Dimitri Tiomkin’s Golden Decade

An appreciation by Roger Hall © 2002/2008
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.84, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Roger Hall

Tiomkin working on the score for Duel in the Sun 1946. Image courtesy of Bison Archives

Today Dimitri Tiomkin is remembered primarily for his later scores such as THE ALAMO and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. As enjoyable as these scores are, there is so much more to enjoy in his earlier work. In fact, Tiomkin composed some of the most enthralling music ever to come out of Hollywood. During the 1950s he was the highest paid Hollywood film composer. Why was he so popular? I believe it was the combination of his incredible energy and his gift for writing memorable melodies. He apparently composed with great ease. How did he manage it?

Writing one of the most perceptive contemporary articles about Tiomkin’s craft, published in Etude music magazine in 1953, Dave Epstein describes how Tiomkin worked, explaining that after he reads a script, he begins to write out major themes and movements, “some of which he knows he will never be able to perform for the soundtrack due to the inevitable cutting and editing that goes into the final film job.” Epstein further explains, “After the picture is completed, Tiomkin makes a detailed study of it and of its timing, sometimes spending days running scenes over and over in order to correlate the countless factors that go into the score.” Next he uses a stopwatch to arrange “his more-or-Iess final score, collects his musicians and assembles his orchestra, and after rehearsing, records the sound track, synchronizing it directly with the screening of the picture.”

Epstein also describes Tiomkin’s “staggering productivity,” noting the composer sometimes “averages a picture a month, a pace most Hollywood composer-conductors consider killing.” He attributes this incredible output to Tiomkin’s “thoroughly experienced musicianship and very substantial musical background.” Tiomkin was trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia before going first to Paris as a concert pianist and then eventually to Hollywood in 1929. His first film score was for Universal’s RESURRECTION in 1931. That was the beginning of his film score career, although it would take many years before he became famous in the 1950s and ‘60s.

I believe Tiomkin’s film music can be divided into four general periods:

(1) 1931-1941 – Early
(2) 1942-1947 – War and Postwar Years
(3) 1948-1958 – Golden Decade
(4) 1959-1971 – Late

His first Oscar nomination was for LOST HORIZON in 1937 and his last one was for TCHAIKOVSKY in 1971. Among his well received scores during the early and wartime years were Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and his first western score for David O. Selznick’s lusty but flawed film, DUEL IN THE SUN. These scores set the stage for what would become his greatest successes.

The Golden Decade

Few Hollywood film composers achieved what Tiomkin did during what I call his golden decade. Between 1948 and 1958 he composed 57 film scores. In 1952 alone – the year he won two Oscars for his landmark score to HIGH NOON – he composed 9 film scores. Other years he averaged over 5 scores a year. That’s an amazing achievement for any film composer, past or present. During the space of only a few years he received 4 Oscars for his film music and was nominated 9 times. Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa accomplished similar feats but over a longer span of time. But Tiomkin had a greater impact on the later film music scene because of two key elements – the western score and the title song.

Western Film Scores

Dimitri Tiomkin high noon screen archivesMany film critics and movie buffs would pick 1948s RED RIVER, directed by Howard Hawks, as one of the greatest of all western films. Besides the impressive acting talents of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, there’s Tiomkin’s monumental score. As Christopher Palmer describes it in his outstanding book, Dimitri Tiomkin: A Portrait, “the title-music immediately sets the epic, heroic tone. The unison horn-call is indeed an invocation: the gates of history are flung wide and the main theme, high and wide as the huge vault of the sky, rides forth in full choral-orchestral splendour.” The robust male chorus was directed by his assistant, Jester Hairston, a former member of the Hall Johnson Choir who first worked with Tiomkin on LOST HORIZON. Up until now RED RIVER has only been heard in excerpts such as the Unicorn-Kanchana compilation conducted by Laurie Johnson. It has never received a full soundtrack recording. That’s due to change with a planned Marco Polo CD release in the excellent film score series by the team of John Morgan and William Stromberg.

The Song Scores

Tiomkin was really the first composer to become popular for both the title song and its score. During his golden decade he became known for using the title song as the main ingredient of the score. This technique is demonstrated in his two best-known western scores of the 1950s: HIGH NOON and GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. Both use the opening ballad as the main theme, which is sung like a common thread woven throughout the film. Thus these scores are monothematic. Both songs also have lyrics by the gifted Ned Washington, who had won an earlier Oscar for his lyrics to ‘When You Wish upon a Star.’ Even though ‘Do Not Forsake Me’ was sung in the film by country & western singer Tex Ritter, the biggest hit recording was by Frankie Laine, who also sang ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ in that film. To demonstrate the incredible popularity of the title song from HIGH NOON, there is a German CD (Bear Family Records) with 25 different artists performing it. They range from the best-known versions by Tex Ritter and Frankie Laine to jazzy instrumentals by Ray Conniff and Henry Mancini. What other movie title song has received this kind of tribute?

