not maintained by his successors? How is it that even two and a half centuries after his death, no one has succeeded in matching the purity, depth, and delicacy of a Stradivarius?

Each of the six fabled instruments becomes a character in its own right — a living entity cherished by artists, bought and sold by princes and plutocrats, coveted, collected, hidden, lost, copied, and occasionally played by a musician whose skill matches its maker’s.

Here is the fabulous Viotti, named for the virtuoso who enchanted all Paris in the 1780’s, only to fall a foul of the French Revolution. Paganini supposedly made a pact with the devil to transform the art of the violin—and by the end of his life he owned eleven Strads. Then there’s the Davidov cello, fashioned in 1712 and lovingly handed down through a succession of celebrated artists until, in the 1980’s, it passed into the capable hands of Yo-Yo Ma.

“A great violin is alive,” said Yehudi Menuhin of his own Stradivarius. In the pages of this book, Faber invites us to share the life, the passion, the intrigue, and the incomparable beauty of the world’s most marvelous stringed instruments.

“The Melody Lingers On: the unabashed memoirs of Walt Levinsky,” (Cadence Jazz Books, 2004)

Walt Levinsky was an accomplished multi-reed instrumentalist, arranger, composer and conductor who counted among his credits Les and Larry Elgart, Tommy Dorsey, the Air Force band, Ralph Flanagan, Benny Goodman, the New York Philharmonic , the NBC staff orchestra, the Hit Parade show, the Steve Allen show, the Tonight Show, and the Dick Cavett show, as well as freelance recording and Broadway shows. He also arranged and conducted for showroom stars and wrote scores for movies. In 1987 he formed the Great American Swing Band, which featured his rich-toned clarinet. Until his death from a brain tumor in December 1999, Walt was always much in demand for his musicianship and his responsible way of doing business.

A friend encouraged Walt to write his memoirs, and this book is the result. His wife Natalie put the final touches on the book after his death and prepared it for publication. Walt tells his life story in a pleasant, conversational manner that leads from his first childhood encounters with music through many interesting twists and turns as his career unfolded. I was amazed to discover that Walt had suffered through years of clinical anxiety and panic attacks. To the outside world, he seemed calm and confident. Walt’s description of his battles with the problem is poignant.

Mrs. Levinsky has added eight pages of photos from her private collection, and a brief coda that ends Walt’s story. Anyone interested in the glory days of the television and recording music business will find this personal account interesting and informative.

–Bill Crow