David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
The composer of the famous ballad from HIGH NOON, "Do not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," was born in the Ukraine, under the Russian Tsar, and if he ever punched a cow it was because the cow punched him first. Somebody once asked this composer, Dmitri Tiomkin, to explain how a real, no-kidding Slav acquired such a gift for composing melodies that bespoke the plains of the American West in such films as DUEL IN THE SUN, RED RIVER, GIANT, THE GUNFIGHT AT OK CORRAL and RIO BRAVO. To which Tiomkin replied, "Because a steppe is a steppe!" Pronounced shtep, this Russian word means "a vast, treeless plain," such as one might find a few hours east of Moscow, Russia-or ten minutes outside of Moscow, Idaho.
How did this Ukranian cowpoke make the pilgrimage from his native land to the Capital of Make-Believe, where seldom is heard an encouraging word?
To begin with, his musical studies began at a very early age, with piano lessons from his mother. By the time he reached 13, he was already proficient enough to be accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with Felix Blumenfeld, another of whose pupils was Vladimir Horowitz. For six years little Dmitri also studied harmony and counterpoint with Alexander Glazounov, who later taught another Dmitri, named Shostakovich. (In later years Tiomkin would attribute his predilection for fugal passages to the fact that Glazounov liked to stress the writing of fugues in his classes.) The young student helped to support himself by giving piano lessons to the daughters of wealthy families. According to his own account, he paid particular attention to the proper use of the pedals; since this would require special concentration upon the limbs that are pushing the pedals, what we have here seems to be something beyond the devotion to duty expected of piano teachers.
In order to sustain himself, Tiomkin also played accompaniments on the piano for silent films, where he displayed the dramatic talent that would serve him so well in Hollywood. Here is his account of that, as related to Tony Thomas: "There was one film in which a woman was being choked, and as her head rocked back and forth, mine did too, and I made the kind of grunts and groans she might have made in a sound picture. The audience thought it was funny, so the manager told me to 'keep it in,' and I did it every night." No information is offered concerning the intention of the film's director. If by chance he meant this scene of strangulation to be other than comic, it is just as well that he appears not to have attended any of Tiomkin's performances.
What with the revolutionary fervor and the artistic ferment of that time, St. Petersburg had become an arena of social change. It was the beginning of what the art critic William Wilson has called "a wildly improbable mating of intellectual freedom and nascent tyranny." The freedom would soon be snuffed out-but the tyranny it sought to supplant would survive. Since Glazounov frowned upon modernist trends, students found themselves chafing under restrictions imposed by the Conservatory. Naturally, they found a hangout, a cafe called The Homeless Dog, where they spent their free hours discussing with other artists, poets and musicians the latest developments as relayed from Paris and the most recent manifestos from the painters in Moscow. But the political upheavals took their toll. In 1917 the nationalist fervor even did away with the ancient name of the city: St. Petersburg was cast aside as too Germanic in tone, although its founder was still memorialized in the new name--Petrograd.
Tiomkin decided to abandon his strife-torn country, and went to Berlin. There he hoped to renew his relationship with his father, a physician who had emigrated years ago, had divorced Dmitri's mother and remarried, and now had an important position on the staff of the famed Dr. Paul Ehrlich, discoverer of the "Magic Bullet," salvarsan, which cured syphilis. But the reunion was a bitter one, and before long the father and son parted. They would never meet again.
While in Berlin, Tiomkin studied briefly with the unique pianist, composer and philosopher of music Ferruccio Busoni and made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. He also formed a two-piano team with another Russian émigré, Michail Khariton, and together they traveled to Paris, in the Twenties the place for aspiring performers to go. The career of the new team flourished there and brought an invitation to play on the American vaudeville circuitat the amazing figure of one thousand dollars per week.
In New York City, amid other wonders that competed for his attention, appeared an Austrian ballet dancer and choreographer, Albertina Rasch. Dimitri was instantly smitten, and after his American tour they were married. The new Mrs. Tiomkin was quite a piece of work. I remember encountering her when I was working as an arranger for Broadway musicals, and being embarrassed to hear her cuss out the girls of the chorus. But her driving ambition made her very important to Tiomkin's career. With her encouragement (an understatement of her powers of persuasion) he returned to Paris to give the European premiere of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto. It was a gala event: the audience included such luminaries as the impresario Serge Diaghilev and composers Sergei Prokofiev and Vladimir Dukelsky, later known as Vernon Duke.
Just when it looked as though Tiomkin's career had begun to pick up an essential momentum, the stock market crash of 1929 struck the American economy a devastating blow. And wealthy patrons of the performing arts could no longer meet the deficits of orchestras, ballets and opera houses. Concert halls and theatres went dark; performers and musicians were unemployed. But movie houses, a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, remained open, the advent of sound film having added something essential to the medium. The movie moguls were desperate for ideas that would involve both eye and ear-sight and sound. Albertina, who knew a good thing when she saw one, leapt into this situation with all ten toes. She suggested filming short ballet sequences, and when MGM accepted, she and Dmitri were off to Hollywood.
There, while she slaved all day over a hot pirouette, her spouse tried to find his way into the industry's musical ranks. Once again Albertina's gift for making the most of every situation worked: at significant moments, and from all accounts with the subtlety of a pile-driver, she would drop hints that her famous husband was not only a pianist but also a composer. Eventually this led to an audition at which Tiomkin played part of a ballet he had composed for Albertina. MGM bought the music for $3000 no small sum thenand Dimi was in! Soon he was composing dance sequences for musical pictures.
However, in Hollywood the imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery syndrome was already in decline as the public's appetite for carbon copies began to dry up. When Tiomkin finally got a chance at an important job, it turned out to be Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which is difficult enough for natives. At his initial conference at Paramount, he asked plaintively, "Alice in Wonderland"--what is? Please don't hate me." They didn't, and he was smart enough to understand that his malapropisms were an asset to be nurtured. (At a banquet many years later, the comedian George Jessel would introduce him as follows: "Here," he said, "is a guy who has been in this country or thirty years-and he talks like he gets off the boat next Wednesday") Someone once said that Tiomkin's mother-tongue was broken English, but in matters pertaining to his career he always managed to make himself understood.
Any appraisal of a composer's body of work must rest principally upon the work itself, which you will hear when his films are shown in the theatre. The disconcerting thing about Tiomkin's career is that despite his musical flair and the undeniable effectiveness of his film scores, he remains unrespected by his peers in the profession, many of whom think of him as a fraud. This is not fair, but to some extent Dimi brought it upon himself because of his excessive reliance upon his orchestrators, some of whom also earned considerable renown in their own right as composers: Robert Russell Bennett, Hugo Friedhofer, William Grant Still, Bernhard Kaun, and others. George Parrish, who worked with Dimi for a long time, remarked, "It would take one orchestrator a whole lifetime to orchestrate a Tiomkin score." This was because he did not really think orchestrally, and almost invariably wrote great cascades of pianistic notes. As Bernhard Kaun put it, "... one had to re-think his ideas in an orchestral way." From an experience I had with him on a Universal film, THE ROAD BACK, when I had to re-adapt a huge battle sequence, I can verify this problem.
That said, it is necessary to acknowledge that the success Tiomkin achieved could not have happened without a certain affinity for the film medium and the ability to compose strong thematic material, together with the versatility to adapt it to the requirements of the pictures he scored. Although capable of surprising duplicity, on a personal level he could also be quite charming. Our colleague, Johnny Green, composer of "Body and Soul" and many other wonderful songs and film scores, once said to me, "You have never been a guest until Tiomkin has been your host." Of course, this is in no way a musical attribute, but it does say something about the dimension of the man.
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author