On June 29, 1945 the legendary Lithuanian-born violinist Jascha Heifetz, an American citizen since 1925, stepped out of the army plane that ended his third international tour for American troops during World War II. Next to him was Seymour Lipkin (Piano ’47), who was still a student at Curtis, but had served as Heifetz’s accompanist during the European tour that had started on April 6.
Heifetz, who had supported the allied and American forces with his playing since 1941, had already done two international USO tours for American troops, visiting camps and hospitals. The first, in Central and South America, was a collaboration with his longtime accompanist Emanuel Bay in the fall and winter of 1943. In the summer of 1944 he toured North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, and Italy for the USO with a new accompanist, Milton Kaye. When Heifetz was asked to go to the European war zone in the spring of 1944, Kaye decided not to accompany him.
The news that Heifetz was looking for another pianist for the tour reached Curtis registrar Jane Hill. At the time Seymour Lipkin, who had entered Curtis in 1938 as an eleven-year-old, was a student of Rudolf Serkin. He played chamber music with as many students as he could and accompanied the opera class twice a week, as well as the string class and woodwind ensembles. He also served as accompanist to Curtis Director Efrem Zimbalist and another faculty member, the violist William Primrose; their regular accompanist, Vladimir Sokoloff, was serving in the army. It was no wonder Jane Hill thought of the seventeen-year old Seymour when she heard about Heifetz’s opening.
When Lipkin auditioned with Heifetz in his New York hotel they went through stacks of scores. “I decided I was going to follow him to the end of the world,” he told us during a recent oral history. He kept up with Heifetz during “whatever rubato he made,” and ended the tryout with the last movement of the Mendelsohn concerto, which Heifetz played “so fast you couldn’t believe it.” Lipkin got the job.
Lipkin has been quoted about his experiences in Heifetz’s authorized biography, as well as Peter Rosen’s documentary God’s Fiddler, which recently premiered on PBS in the American Masters series. A preview with historic photos and part of an interview with Lipkin can be viewed below (the full documentary can be seen here).
Heifetz and Lipkin boarded an army plane to the European theater of operations on April 6, 1945, both with the rank of honorary captain. In Germany they were stationed close to the front, playing wherever there were American troops, and had their own jeep and driver. The little GI piano was moved separately (it once lost its pedals and Lipkin had to play without them). A concert always started with Bach and ended with Heifetz’s arrangement of Grigoraş Dinicu’s Hora Staccato. What they played in between depended on the mood and attention of the audience.
Lipkin has many stories to tell about the USO trip. Once the jeep got lost near the front line and they noticed there was no traffic, except big tank carriers, all going in the same direction. “It looked like we were heading right towards the front, and Heifetz turned around and said, “We’re going back,” Lipkin told us. The incident is recalled in the comic strip True Comics, published by Parents Magazine as an educational alternative to fictional comic strips (view the complete comic strip, May 1947).
On VE (Victory in Europe) Day Heifetz and Lipkin were in Beckum, Germany, where they gave a concert as part of the celebrations. Afterwards, they met a sergeant who was a Heifetz admirer, and had kept a big salami for special occasions. He asked if he could share it with Heifetz and his accompanist on this special day. “We drove [something] like twenty miles to get to that sergeant to help him eat the salami on VE day,” Lipkin laughed. It is one of his favorite stories about the tour.
Lipkin celebrated his 18th birthday on May 14, six days after VE day. By the time he returned to the United States on June 29, 1945, he had accompanied Heifetz in Europe in more than sixty concerts. After the summer he would stay on for another two years at Curtis, before graduating in 1947. When we asked him if he talked about his experiences with fellow students, he shrugged. “That would be like bragging. You did not do that,” he said. The Heifetz cartoon is somewhere in his closet. He did not show that to his fellow students either.
After the war, fifteen of the more than thirty Curtis students who had been drafted returned as vets to finish their studies. To view photos and film excerpts depicting life at Curtis during and after the war, read our blog post A “Near Utopian Community:” Student Life in the 1940s. The excerpts include footage of Seymour Lipkin.