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Remembering Dimitri Tiomkin

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Jeffrey Dane, © Jeffrey DaneDate: 30.08.2010


Dimitri Tiomkin. Image from Jeffrey Dane's archive

Mention to any Alamo enthusiast the name Dimitri Tiomkin, and it's a virtual given that what comes to mind first is John Wayne's film, "The Alamo". At 6:37pm on October 18, 2008, a member of The Alamo Society, Ned Huthmacher, posted on Maurice Jones' website, JohnWayne-TheAlamo.com, a very telling comment: "Tiomkin's score is at least half the reason we continue remembering Wayne's Alamo." In so doing, he virtually summarized the Tiomkin matter by cunningly pointing up -- in those thirteen words -- the significance of music in film.

At 3:34pm on April 15, 2009, Alamo Society member Wade Dillon posted on his website, AlamoSentry.com, a series of photos taken by this writer during his then-recent sojourn in San Antonio for the annual Alamo observances and events that year. One of the snapshots pictured a sample of Tiomkin's letterhand, mentioned further in this article. Wade Dillon and fellow Alamo Society members Sarah Martin and Michelle Herbelin are effectively "The Keepers of the Flame" and are in a certain way the new Alamo Holy Trinity, in the sense that the torch will eventually be passed to them.

We might wonder how we can "remember" a composer we've never met. The difficulty disappears when we consider the man's work: Dimitri Tiomkin composed music that, for many of us, represents moments in our personal weather that had an effect on the climate of some of our lives. His work outlived him and it will outlive us. It may seem paradoxical that we feel such a personal kinship with Tiomkin and his music without ever having had the opportunity to make his acquaintance -- but the kinship is there, and the connection is genuine: our experiences with him through his music have been indirect but intense.

Some things happen instinctively: some of us can learn nearly as much about a composer from the study of his music as by a subsequent reading of biographical information. The correlations are inexplicable but conspicuous. Aaron Copland, for decades The Dean of American Composers, summed it up concisely when he said, "If it's in the music, it's in the man." He used an enviable economy of means in both his music and his written and spoken prose.
More in 70mm reading:

New recording of Tiomkin's ALAMO score

Remembering Miklós Rózsa

"The Alamo" lost 70mm version - This letter which started it all

Internet link:

Dimitri Tiomkin page

Dimitri Tiomkin's large format scores

Circus World (1964)
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
55 Days at Peking (1963)
The Alamo (1960)
Search for Paradise (1957)
Most of those who wrote important music for films were thoroughly trained musicians and composers long before they ever thought of setting foot in a studio and composing a film score. In our world today, a lot of bad behavior and senseless conclusion is usually ratified by habit and takes its place in the mainstream by custom. That doesn't make it right. (Using "But everybody does it" as a courtroom defense will get you laughed out of the dock and perhaps a sentence, not altogether undeserved, in a mental institution).

The music written for films is frequently and almost by tradition derided by purists and critics simply because it's been conventionally fashionable to do so, and the sheer beauty and excitement of the finest film music -- by whatever composer -- seem to conveniently escape the consideration (or, worse, the attention altogether) of those who scorn it. The phrase "Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize" seems an eternal verity and has a particular application in the matter at hand. Goethe wrote, "It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it." Goethe was wise, and the concept is beautiful in its simplicity. Criticism is easy, accomplishment takes real work: figurative blood, sweat, toil and tears. Anyone close to the finger-painting stage can invoke finger-pointing and complain at will about an artist's work. (Some of them even earn a livelihood at it). Not anyone can write books, magazine and newspaper articles, film scores, design buildings, and the like. Such endeavors take real effort. "No-one ever erected a statue to a critic." -- Jean Sibelius. We don't remember the critics who denigrated his work. We remember Sibelius.

"Film composers and alert music-lovers have for years chafed at the fact that hundreds of first-rate pieces of musical composition, apart from 'pop' songs, have been buried in Hollywood vaults. . . film music is a rich and often exemplary library of contemporary American composition, and deserves a first rank in the concert hall." -- Victor Young.

The word score, itself, fittingly corresponds to the number of staves -- twenty -- with which symphony-size manuscript paper is often printed. It also correlates to the vertical (i.e., "scored") bar lines we see in orchestral music.

Thumbnail Bio and Background

Victor Young 1954. Image from Jeffrey Dane's archive

Born near Kiev in the Ukraine in 1894, Dimitri Tiomkin studied piano first with his mother, and then with Felix Blumenfeld -- one of whose later pupils was Vladimir Horowitz. Another was Simon Barere, the only piano soloist who ever died onstage at Carnegie Hall during a performance, on April 2, 1951 while playing Grieg's piano concerto, with Eugene Ormandy conducting.

Another of young Dimitri's piano teachers was Isabelle Vengerova, a stern taskmistress who, later in America, taught Leonard Bernstein and through her formidable discipline molded him into a concert-level pianist.

At the St. Petersburg Conservatory, considered the sanctum sanctorum of Russian music -- Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, and Shostakovich were all students there at one time -- Tiomkin also studied with composer Alexander Glazounov. He was the Conservatory's Director, and his penchant for the traditional classical forms in harmony, counterpoint, and the other musical disciplines gave Tiomkin a very thorough grounding that would later stand him in very good stead.

