With the recent release of SAE’s splendid soundtrack for CYRANO DE BERGERAC, I figured this month’s “9 on the 9th” post was the perfect time to celebrate the music of four-time Academy Award winner Dimitri Tiomkin. Known primarily for his scores for countless westerns and epic films of the 1950s and ’60s, Tiomkin is a polarizing composer with many film music fans. And it’s easy to see why.
Tiomkin’s early career as a concert pianist no doubt contributes to the long, continuous music full of loud, dramatic orchestral flourishes and probably more notes per score than almost any composer, then or now. A Tiomkin score is not content to sit idly by in the background. From the opening bars of the main titles, Tiomkin’s music is more often than not front and center.
What the music often lacked in subtlety, it made up for in the sheer complexity of the compositions. Filled with long, flowing melodies, overlapping lines and some of the most famous tunes ever written for film, Tiomkin had an inimitable style in his orchestrations and harmonic structure. And in an age when so many film scores sound like one another, it’s refreshing to revisit the unique, if occasionally exasperating, voice of one of the giants of the Golden Age.
9. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1958)
Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story (it’s not much of a “novel”) about a poor Cuban fisherman and his battles snagging a marlin also isn’t much of a film, even in the hands of old pros like director Fred Zinnemann and Spencer Tracy. But the Cuban milieu and the interminable scenes with nothing but visuals and Tracy’s voiceover providing the fisherman’s internal thoughts gave Tiomkin the opportunity to create a lush score that ebbs and flows with the waves crashing on the shore. Tiomkin won his fourth and final Oscar, but I would have given it to Jerome Moross’ classic THE BIG COUNTRY.
8. LOST HORIZON (1937)
James Hilton’s adventure set in Shangri-La gave Tiomkin a broad, foreign musical canvas, setting the tone for many of his later scores. In the first of his many Oscar-nominated scores, Tiomkin musters massive instrumental and choral forces to convey the story’s adventure and other-worldliness. Pentatonic scales and Asian-flavored percussion add to the musical mysticism.
7. GIANT (1956)
Edna Ferber’s sprawling, overbaked soaper of oil and greed on a Texas ranch is the perfect backdrop for yet another classic Tiomkin western score. The arid, vast expanse of the Lone Star State is captured in Tiomkin’s elongated main theme, while the strings swell with passions overheating in the Texas sun. As David Raksin told it, “When Tiomkin was once asked to explain how ‘a real, no-kidding Slav’ acquired such a gift for composing melodies that bespoke the plains of the American West…Tiomkin replied, ‘Because a steppe is a steppe!’”
6. CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1950)
I doubt this score would have appeared on this list without SAE’s recent release of the original soundtrack. But Tiomkin’s Baroque stylings are such a welcome change from the grand statements he makes in his westerns and epic films that the score has become an instant favorite. Edmund Rostand’s nasal challenged poet couldn’t ask for better swashbuckling (and love making) accompaniment than Tiomkin’s harpsichord-led recitatives.
5. RED RIVER (1948)
Howard Hawks’ classic western stars John Wayne and Montgomery Clift on the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. Harmonica and banjo color yet another of Tiomkin’s many classic western scores. Tiomkin weaves the legendary pioneer song, “Git Along Little Doggie,” throughout the score, adding cattle trail authenticity. Though I’d love to hear Tiomkin’s original soundtrack on its own, apparently the acetates are beyond repair. Thankfully, we have Morgan and Stromberg’s excellent re-recording on Naxos.
4. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)
Producer Samuel Bronston was known for his gargantuan epic films like KING OF KINGS, EL CID and 55 DAYS AT PEKING. But EMPIRE is one long fall that probably needs to be seen on the big screen to appreciate it fully. If the fall of a civilization isn’t enough to sustain your interest, Tiomkin’s over-the-top score just might. The score encompasses both sides of Tiomkin’s talent, the good and the bad. But its sheer hubris and musical complexity demand attention. Some gorgeous tunes don’t hurt it either.
3. THE ALAMO (1960)
John Wayne’s epic has so much wrong with it that you just might want to forget the Alamo. But Tiomkin’s score isn’t one of them. Filled with great tunes like “The Ballad of the Alamo” and “The Green Leaves of Summer,” Tiomkin’s music spurs on the doomed Texas volunteer soldiers as they battle Santa Anna’s superior Mexican forces. The original soundtrack album contained only a fraction of Tiomkin’s nearly 2-1/2 hour score, interspersed with Wayne’s flag-waving dialogue. The recent Tadlow recording of the complete score opened my eyes to Tiomkin’s superb accomplishment.
2. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)
This crackerjack World War II adventure stars Gregory Peck as the head of an Allied commando team sent to destroy an impregnable German fortress in the Aegean Sea. Tadlow’s premiere of the entire score finally alerted me not only to the power of the score, but also to the talent behind Tiomkin’s bold, and occasionally over-the-top, music. The militaristic tone of the score’s memorable main theme gives the score energy, while the mandolin gives the music a proper Grecian flavor.
1. HIGH NOON (1952)
If you want to find the score that secured Tiomkin’s place in film music history, good and bad, look no further than HIGH NOON. With its ever-present use of its Oscar-winning song, Hollywood producers began to require main title songs on their films, whether or not it fit the tone of the picture. But what they missed in their rush to get publicity and radio play was Tiomkin’s deft deconstruction of the song throughout his Oscar-winning score. Its use over the main title tells the entire story of the film. Tiomkin then excerpts not only vocal selections to comment on the story, but the musical and rhythmic motifs form the body of the underscore. The score is as integral to the success of the film as Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance, Carl Foreman’s lean script and Fred Zinnemann’s taut direction. The SAE release of the original tracks deserves a spot on the shelf of every film music fan.