Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns are defined by Ennio Morricone’s powerful scores with their dissonant choral themes. The Cavalry Trilogy of John Ford is shaped and made memorable by folk tunes. Max Steiner’s wonderful leitmotivs help John Huston spin his tale of greed and treachery. Yet of all the great Westerns and their film scores one composer is unquestionably the king, the unlikely Russian born Dimitri Tiomkin. He scored dozens of Westerns. Some of his most celebrated: William Wyler’s The Westerner 1940, Howard Hawks’ Red River, 1948, King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun, 1946, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, 1952, George Stevens’ Giant, 1956 and John Wayne’s The Alamo, 1960.
Tiomkin loved to use the full orchestra to create grand themes that fit the vast American plain, but he was also skilled at creating a simple ballad. He thoroughly researched American folk tunes and weaved them into powerfully moving melodic tapestries.
Dimitri Tiomkin was Hollywood’s link to the classical Russian school of composition. He was born in 1894 in Kremenchuk, Poltava province, Ukraine, and studied at the prestigious music conservatory in St. Petersburg. He was a talented pianist, making an early début with the Berlin Philharmonic. He became acquainted with Shostakovich and Prokofiev. His main influence was Alexander Glazunov, a traditional, romantic composer who disliked the then popular impressionistic style of Claude Debussy. Tiomkin recalled that his teacher taught him composition and instilled in him a love of the fugue. He recalled that Glazunov “drilled us in them all the time, and that’s probably why I have sneaked so many fugues into my film scores.”
Over his long career Tiomkin was often asked how with his Eastern European heritage he was able to write music that was so descriptive of the American West. He often repeated “A steppe is a steppe is a steppe” saying “The problems of the cowboy and the Cossack are very similar. They share a love of nature and a love of animals. Their courage and their philosophical attitudes are similar, and the steppes of Russia are much like the prairies of America.”
Micromanaging producer David O. Selznick, famous for his ceaseless memos, harassed Tiomkin endlessly in the scoring of Duel in the Sun. To enhance the love/hate relationship between Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Pearl (Jennifer Jones), Selznick presented the composer with, in Tony Thomas’ words, “a musical medical prescription:” a card inscribed with four themes he wanted depicted in the score: jealousy, flirtation, sentiment and orgiastic. Tiomkin played the four motifs on the piano, Selznick approved all but the last. Selznick felt “orgiastic” was too “pretty” and he said “ it still needs more rhythm. I want it to be throbbing and unbridled.” The composer’s revision was also rejected, as was a third. “Dimi,” Selznick advised, “what we must have here is love-making music, and this isn’t the way I make love.” Having enough of the producer’s meddling, Tiomkin, angrily shouted, “Look, Selznick, I don’t know how you make love, but this is how I make love.” A laughing Selznick, acquiesced and accepted the final version.
High Noon bombed at its sneak preview and was only saved by the addition of Tiomkin’s score and the ballad “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darlin,” with words by Ned Washington, Tiomkin’s favorite lyricist, Tex Ritter (The father of the late John Ritter) recorded the main title and the other tracks in the film, in the manner of a medieval balladeer. Without the addition of the song, High Noon would have probably been shelved. Director Fred Zinnemann’s masterful use of clocks to build suspense is greatly enhanced by Tiomkin’s music in “The Clock and Showdown” montage, which anticipates the arrival of the noon train bringing Frank Miller, who plans to even the score with Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper).
Tiomkin scored over 140 films in every genre, 23 of which were nominated for academy awards; he won a total of four Oscars, two for High Noon, for score and song, for The High and the Mighty, 1954 and The Old Man and the Sea, 1958. Mention should also be made of a number of other memorable film scores including: Frank Capra’s mythical Lost Horizon, 1937, his wonderful medley of folk tunes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 and the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946, J. L. Thompson’s classic action, adventure, The Guns of Navarone, 1961 and what many in music consider his best effort in Anthony Mann’s grand epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964.
Tiomkin is also famous for one of the biggest laughs in the history of the Academy Award ceremonies. In 1954 when he accepted Oscar for The High and the Mighty. His speech began, “I would like to thank Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov . . . ,” at that point the audience erupted in peals of laughter. He claimed the was not making a joke—he was serious, acknowledging the great contributions classical composers had made to music over the generations. Many praised Tiomkin for his humor, however the reaction in the music community was mixed, particularly the ultra serious composer Franz Waxman, who felt that Tiomkin had ridiculed the profession.
Noted film historian Tony Thomas observed that despite Tiomkin’s “tendency to be loud and assertive, his was a distinctive touch and his scores can be mistaken for no other.” No composer in the history of cinema has captured the epic scope of the American West better.