Glazounov was one of the more important Russian composers of that era and was widely venerated. His influence on the young Tiomkin can't be understated -- or, by some, even understood. It speaks well of any teacher who instills and nurtures in his or her students a genuine and life-long love of learning. Our educational years are operatively our most formative and among the most important in our lives, maybe even more significant than those years and their experiences that immediately follow them. This becomes clear to us when we realize that our learning habits and adult personalities are taking shape and our mature characters are being molded during those very school years: they're largely a time of development, while the subsequent years and their attendant experiences are a time of refinement. During his first year at the Juilliard School, this writer, as a then-young music student, was asked to analyze the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bela Bartok -- and after revisiting that same piece in his fourth year at the school, he was amazed at how much Bartok himself had learned in the intervening period. . . .

". . . after success as a composer in Hollywood, Tiomkin realized his first encounter [and audition] with Glazounov had been a defining moment. . . [Tiomkin wrote], 'His music was performed wherever there were concert halls. Orchestras played his . . . c-minor Symphony, ballet troupes danced his beautiful suite Raimonda, and for violinists his concerto was standard repertoire.' . . . he remembers being schooled in strict conformity to part-writing, the proper use of suspensions and modulations, and the avoidance of parallel fifths. . . Tiomkin's autobiography, Please Don't Hate Me (written with Prosper Buranelli; Doubleday, 1959) is filled with stories involving Glazounov. . . In 1929 [the now-64-year-old Conservatory Director] arrived in the USA from Russia for a conducting tour that would take him to Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. . . Glazounov was the last surviving master of the Russian Nationalist School founded by Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov ["The Russian Five"]. . . In mid-November Tiomkin and [his wife] were guests at a reception for Glazounov at Wm. Knabe & Co.'s Ampico Hall in New York, celebrating the piano maker's ninety-second anniversary. When Tiomkin spotted his former teacher, he was stricken by how thin and haggard the larger-than-life Director had become. (. . . H. G. Wells had a similar reaction on seeing Glazounov nine years earlier). . . By this time Tiomkin had a reputation in New York as a concert pianist, embracing the modernists that Glazounov despised: composers like Debussy, Ravel, and particularly Scriabin. On the other hand, Tiomkin's recitals almost always included a composition by Bach, and Glazounov's tutelage in fugal writing stayed with him throughout his career as a film composer. On Glazounov's love of fugues, Tiomkin wrote in 1959, "To this day in Hollywood I am happy if I can sneak a fugue into a score for a motion picture." ( -- Tiomkin specialist Warren M. Sherk, from the official Tiomkin website, www.dimitritiomkin.com).

How much Tiomkin revered Glazounov is evident: Today the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection in the Cinematic Arts Library at the University of Southern California has in its archives, courtesy of Ned Comstock, a typescript titled Alexander Constantinovich Glazounov: Reminiscences of One of His Pupils of the Conservatory of Petrograd. ". . . simple, Romantic, melodic, and captivating in form and imagery, filled with emotion and soul, the music seemingly interwoven deeply with his personality." -- A description of Tiomkin's music? Yes -- but it was a description of Glazounov's. Today, his work may no longer satisfy our esthetic wants, but it can certainly fulfill our esthetic needs.

In essence, Alexander Glazounov was as important and influential in Tiomkin's youth as Fess Parker was (and soon afterward, John Wayne) in our own early years.

Another of the Conservatory's composition students Tiomkin got to know was a few years older. A young firebrand who shocked and upset everyone (particularly the traditional and conservative faculty) with his bold and ultra-modern harmonic clashes, atypical rhythms, totally unexpected musical directions, surprising resolutions and percussive manner in both his playing and his own music, he would soon turn the musical world on its ears with his originality, just as Debussy in France had done 25 years before. Some people and their work, and some situations, are misconstrued because we don't find details or traits we've been traditionally taught to look for -- while in other circumstances we encounter things, good or bad, that we didn't expect to find. For these reasons, Tiomkin's fellow student was as misunderstood at the Conservatory as was James Bowie in his own day. This student composed and performed his own first piano concerto as his graduation piece -- winning the first prize for pianism, but not for composition. Eventually he, too, would compose several film scores in Russia, some of which have now become classics. His name was Sergei Prokofiev.

Tiomkin soon spent three years in Berlin, where he studied for a time with Ferruccio Busoni, a pianist of enormous intellect who instilled in his students a sweeping sense of musical scope and harmonic form. Busoni had been a child prodigy who made his public debut as a pianist at age seven, and about two years later he played some of his own compositions in Vienna, Europe's musical capital. While there, he was introduced to Anton Rubenstein. He also heard a performance by Franz Liszt (who had an apartment at Freyung 6, still standing, and who in the late 1860s had been painted by G.P.A. Healy, who did a portrait of James Bowie from life in the early 1830s). Busoni had also met Johannes Brahms. The Alamo's original Low Barracks isn't the only structure that's been demolished in the name of "progress": the building at Karlsgasse 4 in Vienna, where Brahms lived for the last 26 years of his life, was ceremoniously demolished on April 3, 1907, exactly ten years to the date after he died there. (The building now on that site is a wing of Vienna's Technical University). Progress, it seems, is no bargain. We have to pay for it, and sometimes the price is high.

Most of the great composers were pianists, some of virtuoso calibre. The Four Bs -- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bernstein -- were all expert keyboard players. Three exceptions were Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, and Giuseppi Verdi. Berlioz couldn't play the instrument at all but was a master of orchestration (he wrote a textbook on the subject which became the standard reference work for a half-century until Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his). Wagner's piano-playing -- like this writer's -- was characterized more by intent than by facility ("He played with the lamentable execution of which only composers are capable" -- Deems Taylor). And Verdi, though not a performing musician per se, was functionally good enough at the keyboard, even as a pre-teen, to deputize for a time for his teacher, a church organist. Dimitri Tiomkin, by his innate abilities, proclivity and training, was a superb player -- clearly skilled enough to set out as a professional pianist.

