Dimitri Tiomkin: The Russian Cowboy

The last in my series of Golden Age composers is given to Dimitri Tiomkin.  Most non-film buffs have never heard his name, but his accomplishments are many and his film scores are classic.  

Born in Russia in 1894, Dimitri Tiomkin began his music career early (like most composers).  His classically trained mother taught him piano until Tiomkin studied piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Felix Blumenthal and Alexander Glazunov.  During this time, he played piano accompaniment for films and got accustomed to styles such as ragtime, jazz and vaudeville.  As Russia fell into turmoil with the Revolution, Tiomkin left for Berlin, where his father had moved to. 

 In Berlin, Tiomkin studied with Ferruccio Busoni and composed short classical pieces, even appearing as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic.  From that, in 1925 Tiomkin was given the chance to come to New York City.  There he played the vaudeville circuit, and accompanied a dance which was led by his future wife Albertina Rasch.  He continued to be musical director on many projects, and also continued to solo on piano.  In 1928, Tiomkin performed a concert of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and premiered the Concerto in F.

Tiomkin and the Albertina Rasch Dancers traveled to Hollywood in 1929, performing with Tiomkin’s music and Rasch’s choreography.  As Rasch began choreographing for motion pictures, she recommended her husband to compose some ballet scenes for some MGM pictures.  He was hired by Universal in 1931 for the full instrumental score to Resurrection.  With 1937’s Lost Horizon, Tiomkin began his collaboration with Frank Capra, who would work together again on 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You and 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Tiomkin’s first Oscar nomination came from Lost Horizon, but as per Academy rules went to Columbia music department head Morris Stoloff.  Capra and Tiomkin would also work on Meet John Doe (1941), many World War II documentaries and the perennial classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the film that would end their collaboration.  Tiomkin also began collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock, starting with Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and ending with Dial M for Murder (1954).  It is interesting to note that Hitchcock’s next film began the collaboration with Bernard Herrmann.  

Through the 1940s, Tiomkin began composing music for many westerns, including many John Wayne films.  Of the westerns, none is more influential or highly regarded as High Noon (1952).  Working with lyricist Ned Washington, he wrote the song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin, the title song of the film.  The song is interpolated throughout the score, similarly to Steiner’s Casablanca.  Tiomkin became the first composer to win two Oscars for the same film – for score and song.  After this win, Tiomkin continued to write original songs for his films and continued to be nominated for Oscars.  The string of westerns continued into the 1950s with The High and the Mighty (1954), Giant (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and Rio Bravo (1959).  He even composed the theme to the television show Rawhide and Gunslinger with Ned Washington.  John Wayne brought Tiomkin to The Alamo (1960) and he would eventually score The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  He continued scoring until returning to Europe in the late 60s.  He died in 1979.  

Tiomkin’s use of music in westerns shaped the genre.  His use of main theme songs has continued to this day.  His acknowledgments by the Academy Awards is staggering – 4 wins and 22 nominations.  His gift at melodies is evident in his songs and scores, and his skill to match music to the film makes him one of Hollywood’s best composers.  His recordings and soundtracks have remained popular to this day, both song and score to High Noon have appeared on the AFI 100 Years lists. 

The Alamo: Overture/Main Title (Click here to listen)
High Noon - Do Not Forsake Me (Click here to listen)
Compliation of Tiomkin Scores (Click here to listen)

As a bonus, A Visit with Dimitri Tiomkin, filmed around the time of 1956.

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