From India to Indiana: on reviving the music of Walter Kaufmann

Google “Walter Kaufmann” and the results deal with the eponymous philosopher. Tighten the search and you will find the composer, and until very recently, only a single recording of his music—Meditation, a short work for saxophone and piano. My colleague Bret Werb, Curator of Music Collections at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, had suggested Kaufmann as a potential candidate for the ARC Ensemble’s ongoing Music in Exile series for Chandos Records. As I narrowed my Kaufmann enquiry, the web eventually revealed an impressive amount of biographical detail, including a comprehensive catalogue of the Walter Kaufmann Archive: the composer’s scores, correspondence, photographs and professional papers housed in the Cook Music Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. 

Walter Kaufmann was one of the hundreds of European composers who were marginalized and forgotten in the wake of National Socialism, World War II, and the economic and societal upheavals that accompanied them. 

Born on April 1, 1907 in Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Walter was the only child of Julius Kaufmann and Josephine Wagner (who converted before she married). They were an affluent, assimilated couple and prominent members of Karlsbad’s Jewish community. Walter studied at two of Europe’s most prestigious musical institutions, Berlin’s Musikhochschule and Prague’s German University. In an earlier time his musical and intellectual gifts would have guaranteed him a distinguished European career. But when he discovered that his doctoral supervisor at Prague’s German University, Gustav Becking, was also overseeing a local Nazi youth group, Walter abandoned his degree.

In February of 1934, at 26 years old, he boarded the SS Conte Verde and set sail for Bombay. His marriage to Gerty Hermann, a niece of Franz Kafka, was formalized in Prague in an unusual proxy union and she joined him in India a few months later.

Photo courtesy of Simon Wynberg.

Kaufmann spent the next 12 years researching India’s music, travelling as far as the Kingdom of Nepal to collect the country’s Indigenous melodies. Engaged by All India Radio (AIR) as head of European Music, he established the Bombay Chamber Music Society which presented weekly concerts, and he composed, prolifically: symphonies, concertos, scores for radio dramas and films, and chamber works which he would conduct and also perform, usually playing the viola or the piano while Mehli Mehta, (father of the celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta) played first violin. The fruits of his research were later published in several meticulously thorough books. But the bulk of his work remains in manuscript. Only one of his compositions, a repeated fourteen-note melody, has found a sizable listenership—a meandering call-sign for violin accompanied by the buzz of the tanpura that Kaufmann composed for AIR in 1936,  which is still broadcast to the Indian sub-continent every morning. Kaufmann’s concert music may have been ignored, but the AIR melody is arguably, and paradoxically, one of his most well-known works.  

Bret and I agreed to meet in Bloomington. But before I left for Indiana, I scoured contemporary newspapers and explored all the biographical material I could find. During the drive down from Toronto, I wondered about a journey Kaufmann had made from Winnipeg to Bloomington back in 1957; it had marked the culmination of a nearly twenty-five year quest to make the United States his home.

I met Bret in the lobby of the University’s hotel. He had flown into Indianapolis from D.C. and then taken a bus to Bloomington. As we wandered across the University’s parkland to the Cook Music Library, we talked about the benefits of small-town isolation—very little had distracted Kaufmann.

Kaufmann’s  productivity is reflected in the sheer size of his archive at the university. Our initial examination of Kaufmann’s legacy was fairly random, but I had emailed the library in advance and requested that all the boxes of chamber music be put to one side: string quartets, a piano trio, violin sonatas and sonatinas and a Septet for piano and strings, almost all of which had been composed in Bombay (now Mumbai). Save for the Piano Trio which is a wonderful exercise in Viennese pastiche, all of these works betray the influence of Kaufmann’s adoptive Indian home, in their scale patterns, rhythmic features and the repeated cello drones. Many of the pieces looked very promising indeed and I couldn’t wait to share them with ARC’s players. 

