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Charlie Chaplin and his violin obsession

The great screen comedian was an accomplished amateur violinist who composed many of the scores to his films

At the height of his success, Charlie Chaplin harboured a fantasy about his violin. In 1920, shortly before the release of The Kid, he told a journalist: ‘I once had a day vision. I saw at my feet in a huddled heap all the trappings and paraphernalia of my screen clothes – that dreadful suit of clothes! – my moustache, the battered derby, the little cane, the broken shoes, the dirty collar and shirt. That day I had resolved never to get into those clothes again – to retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual.’

It’s not surprising that someone who had risen from abject poverty to being the most famous man in the world in less than ten years might long for retreat, but I find the idea that Chaplin dreamt of taking his violin with him very touching. I’ve only recently come under Chaplin’s spell. I’d always disdained him, under the fashionable misconception that he was too sentimental. But then I discovered the whimsy, the childlike imagination, the anarchy, the grace, the humanism and the moral courage. Having consumed as many books, DVDs and live screenings as I could, I’ve become a Chaplin geek. And as I read, I discovered that Chaplin was a committed amateur violinist for much of his life, and that even when that passion abated, he poured the experience into writing string-laden film scores.

We have evidence of Chaplin playing on screen twice, in films that bookend his career. In The Vagabond of 1916, he plays a busker who is not above collecting other performers’ tips and who uses his violin to seduce a gypsy girl. There are a couple of lovely playing gags, involving a fourth finger that can’t stop trilling, and an itchy nose, and Chaplin ably demonstrates that any gag he can do (such as a chase and several falls into a bucket of water), he can also do clutching violin and bow. His playing looks fluid and confident, although his vibrato seems a bit tense, and his air of prim professional superiority, especially when bowing to his audience of one, is delightful.

Chaplin’s other violin performance comes in one of his last and most autobiographical films, Limelight (1952), in which he plays a faded music-hall star. His final performance is as a double act with Buster Keaton (who very nearly upstages him) on the piano, with Keaton trying to keep his music on the stand while Chaplin tries to adjust his own legs to the same length. When he plays, Chaplin’s look of needy ingratiation encapsulates the film’s main theme – the changing relationship between performer and audience over time. The sight of Keaton walking around with a smashed violin underfoot is possibly too painful to be funny (although it’s not as bad as watching Chaplin running around with his head stuck in a double bass in The Pawnshop). Chaplin is miming, but it’s a funny routine, and it’s poignant to see the two twilit masters together. It’s also interesting that (spoiler alert) Chaplin chose his fictional death to happen playing the violin.

’I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act‘

Violin and cello are mentioned several times in Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography, a compelling account of the poverty and parental madness in which he was brought up in Victorian London. By the age of 16, he was already a rising talent in the English music halls and would practise his violin from four to six hours a day: ‘Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended. As I played left-handed, my violin was strung left-handed with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed. I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act.’

Stan Laurel, of double-act fame, shared lodgings and toured the US with Chaplin as part of Fred Karno’s music hall company in 1910. He backs up Chaplin’s claims, although he makes him sound somewhat pretentious: ‘He carried his violin wherever he could. Had the strings reversed so he could play left-handed, and he would practise for hours. He bought a cello once and used to carry it around with him. At these times he would always dress like a musician, a long fawn-coloured overcoat with green velvet cuffs and collar and a slouch hat.’ There is also a story that as Laurel cooked, which was forbidden in their digs, Chaplin would play the violin to cover the noise.

On his next tour of the US with Karno, in 1913, Chaplin was discovered by Mack Sennett of the Keystone Film Company, and from that point his rise was meteoric. In 1915 he was earning $1,250 a week at Essanay Studios and by 1917 he had signed with First National for $1,200,000, enabling him to build his own studio and allowing him unprecedented artistic freedom. In his autobiography he describes the moment his brother Sydney, who negotiated this deal, broke the news: ‘I had just taken a bath and was wandering about the room with a towel around my loins, playing The Tales of Hoffmann on my violin. “Hum-um, I suppose that’s wonderful.’’’

’Chaplin admits that as a violinist he is no Kubelik or Elman but he hopes, nevertheless, to play in concerts some day before very long’

Through this most active of phases and arguably at the peak of his comedic powers, Chaplin still seems to have been practising regularly. A Mutual press release of 1917 emphasises the star’s commitment to the violin: ‘Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and if in the humor, can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer. Chaplin admits that as a violinist he is no Kubelik or Elman but he hopes, nevertheless, to play in concerts some day before very long.’

Journalist Grace Kingsley was treated to Chaplin’s playing in 1918, writing: ‘He will permit you to sit in his dressing room, and let you do the talking while he affixes the horsehair to make up his moustache. You will notice a violin near at hand, also a cello. And it will be unusual if Charlie does not pick up the fiddle and the bow, and accompany your remarks with an obbligato from the classics, what time he will fix you with a far-away stare and keep you going with monosyllabic responses.’

Chaplin’s passion for playing seems to have gone cold by the time of a 1921 interview with the New York Herald, whom he told: ‘I used to play my violin a great deal up to a couple of years ago, but since then I’ve hardly touched it. I seem to have lost interest in such things.’ It seems that by this point his musical energies had transferred to writing film music.