He was the soloist in the European premiere of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F-Major, with Vladimir Golschmann conducting. Prokofiev was among the VIPs at this major event, which took place at the Paris Opera on May 29, 1928. Soon after, Tiomkin gave a solo piano recital of primarily contemporary music at which he performed works by Bach, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Prokofiev himself, and others. Most of these composers were still very much alive and some attended the recital.

Eventually Tiomkin found himself in the United States and ended up in Hollywood, where he ultimately spent his entire professional life composing music for movies, and contributing to the effectiveness, value and success of those films he scored. Nominated nearly two dozen times for Oscars, he eventually won four of them: two for "High Noon" (in 1953 -- for best original score, and for best song); one for "The High and the Mighty" (in 1954); and one for "The Old Man and the Sea" (in 1959), the music for which seems to come closest to a veritable symphonic poem than any other film score.

From the official Tiomkin website: "Tiomkin's wonderful life in America came to an end in 1967 with the death of his wife, Albertina Rasch. Upon returning to his Windsor Square-Hancock Park home in Los Angeles after the funeral, he was attacked and beaten by robbers. Tiomkin put the house up for sale and returned [permanently] to Europe."

He lived his last years, re-married, in London and Paris, where -- a true musician until the end -- he enjoyed spending time playing classical works on the piano. He died in London in November, 1979.


Development. -- The Time in Hollywood

Tiomkin had already written music for seven films before he scored his first really important movie, "Lost Horizon", in 1937 (the year he became an American citizen). Conducted on the film's soundtrack by Max Steiner, the score "called for the largest orchestra ever assembled at Columbia Studios, causing studio chieftan Harry Cohn to rant and rave at the expense" (as the late film historian and author Tony Thomas wrote in one of his books, Film Score). A precedent for size had already been set in 1881 when Brahms conducted his own Academic Festival Overture at the University of Breslau, which had bestowed on him an honorary doctorate. The piece was composed especially for the event and contained, as Brahms wrote, "a rollicking potpourri of student songs ŕ la Suppe" (including Wir Hatten Gebauet, Der Landesvater, Was Kommt Dort von der Höh'?, and Gaudiamus Igitur). The work utilized a massive orchestra, the largest such ensemble for which Brahms ever wrote. No raving and ranting ensued on that occasion, however. Harry Cohn wasn't to be born for another ten years -- and more importantly, Brahms, who had an absolutely towering musical intellect, was the dominant musical figure in Europe for the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He admired those who stood up to him, but by his nature anyone who crossed him with nonsense soon regretted it.

Lost Horizon's success as a film brought Tiomkin wider recognition, including invitations to return to the recital stage. Fate would allow him just one more appearance as a concert pianist per se. He was the soloist, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in the second piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff, much of whose music requires pianistic fingers of steel. The popularity of this piece had elevated it to the status of a modern classic, and the lush, Romantic main theme of its third and final movement prompted the popular song, "Full Moon and Empty Arms." At the time Tiomkin performed the concerto, Rachmaninoff was still alive, and for the last year of his life, 1942-1943, lived at 610 Elm Drive in Beverly Hills.

As a connective fact, in the 1830s the young pianist Robert Schumann built a contraption intended to strengthen the fourth finger of one of his hands. It malfunctioned, seriously enough to then and there permanently end his chances of a concert pianist's career. His loss was posterity's gain: it operatively forced him to concentrate on composing his own music, and today Schumann is known as The Romanticist. Similarly, as Tony Thomas relates in his book Music for the Movies, soon after Tiomkin's Rachmaninoff concerto performance ". . . he was involved in an accident and injured his right arm. A broken bone never healed properly. The right hand was later strong enough for normal piano playing but never for the arduous pyrotechnics of concert hall performance. The accident decided Tiomkin's future" as a composer for films.

From a 2007 article in The Soundtrack, Vol. 1 Nr. 1, by Prof. Stephen Deutsch of The Media School, Bournemouth University: "There is an anecdote . . . about John Sturges' film, "The Old Man and the Sea" (1958), based on the Hemingway novel. Sturges is reputed to have told the veteran composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, that he wished for there to be no music present when the old man (Spencer Tracy) was alone in his small boat. When questioned, Sturges in turn asked the composer, 'Where would the orchestra be?' Tiomkin replied, 'Right next to the camera.' This anecdote delivers a powerful if unintentional insight into the subject. Non-diegetic music is analogous to the camerawork and editing, part of the fabric of the film, and like cinematography, only rarely meant to intrude through the membrane of the narrative." (A similar story exists involving Alfred Hitchcock during the preparations for his film, Lifeboat).
Without its memorable music, "The Magnificent Seven" would be a slow-moving film and would likely not have taken its place in the cinematic pantheon. A years-long friend, Jack Broadfield, reminded me of what Elmer Bernstein, the composer of the film's score, once said: "Music is the motor that drives a movie."

Likewise, Tiomkin's score for "High Noon" offers a classic example of what music can do for a film. The movie originally had very little music and got a poor reception at initial showings. Then Tiomkin was called in to tone it up and paint the musical canvas. The results are now a matter of record: to this black & white film he gave real musical color. In Tiomkin's own words, "To comprehend fully what music does for movies, one should see a picture before the music is added, and again after it has been scored. Not only are all the dramatic effects heightened, but in many instances the faces, voices, and even the personalities of the players are altered by the music" (from an article he wrote in a magazine, Films in Review, in 1951).