Kaufmann had wanted to emigrate to the United States for a long time, and his friend, physicist and amateur violinist Albert Einstein, wrote to several influential contacts on his behalf, both before and during his Indian sojourn. But Kaufmann was competing against older and better-known contemporaries and when Einstein’s letters failed to elicit any employment Kaufmann was compelled to spend the war-years in India, during which time he heard nothing from his family. When the war ended it was soon apparent that Karlsbad’s Jewish population had been decimated; the casualties included most of Kaufmann’s family.

In India, the tension between Hindu and Muslim communities was deepening, reaching its terrible climax with British withdrawal and Partition. For Kaufmann, a return to his homeland was now impossible. The Nazis had confiscated all of the Kaufmann family’s possessions and the Czechs had expropriated the Karlsbad properties. Walter, who had suffered from bouts of malaria and dysentery, found a temporary refuge in London, where he scored documentaries for the Rank Organization and occasionally conducted the BBC Theatre Orchestra. Then, in 1947, he joined the Maritime Conservatory in Halifax as its principal piano teacher, moving to Winnipeg a year later to become the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s first professional conductor. By the end of his eight-year tenure, the WSO had become a formidable ensemble with a large subscriber base and an impressive list of international soloists. In 1956 Kaufmann’s American ambitions were finally realized. With his second wife, the Winnipeg-born pianist Freda Trepel, he moved to Bloomington, and joined the IU Music Faculty; where he remained until his death in 1984.

As a rule, the ARC Ensemble’s reading sessions help us to decide on the group’s repertoire and recording projects. Kaufmann’s chamber music was rather mystifying. While the works were clearly rooted in a European musical tradition, they resisted any comparison with Kaufmann’s contemporaries. There were hints of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok certainly, but inflections of India seemed to suffuse everything—Indian music experts soon identified the ragas on which movements were based, his Eleventh String Quartet for example, is largely built on the evening raga Shivaranjani. 

When musicians are confronted with an unknown and unrecorded score, they work toward interpretive decisions based on instinct and experience. However, Kaufmann’s music presented a further challenge: what performance tradition needed to be more explicitly embraced? What amount of Indian style was needed to fully realize these pieces? And given that Kaufmann was equally at home in both traditions, should one choose some sort of middle path? By the recording sessions in January 2020, the ARC musicians had settled on a style and spirit that seemed both exciting and appropriate, and since the release of the recording this past August their approach still feels right. But like any new addition to the repertoire, further performances and recordings will help to percolate new ideas and approaches. 

In examining the music of exiled composers there is a general question that always accompanies repertoire choice and interpretive decisions. In Kaufmann’s case specifically, how was it that the music of a prodigiously-talented composer/conductor/musicologist and much-loved professor at one of America’s most illustrious music institutions, had been so comprehensively ignored? Institutional lethargy perhaps, but there are other reasons too. 

In an industry now obsessed with branding and self-promotion, Kaufmann’s attitude to his music will likely seem rather bewildering. In the Bloomington archive there are scarcely any letters that address the dissemination and promotion of Kaufmann’s works, and he joined neither of the two American licensing organizations which collect royalties on behalf of their members. The explanation in a letter to a colleague is simple: “I wrote mainly to please myself, I’ve never been out to make money from my music, If people like it, fine. I am very grateful. If they don’t like it, that is also fine.” But this manifesto must also be examined in the context of contemporary academic orthodoxy. Kaufmann’s music was rooted in a conservative tonal tradition that ran counter to the prevailing avant-garde fashions, which he abhorred.   

In some ways Kaufmann was also a victim of his own industry. He was relentlessly productive––it is almost impossible to imagine him sitting in front of a blank page––but once he completed a piece and had it performed, it was largely forgotten in his energetic rush to begin his next assignment. The journey from composition to performance appears to have provided him with sufficient reward and satisfaction, although it was also accompanied by a large dose of self-criticism. Bill Lazer, Walter Kaufmann’s brother-in-law, recalls the composer’s enigmatic response to the premiere of his opera The Scarlet Letter. As the cast took their bows and the audience cheered, Walter turned to Bill, shrugged, and said simply “Nu?” 

Header image courtesy of Simon Wynberg. 

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Can’t get enough? Subscribe!