Walter Kaufmann was an ethnomusicologist, composer, conductor, librettist and teacher. He escaped Europe for Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1934 and researched Indian, Chinese and Tibetan music, before moving to Canada and the USA where he enjoyed a career as a conductor and teacher. His compositions include ten string quartets, three piano trios, six ‘Indian’ miniatures, and other chamber, symphonic and stage works, though none were published.
Born in Carlsbad on 1 April 1907, Kaufmann studied composition in Berlin with Franz Schreker before working as an assistant to the conductor Bruno Walter at the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin and for Radio Prague. His early works were played in Carlsbad, Berlin, Wroclaw, Prague and Vienna. He submitted a doctoral thesis on Mahler to the German University in Prague, but withdrew it once he realised that his supervisor was leader of a local Nazi Youth group. He decided to leave Europe because of his Jewish ancestry. His interest in Indian music and the ease of achieving an Indian visa saw him arriving in Mumbai in 1934. His wife Gerta (niece of Franz Kafka) joined him shortly thereafter. In his memoirs, Kaufmann wrote about his first impressions of Indian music:
As I knew that this music was created by people with heart and intellect, one could assume that many, in fact millions would be appreciating or in fact loving this music…I concluded that the fault was all mine and the right way would be to undertake a study tour to the place of its origin.
In Mumbai Kaufmann worked as a piano teacher (he taught Zubin Mehta), and also founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society, performing every Thursday. Conditions in India were difficult for Western classical musicians, not least because the humid conditions are not ideal for pianos and string instruments. Nevertheless Kaufmann continued to perform and compose, incorporating some Asian elements into his works. He sent his ‘Indian’ Piano Concerto back to Prague where it was premiered in 1937 by Edith Kraus, and his Symphony No. 3 was premiered by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1937 and broadcast on the radio. Anasuya, India’s first ‘radio opera,’ was premiered in 1939. Kaufman became Director of European broadcasting at All India Radio; he composed the AIR theme tune, which is still used on the network today.
After the war, Kaufmann tried to return to Prague but eventually decided to take up conducting opportunities at the BBC in London. Shortly thereafter he moved to Canada, becoming head of the Piano Department and Professor of Piano and Composition at the Halifax Conservatory of Music, Nova Scotia, and conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. His Piano Concerto in C major was first performed there by his second wife, Freda Treppel. Kaufmann invited many leading performers to play with the Winnipeg Symphony, including Glenn Gould and Szymon Goldberg. He later moved to the USA, becoming professor of classical musicology at the University of Bloomington, Illinois. Kaufmann died on 8 September 1984.
By Abaigh McKee
Fernandes, N. (2013) ‘Remembering the Jewish refugee who composed the All India Radio caller tune’ Scroll
Schindler, A. (2016) A Tiny Teardrop: The Devastating Impact of Nazism on the Lives of Musicians in Central Europe (1933-1945) (Bratislava: Hobodné Centrum)
Weil, S. (2015) ‘The Walter Kaufmann Story: The Exile Who Invented All-India Radio’s Signature Tune’ Asian Jewish Life