The result of Tiomkin's efforts is not only a memorable film but also a memorable score: the main musical theme of the film is officially titled "High Noon" but is more commonly known as the song "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling," which became extremely popular and for many years enjoyed a life of its own on recordings. In this, it followed the example set eight years earlier by Miklos Rozsa with the main theme of his score for Hitchcock's "Spellbound".

Parenthetically, the first film for which Tiomkin wrote a song wasn't "High Noon" but an obscure 1946 movie titled Trail to Mexico. It was High Noon, however, that set a sometimes troublesome precedent: for years afterward, studios were insisting that their scores contain a popular song -- and often in the opening credits, thereby robbing the composer of the opportunity, with purely orchestral forces, to musically set the real subliminal mood for the ensuing feature. Still, Tiomkin continued giving the studios what they and their public wanted: songs for their westerns, ultimately more than two dozen in toto (including, of course, "The Green Leaves of Summer" for "The Alamo"). The film Friendly Persuasion contained six songs, more than any other single Tiomkin-scored film.

The music for the 1944 film "Laura" was purely orchestral. Composed by David Raksin, the hauntingly memorable theme became a popular song only by popular demand. Soon after the movie's release, Fox's music department began getting fan mail about the tune and about who wrote it, and some even requested photos not of the stars but of the composer. After Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for the tune, the sheet-music sold over a half-million copies and more than a million recordings, it was on the Hit Parade for three months, and was given luxurious arrangements for large orchestras.

A close glimpse into Tiomkin's craftsmanship is exemplified by his further remarks in that same 1951 Films in Review article: ". . . It may seem incredible, but many actors' voices, however pleasant in themselves, and regardless of pitch, are incompatible with certain instruments. Clarinets, for instance, get in the way of some voices and magnificently complement others. Further, clarinets may be alien to the spirit of a play, or the characterization of a part. Some actors have voices that are easy to write for. Actors like John Wayne impose almost no burdens on the composer. Wayne's voice happily happens to have a pitch and timbre that fits almost any instrumentation. Jimmy Stewart is another actor for whom it is a delight to write music. [Oddly], his speaking voice is not 'musical.' But it has a slightly nasal quality and occasionally 'cracks' in a way that is easy to complement. Jean Arthur's voice is somewhat similar. . . The 'crack' in Miss Arthur's and Mr. Stewart's voices is one of those strangely appealing imperfections, like a single strand of rebellious hair on an otherwise impeccable moonlight coiffure. But don't pursue this appeal of imperfect voices too far, [lest you] run into Andy Devine."
David Raksin said it best when he asked, "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?"

There are several reasons Tiomkin was so adept at scoring American westerns. One was that he himself loved American music and was eager to absorb it. During his student days, it was at his favorite St. Petersburg cafe, The Homeless Dog, that he was exposed to (and developed a genuine interest in) American popular music, ragtime, blues, early jazz, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and the like. We must also be mindful that a positive, satisfying, and enjoyable atmosphere can have positive, satisfying and even fulfilling results -- at any level and in any venue. People can best perform well when they're offered the conditions under which good performance is possible (a concept from which many corporate employers today might learn).

To this end Frank Capra offered Tiomkin printed musical anthologies of American folk songs, cowboy ballads, work songs, New England hymns, negro spirituals, lumber camp and riverboat tunes, and the like. Tiomkin devoured them as he studied and played through them -- and this music flowered in various incarnations in many of his film scores. The differences between the cinematic American music of Dimitri Tiomkin and the abstract, real-world musical Americana of Aaron Copland are impossible to really "define," but they're fundamental and very easy to recognize. The distinctions in the music can't be effectively "explained," any more than music can be accurately described in words -- but those distinctions can be heard and felt.

Ironically, in the entire musical literature, the passage that may be as suggestive of the American West as anything else could possibly be is from a thoroughly Russian work by a thoroughly Russian composer: the 1937 fifth symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century (he composed fifteen of them). The brief, peaceful sequence, 18 bars long and only about 45 seconds in duration, is scored as a dialogue between solo flute and solo French horn, with an accompanying slow, lilting ostinato figuration in the strings in one of the composer's favorite rhythms. By purely instrumental means, it easily conjures up the ideal image of a lone horseman riding at dusk slowly across the prairie.

It's also easy to imagine what Wayne's Alamo might have been like had it been scored by the then-59-year-old Copland rather than by Tiomkin, just as "The Ten Commandments" would have been a completely different film had the music been written, instead of by Elmer Bernstein, by, say, Henry Mancini ("Days of Wine and Moses"). Conjecture is fruitless but still fascinating.
Another and perhaps even more significant reason for Tiomkin's affinity for composing fitting music for American western films is the geographical and other similarities between those areas of our own country and certain areas of his. Tiomkin himself said, "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." -- Those who have been to places like Massachusetts and Connecticut will fully understand that the upper eastern seacoast of the United States isn't called New England for nothing: many of its rural areas resemble the English countryside. And if we found ourselves suddenly transported to one of two particular desolate locations on entirely different continents, we'd be hard-pressed to identify our surroundings as being Death Valley, California or the southern Sinai peninsula.

The word steppe is pronounced shtep in Russian. It's essentially the kind of vast, treeless plain that we might see (again in the words of David Raksin) "several hours east of Moscow, Russia -- or ten minutes outside Moscow, Idaho."