Tiomkin loved to make ample use of source music in his scores. One example is the folk song ‘Buffalo Gals’ in the saloon scenes in HIGH NOON. Another Tiomkin success was the delightful title song for THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA from 1954, sung by the silky smooth Nat King Cole in a sultry arrangement by the great Nelson Riddle. This song, oddly subtitled a ‘Persian Lament,’ became a huge hit. These Tiomkin hits created what Irwin Bazelon called a “title song mania,” as mentioned in Matthias Büdinger’s thoughtful Tiomkin tribute in the Winter 1999 issue of this magazine. Thanks to Tiomkin’s success, every studio was looking for hit movie songs during the 1950s. Is it any different today after Horner’s hit song from TITANIC?

One other Tiomkin song score that isn’t really a traditional western but does take place in Texas is GIANT, directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. The score of this film is similar to RED RIVER with its broad, sweeping landscape title theme. Both also make prominent use of chorus. But rather than the majestic title theme in GIANT, many film goers probably remember the folk song, ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ which was not composed by Tiomkin.

Sci-Fi and Suspense

The Thing From Another WorldAs with most film composers of his era, Tiomkin didn’t just do western scores. Among the others was a science fiction score for 1951’s THE THING, credited to Christian Nyby as director but some say it was actually directed by producer Howard Hawks. For this score, Tiomkin composed a creepy, highly evocative score using a heavily accented title theme to symbolize the massive size of the alien creature. As conductor Charles Gerhardt explained it in an interview with Christopher Palmer: “It’s certainly Tiomkin’s strangest and most experimental score with strong contemporary elements…” He then describes the unusual orchestra used: “a very large group of woodwinds and brass, no strings except for double basses, five percussion groups including two sets of timpani, flexatone, wind-machine, two pianos, three harps, Yamaha organ, pipe organ, and to replace the theremin, the Ondes Martenot.” Gerhardt employed this orchestra when recording a suite for his excellent RCA film score series. He also mentions that Tiomkin was working on this film at the same time as Bernard Herrmann’s THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Gerhardt mentions that both use a similar orchestra configuration but “Herrmann’s concept is basically a simple one, whereas Tiomkin’s is complex, and from the technical standpoint Tiomkin’s idiom is more advanced.” Both the Herrmann and Tiomkin scores are now considered among the greatest of all sci-fi scores.

Besides his western and experimental scores, Tiomkin also composed more conventional works, including several for Alfred Hitchcock. His first one was for SHADOW OF A DOUBT in 1942, skilfully arranging Lehar’s ‘Merry Widow Waltz’ as it figures to be a key element in the suspense tale. Later came STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in 1951, I CONFESS in 1953, and DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER in 1954. All these scores show that Tiomkin could compose in a style other than the rhythmically robust western or sci-fi style. His music for the Hitchcock films is in a lush romantic style, using solo violin and muted trumpet rather than the horns and brass as in his western fanfares. His music was more subdued to underscore the emotional nature of the Hitchcock suspense films.

Tiomkin Speaks

Dimitri TiomkinIn the aforementioned Etude magazine article, Dave Epstein describes an often overlooked device in film scoring when he writes: “Tiomkin has found that in addition to the timbre of the voice, the pitch of the speaking voice must be very carefully considered and reckoned with in his scoring. Tiomkin finds that certain stars’ voices rule out dominant brasses, for instance, in the background music. Tiomkin goes to the set and listens to the players doing their lines. He talks to them conversationally, noting the pitch and color of their voice.” Epstein then turns to the film composer himself to give an explanation of how he composes for different characters in a film. “The music has the function of helping describe the characters,” Tiomkin stated. “It helps paint the portraits.” He then gives an example: “A couple years back I scored a picture in which the feminine lead was supposed to be a delicately featured Continental. The star playing the role, although a fine actress, didn’t really have that kind of face. It was my job to soften her face, to make her look more Continental, more refined. We did it with the music which accompanied her every appearance on the screen, by developing a delicate, graceful theme. To appreciate the effect of the movie and to realize how much it adds, one should see the average movie before and after the music is added.”

Dimitri TiomkinHis last sentence is very much the same remark made to me by Aaron Copland about his film music (see the Fall 2000 issue of Soundtrack). I’ve tried it with HIGH NOON and sure enough, the film is not as effective without Tiomkin’s music. One example is the suspenseful ticking motif in the orchestra whenever a clock is shown in the film. This clock motif reaches its climax when the clock reaches noontime and the music stops suddenly as the train whistle is heard. In his book, ‘Film Music: A Neglected Art’, Roy M. Prendergast called this cue “one of the finest, most unnoticed moments in film music.” This cue is included on the Unicorn-Kanchana CD of Tiomkin’s western film music.

After the popularity of the HIGH NOON song, Tiomkin said he was asked to write just hit songs. “I followed the changes in progressive jazz, when calypso came along, I wrote in the West Indian vein. I could write rock n’ roll if necessary.”