His interests in composing go back to 1916, when he started a music publishing company, releasing songs such as ‘Oh, that cello’ and ‘There’s always one you can’t forget’. It wasn’t successful, though, and soon closed. From City Lights (1931) onwards, he composed all his scores and went back in later years to write music for the older ones. Chaplin couldn’t read music and described the process of composing as ‘la-laing’ to musical associates, but he was involved in all the creative decisions about timing and scoring. Violinist Louis Kaufman played for several Chaplin soundtracks and in his biography describes Chaplin supervising every detail of the recordings and ‘creating little tunes and perfect themes’. Many of these themes became famous beyond the films, including ‘Smile’ from Modern Times and ‘Eternally’ from Limelight.

As in his films, Chaplin brings an instinctive sense of timing, structure and emotional persuasion to bear in his scores, and some of his most powerful scenes are accompanied by violin themes that fully wring the emotions. The heartbreaking ending of City Lights, for example, and the tumultuous high point of The Kid, when the young Jackie Coogan is taken by the orphanage director, are both accompanied by dramatic string music. It sounds a little like pastiche, perhaps of Elgar or Tchaikovsky, but it never fails to heighten the on-screen passions, with some sophisticated effects. In City Lights, for example, Chaplin sets up a musical motif for his relationship with the blind flower girl throughout the film, a violin tune known as ‘La violetera’ (apparently played by Xavier Cugat) which is given full rein in the final scene.

‘The majority of the extended violin solos are written in such a beautifully odd, yet specific, manner’

According to Timothy Brock, a conductor and composer who has reconstructed Chaplin’s scores, Chaplin composed using his violin well into the 1960s, and this can be felt in the writing. Brock explains: ‘The majority of the extended violin solos are written in such a beautifully odd, yet specific, manner. His string writing contains such a unique set of principles that it is obvious he was a composer bent on sound and not technical affability. On paper his writing can be technically unconventional, but to the ear it’s as naturally fluid and as lyrical as any composer. Once the player embraces the sound and meaning of the musical intent, the technical flaws in the writing become less than secondary.’ This unconventionality includes tuning the G string down to F sharp for Modern Times, as Chaplin never used violas. Brock says: ‘Instead of changing the figure, the instrument, or raising the overall key, he tuned his G string a step lower. As restorer I was forced to give this passage to the violas, something Chaplin would never have done.’

‘Yehudi and Persinger thought it absurd to think of giving up a minute of Charlie Chaplin to wait in a railway station’

Chaplin and Menuhin

Chaplin was literally the most famous man in the world in the period through to the 1930s, with access to any company he chose, and he often chose his own string players. According to Humphrey Burton’s biography of Menuhin, in 1928 Chaplin heard the young prodigy perform and invited him to the studio, declaring the day a holiday for his workers and giving Menuhin, his father and his teacher Louis Persinger a private tour. He evidently didn’t want Menuhin to leave. Menuhin’s father remembered: ‘I began to get anxious that we might miss our train. Yehudi and Persinger thought it absurd to think of giving up a minute of Charlie Chaplin to wait in a railway station. Chaplin himself would not let us leave until the very last moment. Then his chauffeur whisked us and our baggage to the station at top speed. Twice we were stopped by the police.’

‘Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin and was unable to play it. Chaplin took it, played some Bach, and said, “You see, I am made inside out and upside-down”’

Heifetz and Chaplin

Chaplin was also friends with Jascha Heifetz and told a story about how at a party Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin and was unable to play it. Chaplin took it, played some Bach, and said, ‘You see, I am made inside out and upside-down. When I turn my back on you in the screen you are looking at something as expressive as a face.’ Chaplin revelled in such associations and his autobiography is packed with anecdotes about musicians such as Debussy (who told Chaplin, ‘You are instinctively a musician and a dancer’), Stravinsky (with whom Chaplin planned a film setting a passion play in a nightclub), Rachmaninoff (whom Chaplin offended with his liberal thinking) and Hanns Eisler (who remembered how he was told by his bald harmony professor, Schoenberg, ‘Young man, don’t whistle. Your icy breath is very cold on my head’).

Such stories give a wonderful snapshot of Chaplin’s times, as do the films, especially in illustrating the role of the violin historically. It wasn’t reserved for salons and concert halls but was a regular feature in bars and restaurants, as shown in The Immigrant, The Vagabond, The Rink and A Dog’s Life for example. In The Gold Rush, the violinist functions as a jukebox, being thrown money to play for the dancers. Live music also played a part in inspiring Chaplin’s own performances: studio records show that, when filming one of his most iconic scenes, the dance of the bread rolls in The Gold Rush, Chaplin hired the Hollywood Quartet at $50 a day (although after a week they were replaced by a cheaper group).

But was Chaplin any good? I was inordinately excited to be sent a recording of him in 1925 playing a short solo on his own composition ‘Sing a Song’, with Abe Lyman’s orchestra. Chaplin carries the jaunty tune and his own decorations well. His solo is fairly well in tune; the sound is a little dull, the vibrato a bit wide and slow, and notes connected with unsubtle slides, but it’s enough to convince that Chaplin knew what he was doing.

The sound also stands testament to a private side to Chaplin that afforded him some escape from the burdens of his genius and fame, and reflected his creative aspirations. Above all, it reassures us that when Chaplin decided not to follow his dream of escaping to Italy the world did not lose one of its greatest violinists, as it would certainly have lost its greatest comedian if he had.

This was first published in The Strad, December 2008

What can violinists learn from Charlie Chaplin? Read my article here.

Chaplin photo with Menuhin from Foyle Menuhin Archive at Royal Academy of Music. Purchased by the Foyle Foundation, Sir John Ritblat HonFRAM and an anonymous donor, February 2004

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