The Rifleman Who Fiddled For Truman, Churchill And Stalin : Deceptive Cadence Stuart Canin was one of many GIs in Europe after World War II, but his violin made him different.
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The Rifleman Who Fiddled For Truman, Churchill And Stalin

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The Rifleman Who Fiddled For Truman, Churchill And Stalin

The Rifleman Who Fiddled For Truman, Churchill And Stalin

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Seventy years ago, shortly after defeating Nazi Germany, three victorious leaders met in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. President Harry Truman was there with British and Soviet leaders, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Stuart Canin was also there, a 19-year-old GI from New York City who played the violin. Canin was drafted and sent to Europe as an Army rifleman, and he took along his violin. He went on to become a successful violinist, also concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and he's the subject of a short documentary film called "The Rifleman's Violin." He's now 89 and joins us from Berkeley, Calif. Welcome to the program.

STUART CANIN: Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: Before we get to Potsdam, tell us about your decision, when you shipped out to serve in Europe during World War II, to take along your violin.

CANIN: Well, I had no idea how long the Army would want my services, so I had my $2 - as we used to call them - cigar box violin. And going up the gangplank, my commanding officer says, what are you going to do with that? I said to him, well, you never know.

SIEGEL: But ultimately, the Army figured out it had a violinist on its hands and...

CANIN: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...They could make some use of this gift that you had.

CANIN: Well, the war ended on May 8, and on May 10 I got orders. They said that Private First Class Stuart Canin is going to be sent back to Paris to join an entertainment soldier show company. Among the people there were Josh Logan, the famous Broadway director, and Mickey Rooney, the wonderful actor at that time. And I went around with Sgt. Eugene List, the well-known American pianist who came over then with the future idea of having a GI Symphony, which did eventually come about.

SIEGEL: Flash forward to July 1945, just about this of the month. You're being taken to Potsdam.

CANIN: Well, our commanding officer in Paris said, Eugene, you and Stewart and Mickey, get yourself ready. We're flying to Berlin because President Truman is coming over. They drove us over to Potsdam, and they billeted us in a tent. And then, the next day, our commanding officer came and said, you guys get shined up. And they took us across the street to this house, and we had no idea. We thought, well, the president was going to be there. But we were standing on the porch, and we heard the sound of motors coming in, one after another, big, black limousines. And we looked out - (laughter) we could not believe it because Stalin came out of one, Churchill came out of another, and everybody was on the front page of The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Today, the capitals of the entire world have listened to one of the most significant and decisive conferences in history to establish the basis for an enduring peace.

SIEGEL: This was a conference, Potsdam, in which the map of Europe was being redrawn. Vietnam was being partitioned. This was the meeting of the most powerful men on the planet, who were making big decisions about the postwar world.

CANIN: That's exactly right. And just as an aside, Mickey Rooney never got to appear because my commanding officer did not know that Stalin and Churchill were going to be there. He thought just Truman, and he thought maybe that would be fun for Truman. But when they realized that Mickey doesn't translate into Russian that easily...

(LAUGHTER)

CANIN: ...And Churchill was about to lose his position as Prime Minister of Great Britain, that didn't bode well for Mickey's appearance. So he just got to stay in the tent for a week.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: So real star power was stuck in the tent across the road, and you and List are called upon to play for - what a cast of characters you were playing for at that moment.

CANIN: Well, we had no idea, of course, until we saw them get out of those cars. Truman and Stalin and Churchill came out, and there was one long sofa. Truman sat in the center, and Churchill, as befitting his politics, was on the right (laughter), and Stalin had the place of honor on the left, befitting his politics. So there was a little upright piano which we were going to use, and I have put my violin there. And then Truman said, well, gentlemen, would you play for us? So I went over behind the piano to get my violin, and the fellow who was acting as Stalin's aid, I tell you, he leaped across the room...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

CANIN: ...In one step. He was across the room at my side. I will never forget his face watching me open the case and take out the violin and the bow. And then he relaxed, (laughter) and he went back.

SIEGEL: You were not an undercover hitman who had been sent to assassinate Stalin.

CANIN: You never know.

SIEGEL: That was demonstrated. So you're playing for these - I'm delighted to learn that the first piece you play is one of my favorite the violin pieces, which was the Kreisler prelude and allegro, the piece that Kreisler said was written by a composer named Pugnani, which he...

CANIN: That's right.

SIEGEL: He made up that fact.

CANIN: That was a scam, yeah. He just didn't think that his music would be accepted, so he made up some old names, and Pugnani was one of them.

SIEGEL: Well, we have a much more recent recording of you playing that piece. This is not from Potsdam in 1945.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "PRAELUDIUM AND ALLEGRE")

SIEGEL: You also played a Tchaikovsky piece, I gather, and that got a rise out of Stalin.

CANIN: Eugene just decided on the spur of the moment to play the theme of the Tchaikovsky concerto, you know, (humming). And Stalin leaped to his feet, and he said a toast to the musicians.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

CANIN: And somebody grabbed a vodka from the tray that one of his aides was holding (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: I mean, this would have been a remarkable experience for anyone, but your were all of 19 years old when this was happening.

CANIN: Well, I tell you, I've been nervous in my life. I've been a professional musician for God knows how many years - 60, 70 years. And I still remember when I saw these people come out and take a seat (laughter) on that loveseat. I don't know if you can call it a loveseat with those three people, but anyway, it was a couch. And then I had to get my violin out from behind the piano and start to play. But, you know, once you start to play and you get some familiar objects in your hand, you're OK, you know? It was just the thought of playing for these gentlemen was way beyond what I could've ever imagined.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CANIN: But the president promised me, and he made good on his promise, that he would send me an autographed picture. So he signed it, to an excellent violinist, Private First Class Stuart Canin, Harry Truman, which I have and treasure.

SIEGEL: Well, Stuart Canin, thank you very much for talking with us about your command - literally - command performance many years ago in Potsdam.

CANIN: Thank you very much, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Stuart Canin's story is part of the film "Potsdam Revisited: Overture To The Cold War," created by Citizen Film and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University. You can watch an excerpt called "The Rifleman's Violin" on our website, nprmusic.org.

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