He was known for his ability to write memorable title songs. But also he was famous for an acceptance speech he gave after he won his third Oscar for THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY in 1955. This film also featured another hit title song, which this time was just whistled in the film. Tiomkin explained his acceptance speech in his autobiography: “The television audience at the presentation and the newspapers gave me credit for getting off the big joke of the occasion. I was hailed as a wit. Upon receiving my Oscar for the best motion picture score of the year, I expressed my thanks to Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other great composers. A howl went up all over the country. A prize-winning Hollywood composer kidding Hollywood, poking fun at motion picture music. What could be funnier?”

And it turned out he admitted it was “unconscious humor” and the joke was on him. “I must tell the truth. I gained more fame in those two mistaken minutes than in forty years of music.” By thanking the classical masters who inspired him, he endeared himself to his audience. But more importantly, he was explaining why he had produced so many successful scores and title songs.

Tiomkin on Disc

Cyrano-de-BergeracUnlike other Golden Age film composers like Herrmann or Rozsa, Tiomkin hasn’t been well served on CD. I have an old LP with Tiomkin and his orchestra from 1955 that includes such rare items as ‘Jamie’s Theme’ from A BULLET FOR JOEY and the title theme from THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA. Even though he frequently conducted his own scores, there have been only a few CDs released. His 1958 Oscar-winning score THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was available on a PEG CD but that is now out-of-print. Tiomkin and his orchestra are heard on a Unicorn-Kanchana CD from 1985, and another one on Columbia from 1988. There are also a few compilations with Tiomkin-conducted tracks. One of these is ‘Alfred Hitchcock – Signatures in Suspense’ on Hip-O, which includes rare recordings of themes from I CONFESS and DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER. Another CD compilation is Music from Hollywood on Columbia Legacy, with Tiomkin conducting an unreleased track of his theme from HIGH NOON.

With all his successes, it’s surprising the only commercial release of his great western scores is on Unicorn-Kanchana, Laurie Johnson conducting the London Studio Symphony Orchestra with the John McCarthy Singers. While the orchestra and chorus do the music up in grand fashion, the weak-voiced Bob Saker is a big letdown.

Two of the best compilations are Lost Horizon: The Classic Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin and The Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores, both featuring The National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Gerhardt. The first one includes a suite of Tiomkin’s beautiful music for THE BIG SKY, and a scene in the barn from the enormously popular film FRIENDLY PERSUASION. The second CD includes a ten-minute suite from THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), which is not entirely successful at duplicating the original but is much better than the shorter version on the Silva compilation, Alien Invasion: Space and Beyond II.

Since Tiomkin’s music is so hard to duplicate convincingly by others, the best way to hear his music is on video or DVD releases for his films, like the excellent 50th anniversary edition of HIGH NOON with its superb sound and picture. For those who are willing to investigate, Tiomkin’s music has much to offer. This is especially true during his golden decade when he was the best-known composer working in Hollywood.

He summed up his popularity best when he wrote in his book: “In Hollywood vernacular, I could write commercial.”

2008 Addendum

Since I first wrote my Tiomkin article in 2002, there have been many CDs of his music. Rather than try to list them all I have chosen ten scores, including some that may be hard-to-find, that were mentioned in my article about Tiomkin’s “Golden Decade” from 1948 to 1958.

1948: RED RIVER – score restored by John Morgan. Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir, conducted by William Stromberg. Recorded in Moscow, Russia, February – March 2002. Available on Marco Polo CD 8.225217, 2003. Reissued on a Naxos CD 8.557699, 2005.

1950: D.O.A. – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Ray Faiola and Craig Spaulding. Screen Archives Entertainment CD SAE-CDS-017, 2007.

1951: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Lukas Kendall. CD also includes soundtrack to TAKE THE HIGH GROUND (1953). Film Score Monthly CD Vol. 8, No. 1.

1952: THE BIG SKY – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by James D’Arc and Craig Spaulding. Brigham Young University Film Music Archives CD FMA-DT111, 2003.

1952: HIGH NOON – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. The complete soundtrack including the title song sung by Tex Ritter. Produced by Ray Faiola and Craig Spaulding. Screen Archives Entertainment CD SAE-CRS-018, 2007. Also available is a CD with 25 different artists performing the title song on Bear Family Records BCD 16395 AR.

1954: THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY – Suite – London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Kaufman. Compilation CD: “The High and the Mighty: A Century of Flight,” Varese Sarabande CD 302 066 704 2, 2005. Produced by Paul Stilwell and Robert Townson.

1954: THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA – Title Song – sung by Nat King Cole, arranged by Nelson Riddle. Compilation CD: “Nat King Cole At The Movies” Capitol Records CD CDP 7 99373 2, 1992.

1956: FRIENDLY PERSUASION – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Title song sung by Pat Boone. Produced by Bruce Kimmel.
Varese Sarabande CD VSD-5858, 1997.

1956: GIANT – studio recording. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Originally issued on a Capitol Records LP album in 1963 and reissued many times since then. Latest release: DRG/EMI CD 19080, 2006.

1958: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – original soundtrack release. Music conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Sony Music Special Products. PEG CD 028 A34281.

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