Dimitri Tiomkin’s Music and His Oscars Rollin’ to The Barbican Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  The Film Music of Dimitri Tiomkin: Andrew Playfoot, Whitney Claire Kaufman (vocalists), London Voices, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Kaufman (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 27.10.2011. (JPr)

I wasn’t old enough to see most of the films for which Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the music when they first came out, but when I was growing up going to the cinema was a real event and the true ‘blockbusters’ came back time and again as there were no DVDs or satellite movie channels. So many of those ‘event’ films in movie history such as Around the World in Eighty Days, How the West was Won, The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone and The Alamo, to name only a very few, I saw as many times as I could. These were the pre-CGI or animation obsessed days of Todd-AO, Super Panavision, CinemaScope and Cinerama: a feature of all these great films of a past generation was their film music and pre-eminent amongst the composers working in Hollywood at the time was Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) whose work the London Symphony Orchestra celebrated in this fun-filled concert.

The large-scale symphonic music that often punctuated these films was perhaps a reminiscence of the silent era days when there was live accompaniment by piano or orchestra. The melodic music was as important a part of the experience as the film itself and intrinsic in telling a story by highlighting the humour, romance and tension as appropriate. Today, music in films is often used much more sparingly; I think especially of the films of the legendary director Clint Eastwood (a name we will return to) who, one way and another, has been working in Hollywood since the 1950s and writes his own music – but the notes he uses for an entire film would barely fill a few minutes of one of Tiomkin’s scores. Most cinema audiences seem to prefer a greater naturalness in their story-telling and this probably comes from what they watch on TV where background music also seems to play a decreasing role as the years go on. This is something for debate … but perhaps not here.

Jim Brown’s composer profile in the LSO’s programme described Tiomkin as the “Oscar-winning composer, songwriter, acclaimed concert pianist, television personality, producer, author and raconteur”. As a few moments of him speaking showed, he spoke – often broken – English with an accent as thick as Bela Lugosi and this seems strange from someone who could speak fluent French and German. As Brown writes, this may have been a ruse that “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.”

He seemed – in a few minutes of interview shown at this concert – to have a keen sense of humour and when reminded that in an Oscar acceptance speech the long list of composers he had thanked were ‘long dead’, his reply was ‘Lucky for me!’ Although Tiomkin’s music is imbued with jazz, blues and ragtime it owes much to the waltzes of Lehár and all the Strausses you can name. These borrowings do not belittle his achievement because, as he said himself, ‘I am a classicist by nature; that is why I am doing so well in films, it is music for the masses’. As the concert’s genial conductor, Richard Kaufman, reminded us he used ‘every colour of instrument he could find, including the harmonica’ and in an earlier talk he explained that Tiomkin ‘wasn’t worried if the film was good or not, he just wanted to write good music’. That he certainly often did. Tiomkin was a four-time Oscar winner and one of the highlights of this evening was the appearance of all of them, the first introduced when the conductor said “There is a famous saying ‘And the Oscar goes to …’ and I want you to meet Oscar”.

This concert featured a good selection of Dimitri Tiomkin’s output during the latter part of his work in Hollywood, beginning with Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) through to The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World (1964). Tiomkin was a Russian émigré and pupil of Alexander Glazunov, director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He was an accomplished pianist and gave many recitals, as well as performing the European première of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in the composer’s presence. Tiomkin arrived in the US via Berlin and Hollywood took notice of him after he worked for Frank Capra on Lost Horizon in 1937. Later when asked why he could compose so well for Westerns in particular, he replied that “The steppes of Russia are much like the prairies ofAmerica”. His life there ended with the death of his first wife in 1967. He lived his last years in retirement, remarried, in Paris and London, dying here in November 1979 at 85. This concert in part owed much to the support of his second wife, Olivia Tiomkin Douglas, who was present in the audience.

Unfortunately, by concentrating only on a few later years the programme showed up that he had off days; I know he was not ultimately responsible for the lyrics of songs – whose use as a main theme in films he almost pioneered – but three films suggested he was occasionally just a ‘jobbing’ composer. There were the heights of the plaintive ‘Do Not Forsake Me’ from High Noon in 1950 (a film I’ve never liked) that was evocatively rendered by Andrew Playfoot, to lows such as the theme from the 1955 Land of the Pharaohs that, however well-sung by Whitney Claire Kaufman, includes the lines “Welcome to the Land of the Pharaohs” and “Let’s recapture the rapture”. Then in 1960 he could again produce something emotion-engaging such as “The Green Leaves of Summer” from John Wayne’s underrated epic The Alamo, a film I have seen innumerable times even though it always ends the same! This haunting song was one of the first contributions of the London Voices who hummed, oohed and aahed with a will, though when required actually to sing few words were discernible over a very loud orchestra. Throughout the LSO, augmented by a jazz combo, played this music stylishly and enthusiastically, though the brass seemed to struggle at times with the demands Tiomkin made on them. The occasionally over-ripe orchestrations were the work of Patrick Russ who was announced as the ‘encyclopaedia on the music of Dimitri Tiomkin’. I’m sure it will all come together wonderfully for the forthcoming LSO Live CD release of this music.

As well as those films already mentioned we heard music from The Old Man and the Sea, The Four Poster, Giant, The High and the Mighty, The Guns of Navarone, Dial M for Murder, Stranger on a Train, Wild is the Wind (whose title song was given a delicately nuanced performance by Ms Kaufman), The Sundowners, Friendly Persuasion and Search for Paradise.

Last but not least is the one piece from TV that was played in this concert, the theme from Rawhide. This is a memorable series for those – like me – of a certainly age and a hankering for stories of men-doing-what-they-have-got-to-do. It ran from 1959 to 1966 (not 1962 as printed in the programme) and its legacy is that firstly it gave the film world Clint Eastwood who came to prominence as the cattle drive’s ramrod, Rowdy Yates; worldwide fame followed from the Spaghetti Westerns and the rest is history. Secondly, its title song is also, like Eastwood, something that has lived on for the subsequent 45 years and is known by all as soon as anyone hears those wonderful first words “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, though the streams are swollen, keep them doggies rollin’, Rawhide”.

Even I don’t know everything and I wondered during the encore reprise – with full audience participation – of this title song from Rawhide whether Political Correctness had got to the lyrics when we had “rope an’ throw an’ grab ‘em”, my mind boggles at what exactly were being grabbed when I remember this line as ending with “brand ‘em” but in fact research shows this might be the original wording. The longer you live … the more you learn!

Jim Pritchard