Raksin continued, ". . . 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 [he] brought it upon himself [by] his excessive reliance on 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 Dimitri 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.' I can verify this problem from an experience I had with him on a Universal film, The Road Back, when I had to re-adapt a huge battle sequence."

Tiomkin's own handwritten manuscript sketches offer telling clues to his musical work-habits. He composed at the piano (some composers do, others don't), and he wrote very quickly, using pencils with very dark lead. Though his sketches can initially be difficult to decipher, one soon sees that all the music is encapsulated within those sketches per se. His films were brimming with music, and his music was brimming with notes, just as certain books and articles are brimming with information. Alfred Newman, the head man at the Music Department at 20th-Century-Fox -- he composed the fanfare we still hear today heralding that studio's films -- once wondered what could really be accomplished if the composers were truly given enough time to compose a film score.

Tiomkin was initially slated to score "How The West Was Won" but eye surgery dictated that another composer be engaged, and the assignment went to Alfred Newman. During his preparation of the score, he was seen leaving the studio one day shaking his head and saying, to no-one in particular, "How the hell am I going to do something original for another Indian chase?!" He went home -- and in a feat of pure musicianship he ended up writing something original for the new Indian chase in question.

A musician must be able to "hear" with his or her eyes, translating what he sees on the printed or manuscript page into what he would hear when the notes are played. A natural aptitude and thorough training both play a role here. A good musician -- and all great conductors -- will operatively be able to look at a score and know how the music will sound. The trained ear can identify Igor Stravinsky, for example, after hearing only a few bars of his music. It has a Stravinsky sound and even his printed scores have a Stravinsky look.

Similarly, Tiomkin's musical note-hand was very legible and his manuscripts visually seem to represent how his music would actually sound. As composer David Raksin implied, Tiomkin was primarily a pianist by training and experience, and he thusly thought and composed pianistically, so sonic textures for his films had to be re-worked by orchestrators -- translated, in effect -- into purely orchestral terms for the soundtrack. Tiomkin succeeded in Hollywood not because he thought orchestrally, but in spite of the fact that he didn't.

While the music for John Wayne's "The Alamo" was composed by Tiomkin, Max Steiner had written the score for an earlier movie, The Last Command, an Alamo-related film in which the focus was on James Bowie, portrayed by Sterling Hayden. In each film, the siege of the Alamo was depicted as a feature of the story, and both composers naturally leaned toward drama in their music rather than toward musically historical accuracy per se. We must recognize that a movie is primarily entertainment, and that a film score is not a course in music history.

Neither composer used even a paraphrase of the De Guello, the historical Mexican Army bugle tune literally signaling "no prisoners, no quarter," and which according to some traditions was played before or during the final assault on the Alamo in 1836. If the authentic De Guello tune was sounded within earshot of the Alamo at any time on March 6, it would have been the last music the defenders heard.

Even the term De Guello suggests the concept of "guillotine." "The word De Guello signifies the act of beheading or throat-cutting . . . which meant complete destruction of the enemy without mercy." -- Handbook of Texas Online.

"The music was a hymn of hate and merciless death, played to spur the Mexican troops forward in their final assault on the Alamo." Thus wrote the late Walter Lord in A Time to Stand, for decades considered a definitive telling of the Alamo tale -- although a more recent book, The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts by J.R. Edmondson (Republic of Texas Press, Plano, Texas, 2000), sheds newer and more comprehensive light on the matter and has been cited as a volume that could replace Walter Lord's as the last word in books on the Alamo's history.

Of course, both Tiomkin and Steiner composed their own original scores for these films. It was an expedient for each of them to write immediate music for their sequences rather than research period melodies. ("I have a passion for idleness," Rossini said -- he was notoriously lazy -- and if while composing in bed a page of manuscript fell to the floor, he'd sooner just re-write it than retrieve the errant sheet). In "The Alamo", Tiomkin's musical treatment of the assault scenes is a natural outgrowth of the music that came before it in the film, and is tuneful and symphonic in spirit, with his De Guello melody (which actually appeared previously in another John Wayne film, "Rio Bravo") an ominous and threatening paraphrase of the poignant main theme of "The Alamo"'s opening credits (heard there with solo trumpet and guitars, for a "Mexican flavoring," featured in the scoring). Both of those passages were written by Tiomkin predominantly in a minor key.

Max Steiner's musical treatment of the corresponding De Guello cinematic event in "The Last Command", on the other hand, is as diametrically different from Tiomkin's as any two musical passages might be. Like their personalities and characters, they are so dissimilar that the only things they have in common are musical form and their particular 1830s Texas subject matter. Steiner's De Guello rendering is polytonal and strident in the extreme. Music played in major and minor keys simultaneously has, by its musical definition, a noticeable dissonance -- and when combined with the visuals of a film, a very unsettling one. By the intensity of its instrumental terracing, Steiner's De Guello has an almost frightening brutality that seems more in keeping with what the Alamo defenders ultimately experienced at the hands of Santa Anna on that fateful morning so long ago -- and the absolute massacre that his army experienced at the hands of Gen. Sam Houston's forces at San Jacinto six weeks later.

At the playing of the De Guello at this point in "The Last Command", a short but very telling dialog seems to sum up the situation in the proverbial nutshell: "It gives me the willies!" said Arthur Hunnicutt (who portrayed Davy Crockett) to Sterling Hayden, whose response was, "It's meant to."

