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Dimitri Tiomkin

born: 10 May 1894
died: 11 November 1979
country: Russia

Oscar-winning composer, songwriter, acclaimed concert pianist, television personality, producer, author, raconteur: these are just some of the words that describe one of Hollywood’s most distinguished composers, Dimitri Tiomkin.

With his unique personality and ‘twinkle-in-the-eye’ sense of humour, Tiomkin coated everything with an endearing Russian accent that sounded like he just stepped on to the shores of his adopted homeland. His pidgin English (he in fact spoke fluent French and German) allowed him to plead a language mishap whenever he chose to act without a movie director’s approval. ‘Pleaz don’ hate me for idea, but vat eef …’ was heard so often that his autobiography is entitled Please don’t hate me.

Most film composers were known to the public solely by the music they created, while Dimitri Tiomkin was also being recognised for his television appearances with the likes of Jack Benny, Johnny Carson and Gig Young, and on popular shows including What’s My Line, To Tell The Truth and This Is Your Life. He selflessly used his fame to aid those in need, producing the Russian War Relief Programme with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Sir John Barbirolli and others to raise money to send an entire ship of medical supplies to war-ravaged Russia. George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel and other musical luminaries of the day frequently gathered at the Tiomkin residences in Europe and America. Tiomkin’s musical success can be attributed to his training, talent, stylistic diversity, and an ability to cross cultural divides. His success in Hollywood was fostered by his long-lasting personal relationships, his business acumen, a gregarious personality, a spirited sense of teamwork, his unbridled enthusiasm, and his uncanny ability to heighten the drama in a film.

The recipient of four Academy Awards and 22 nominations, Dimitri Tiomkin began his musical life far from Hollywood. Born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, he learned to play the piano from his mother, a music teacher, and went on to study piano at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He excelled as a solo pianist with Felix Blumenfeld and Isabelle Vengerova, and also studied with composer Alexander Glazunov, the conservatory’s director. Facing a bleak future in post-revolutionary Russia, Tiomkin moved to Berlin, where he studied with pianist Ferruccio Busoni and his disciples, Egon Petri and Michael Zadora. Tiomkin’s 1923 performance of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic helped further his reputation. Appearances in Paris as part of a piano duo resulted in an American vaudeville tour accompanying a ballet troupe headed by Albertina Rasch, an Austrian-born ballerina and choreographer who later became his wife, in 1926. Tiomkin’s 1927 Carnegie Hall recital introduced contemporary works by Poulenc, Scriabin and others to American audiences. Tiomkin went on to perform the European premiere of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto at the Paris Opera in 1928.

In Hollywood, he composed music for Rasch’s ballet sequences in MGM films of the late 1920s. With Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon in 1937, Hollywood took notice of Tiomkin’s ability to create dramatic music on a grand scale for large symphonic and choral forces. The Capra-Tiomkin partnership continued with You Can’t Take It With You, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life. During World War II Capra recruited Tiomkin to score films produced by the US Army Signal Corps, including Know Your Ally: Britain.

After the war, it was High Noon, produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann, that changed the course of Tiomkin’s career, thanks to the title song ‘Do not forsake me’. The song became a hit, and Dimitri Tiomkin became the first composer to receive two Oscars for the same film (Best Score and Best Song). Film music historian Mervyn Cooke wrote: ‘the song’s spectacular success was partly responsible for changing the course of film-music history’. A number of Oscar-nominated songs followed, including ‘Thee I love’ from Friendly Persuasion, the title songs from Wild is the Wind and Town Without Pity, ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ from The Alamo, and ‘So Little Time’ from 55 Days at Peking.

Then came successful collaborations with legendary directors including Alfred Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, I Confess and Dial ‘M’ for Murder), and a 20-year collaboration with Howard Hawks (Red River, The Thing from Another Planet, Land of the Pharaohs and Rio Bravo). Even though he scored Westerns during the 1940s (Duel in the Sun) he is most closely associated with the genre because of his work on High Noon as well as several films starring his friend, John Wayne (Red River, Rio Bravo and The Alamo). And then there was the epic Giant, the theme from Rawhide and the emotion-packed score for Friendly Persuasion. Tiomkin continued creating large-scale symphonic scores during the 1960s with The Guns of Navarone and in his collaborations with producer Samuel Bronston (55 Days at Peking, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World).

Tiomkin returned to Russia to executive-produce and arrange the music for the biographical film Tchaikovsky, and for which he received his final Oscar nomination for Best Musical Adaptation. He worked in London throughout the 1960s before settling there in 1968. In 1972 Tiomkin wed Olivia Cynthia Patch. He continued to return to his first love—the piano—playing classical music in their London residence. When Dimitri Tiomkin passed away at his home in London on 11 November 1979, the world lost a unique and exciting creative force. During his long and distinguished career, he received numerous honours. But perhaps the most remarkable one of all came in 1999 when he became one of only six Hollywood composers to be honoured with a commemorative stamp issued by the US Postal Service.

from notes by Warren Sherk © 2011


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