Dimitri Tiomkin's signature in one of the Alamo's VIP Guestbooks. Image from Jeffrey Dane's archive

Composer Carter Burwell adopted a very different original approach with the music he composed for the 2004 Disney-produced film, "The Alamo". To his credit, he used the traditional De Guello tune, and even interwove into the embroidery of the score a variant of it, with David Crockett (portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton) accompanying on his fiddle the on-scene music being played by the Mexican ensemble at that moment in one of those sequences. The bystander in a top hat very briefly visible in the scene is Carter Burwell himself. Portions of his score for this film have a hymn-like character almost religious in its quality, giving those portions of his music an intensely spiritual mood. Elsewhere, the inventive instrumentation suggests the very kinds of sounds the Alamo defenders themselves might have expected to hear in 1836. It's an evocative score.

A composer's function in the context of a movie is not to force his music upon the audience, but to infuse the music into the film by an integration between image and sound. Composing music is a solitary and very serious matter, but film-making is a team effort. Indeed, since the composer's very objective is a composition and not an "imposition," an earnest composer will not try to make himself the star of the film. ("Just who's going up that staircase? Me, or Max Steiner?!" -- attributed to Bette Davis). It's been said that a good score can't save a bad picture, but that, ironically, a bad score won't invalidate a good film.

20th-century composer Paul Hindemith ended many of his most important works conspicuously in a major key, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was in the habit of invariably closing his large-scale works with four prominent chords (in whatever rhythm), representing the syllables of his last name. It was Dimitri Tiomkin's custom to sometimes take positive advantage of an instrumental peculiarity as a specific and effective compositional device. He wasn't alone in doing this. As one example, in some of his orchestral works Stravinsky notated a prominent glissando for trombone as an integral part of a given passage. As another, in Maurice Ravel's own recording with the Lamoureux Orchestra of his Boléro (written in 1928), the trombone solo's glissandos are more pronounced than on just about any other recording of the work. They are so distinct and specifically defined on this important aural document that they make this historic 16-minute performance -- recorded more than 80 years ago, in January, 1930 -- unique among the currently-available 200-plus recordings of this popular work by other conductors.

As yet another example, in certain kinds of sequences Dimitri Tiomkin would indicate "Flz." in the trumpet part -- Flatterzunge (pronounced FLAHTTer-tsoongeh, German for "flutter-tongue"). It's a contrived instrumental sound, produced by some brass and woodwinds, that comes as close to an ominous musical snarl as anything possibly could. Depending on the screen action that accompanies it, the sound can render a very effective tonal suggestion of virtually unbridled terror. In any event it gets one's aural attention; the visual counterpart of it would be the sight of a seriously angry and menacingly growling dog.

Tiomkin seemed so fond of flutter-tongue passages that they became almost one of his compositional hallmarks, in the sense of being a kind of musical calling-card. It enabled listeners to identify what they were hearing as being by no-one but Tiomkin himself. We hear conspicuous flutter-tonguing in many of his scores, such as those for "The Thing" (when the shape of the alient aircraft is being determined), "Land of the Pharaohs" (the triumphal march accompanying the return of Pharaoh and his army at the beginning of the film), "The Alamo" (during the final assault), "The Guns of Navarone" (heralding the first view of "the guns"), and even at the start of the opening credits of "The High and the Mighty".

At the moment Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) dies in "Land of the Pharaohs", Tiomkin uses flutter-tonguing in the flute, to great effect. His music for this film was as "authentically Egyptian" as he was -- but it was atmospheric, suggestive, and effective. On the film's soundtrack, the singing by the choruses might sound middle-Eastern -- it was meant to -- but the words have absolutely no meaning: they were literally concocted by Tiomkin to evoke period singing of ancient Egypt and actually amount to gibberish. The choruses were prepared and led by Jester Hairston, who served a similar function in Wayne's Alamo film, and who also appeared in it as Jethro, Bowie's slave.

Miklos Rozsa took similar license when he scored Something of Value (about the Mau-Mau), researching Kikuyu music and writing passages for an African choir. Though he used actual Kikuyu words, he also acknowledged that he wrote his own Kikuyu phrases per se: ". . . somebody found me a [Kikuyu] dictionary and I picked words at random. I hoped the Mau-Mau would never see the picture, knowing that I could expect no mercy from them if they did." Even Stravinsky himself, the most influential composer of the 20th century, had done this in his Symphony of Psalms, composed in 1930 and revised in 1948: he selected Latin words purely for their sound properties and by how well they'd fit with the music he composed, without overmuch regard to whether they'd make sense in Latin or not.
Most of those who worked for the studios composed exclusively for the screen, and with the exception of their student-days pieces, works like sonatas, string quartets, concerti, symphonies and other music intended for recital or concert performance never came from their pens. Three chief exceptions were Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Miklos Rozsa; significantly, all were conservatory-trained. Tiomkin, however, followed the route of most of his Hollywood colleagues, and during his time there he never wrote a "free-standing" work -- that is, self-sufficient music that could exist on its own merits in the concert hall and which is not based or dependent upon a film's visuals. Tiomkin clothed his work in musical garb that suited his films admirably -- he was, after all, composing the kind of music he knew Hollywood needed, or at least wanted, for its movies.

Though it can have its place and be effective in comedy, the sacrilege of "mickey-mousing" a scene in a serious movie is a cardinal sin for a film composer. Most avoid it. Certain words, though contrived, are unique to musical terminology. When a tone is lowered a half-step, the note is flatted, not "flattened" -- and when a tone is raised a half-step, the note is sharped rather than "sharpened." To "mickey-mouse" a sequence is a term very specific to film music: it defines the procedure where the onscreen action is literally mimicked instrumentally. Someone misses a step and tumbles down a flight of stairs -- while a corresponding and simultaneous torrent of descending notes from various woodwinds accompany the tumble, punctuated by percussion instruments like xylophones or marimbas, and end with the victim sprawled at the staircase bottom with the obligatory cymbal-crash and bass-drum thud. We've all seen and heard this in one form or another, particularly in cartoons where this mickey-mousing tradition is appropriate, de rigueur, and does in fact point up that venue's comedy.

In drama or adventure films, however, the musical accompaniment to the action should be subtle rather than obvious, subliminal rather than conscious. In the interests of truth, justice, and the American way, even a musical superman can on occasion fall prey to the travesty. In Land of the Pharaohs, a sequence where a large stone is being slowly lowered into place is attended by a lumbering series of related, descending note figurations unbefitting a composer of Tiomkin's skills, sensibilities and professionalism. Musically the passage is awkward and rather discomfiting, and is frankly somewhat embarrassing to the trained musical ear.

Dominic Power wrote, "[Tiomkin] could also lapse into moments of [musical] vulgarity -- his powerful score for Rudolph Maté's doom-laden film noir, D.O.A., is marred by the bizarre intrusion of the sliding woodwind wolf-whistle that marks the appearance of a pretty woman. . . Howard Hawks apparently dropped Tiomkin from "Hatari!" because he refused to use authentic African instruments." The score for "Hatari!" (the word means danger in Swahili) was ultimately given to Henry Mancini, whose inventive orchestrations were a feature of his music and who provided for sections of the film a convincing (if not truly authentic) "African" sound. He did this by using not an African medium but a traditional Hungarian instrument called a czymbalom (sometimes differently spelled but pronounced as CHIM-ba-lom), which in its metallic, silvery timbre seems to combine the sounds of a broken-down harpsichord with those of a badly-tuned piano. Mancini's imaginative use of the czymbalom (it's the Magyar word for a hammered dulcimer) conjures up the image of days on the African plains as easily as nights on the Hungarian Puszta.
A word, now, about the overall nature of Tiomkin's work. Some believe his musical output had an uneven quality. From a purely musical standpoint -- and as an observation, not as a judgement -- some of his work appears to have a pronounced One-Size-Fits-All characteristic at the expense of intensity and depth. It conjures up a kind of glossy, all-purpose facility a-la Saint-Saëns, and sometimes borders on the slick and superficial. It strikes some musicians as allowing for a near-interchangeability of musical passages in certain kinds of sequences among entirely different films, and by reason of its lack of singularity this could in certain cases affect a movie's consequence and the memorability of its music. It's comparable in some respects to the far-in-advance and well-prepared virtuoso keyboard passagework that late 18th-century or early 19th-century piano soloists could snip off by the yard and use for any contingency in their "improvisations." Nevertheless -- and this indeed is what matters most -- there's no question that Tiomkin's music, while perhaps not perfect, was ideal for the films he scored and fit them well.

Tiomkin's critics often accused him of writing music that was loud and assertive, claiming that his scores were bombastic and that they lacked subtlety. Even Beethoven produced some works that turned out to be "sub-standard Beethoven" and of almost embarrassing quality (to wit: Wellington's Victory). Often there's more than what meets the ear. What belies and invalidates the critical finger-pointing are the scores Tiomkin composed for films like "The Moon and Sixpence", "The Men", "I Confess", and "36 Hours". Tony Thomas termed "beautifully subdued and delicate" Tiomkin's score for Howard Hawks' film "The Big Sky".

Let it be said once and for all that Dimitri Tiomkin could certainly compose passages that were affectingly touching, and which in some cases reached almost heart-rending musical beauty. One such example is the night scene in Wayne's Alamo in which James Bowie (Richard Widmark) reads the news of his wife's death; another is the tail-end of the sequence in Land of the Pharaohs where Khufu, while camped at an oasis enroute to Luxor, hears the news of his Queen's passing. Most regrettable is that the brevity of these and similar musical passages robbed the audience of cinematic experiences that could have been that much more intense and memorable.

It was hoped that the film "Duel in the Sun" would become the "Gone With The Wind" of western movies. It was scored by Tiomkin, but only after a totally disgraceful episode born of the wisdom of David O. Selznick and for which Tiomkin was certainly not to blame. -- Selznick's plan was to engage four of Hollywood's finest composers on salary for two weeks and have each of them score one particular sequence in the movie, after which Selznick himself would select the "best" composer who would then score the entire film. It may be hard to believe, but the corporate mindset was exemplified by his reprehensible stipulation that the two weeks' salary was to be included as part of that composer's final payment. One of the composers so "honored" with this outrage was Miklos Rozsa. He informed Selznick -- in not so many words but in no uncertain terms -- that what the producer could do with his idea was something Rozsa wouldn't say in front of people. It was Rozsa himself who had composed the Oscar-winning score for Selznick's film Spellbound, and even if the producer had never even heard a note of Rozsa's music the composer would have considered the "audition" an insult.

Recapitulation -- The Tiomkin Stories

Dimitri Tiomkin and George Gershwin. Image from Jeffrey Dane's archive

In addition to the masterworks that have come from the individual composers, one of the veritable treasures of our aggregate musical legacy is the profusion and multiplicity of anecdotes about its history and practitioners. The details in these vignettes, like so much else, can change not only from one generation to another but even from telling to telling. Still, the fact remains that these anecdotes can be so inherently significant, so revealing, that they often become an inextricable feature of our understanding of the musicians and what they do.

• As mentioned, Tiomkin played a seminal role in one of George Gershwin's major works. At one point in his life, the already-famous Gershwin wanted to meet Maurice Ravel and arranged an introduction in Paris, where he asked Ravel to accept him as a student. "How much did you earn last year on Broadway, Monsieur Gershwin?" asked Ravel. Replied Gershwin, "About a half-million dollars." Ravel's response was, "I'll study with you!" (A similar vignette has been told involving Stravinsky).

• The following story was told to me personally by a former denizen of Hollywood, though the tale itself might have been invented. At an official function, Tiomkin was introduced to England's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who told the composer how much he enjoyed hearing his music in films -- and then asked if the composer planned to write something for one of London's concert halls. Replied Tiomkin decisively, in his inimitable Russian accent, "No! Concert music doesn't make the moneys!"

• In serious interviews, however, Tiomkin refuted the belief that he was in films only because they were lucrative. (In actor Victor Mature's case, he admitted as much). Certainly a financial inducement existed, while composing music for the screen presented certain performance and recording opportunities otherwise not afforded in the real world. In what other circumstances could a musical composition be performed by superb professional musicians almost before the ink on the manuscript paper was completely dry? In many ways Tiomkin, and the other composers in Hollywood, were living in the best of three worlds: composing their own music, hearing it take a virtually permanent place in posterity, and being well-paid for it. ". . . As an apologia pro vita sua, this is the most, and the best, that any creative artist has the right to expect." -- This is how Miklos Rozsa closed his own memoirs. In Tiomkin's own words: "It isn't true that I do it only for the money. Writing film music lets me compose in as fine a style as I am capable of. I'm a classicist by nature and if you examine my scores you will find fugues, rondos, and passacaglias [strict musical structures in the classical traditions, the influence of his teacher, Glazounov, in St. Petersburg]. I'm no Beethoven but I think if I had devoted myself to concert compositions I might have been a Rachmaninoff [who was both a great composer and one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century]. I'm not in sympathy with the harsh, atonal music of today. It's enough to lacerate your ears. Perhaps that is why I have done well in films. . ."

• Interestingly, one difference between the two musicians, above, was that Tiomkin was primarily a pianist who earned his living as a composer, while Rachmaninoff was mainly a composer who earned his living as a pianist. Extending this, Leonard Bernstein was a pianist, composer, and educator -- but he earned his living primarily as a conductor.

• In 1945 Tiomkin composed the music for the movie, "San Pietro". Since he gave a fugal treatment to the battle action music in this film, one might consider these portions of the score as a study for the corresponding sequences in "The Guns of Navarone" sixteen years later.

• One day in mid-March, 2007, during my stay in Los Angeles, Alamo historian, Bowie expert, and artist Joseph Musso collected me at my lodgings and asked me if there was any particular place nearby I wanted to see. "How far are we from 1915 Outpost Drive?," I asked. It was only a very short drive away, less than a mile (I had no way of knowing this, but as a years-long resident of Los Angeles, Joe certainly did: he once lived nearby). Tiomkin lived there for a time during the early 1940s. Joe's own house is situated 1,400 feet up in the mountains -- but all he and I could see as we slowly passed the former Tiomkin home were the 1,400-foot hedges (so they seemed) that protected the house and grounds from street view in all directions. (I since learned that by August, 1944, Tiomkin was living at 1421 North Western Avenue in Los Angeles).

• A personal success for some can be as dangerous as a professional failure for others. It's an unfortunate given that professional jealousies exist; they exist in all fields, and those who have had some success are often perceived as a threat even by other successful people who have already made their mark. Louis Pasteur was a chemist, not a physician; this helps explain (but doesn't justify) the animosity toward him by eminent doctors for his having had the audacity to tread on their exclusive terra firma and make important discoveries. Being human, Dimitri Tiomkin was as subject to personal character limitations as anyone else. During the early 1940s he was in charge of the Hollywood bureau that assigned musicians to civilian jobs for the war effort. One of the composers, thirteen years younger than Tiomkin, received a draft notice one day in 1943. In the August 21, 2008 issue of Films in Review, the younger composer's son, Nicholas, was quoted in a 1995 interview that his "father was advised to contact the Selective Service's Motion Picture Office, in the hope of being requisitioned to compose and conduct music for military training films. . . Tiomkin turned my father down, saying that his services weren't needed. This virtually [guaranteed] that my father would end up serving in combat, and he could only believe that Tiomkin did this out of jealousy -- after all, my father already had one Academy Award nomination at the time. He avoided . . . contact with Tiomkin from that day forward. . . [Ultimately for medical reasons] my father was declared 4-F, unfit for military service, . . . and he contributed to the war effort by conducting [the ensemble] at the Hollywood Canteen." The younger composer in question was Miklos Rozsa, and as an indication of his own personality and character, it's noteworthy that when he wrote his memoirs four decades later, he made no mention whatsoever in the book of this episode -- or of Tiomkin at all -- giving even more credence to the reputation Rozsa had of being an authentic gentleman.

• It's been said that Tiomkin was the John Williams of his day. While he was working on the score for "The Guns of Navarone", he had a young musician assisting him with the orchestrations of some of the sequences. That man's name was John Williams.

• When Tiomkin was asked how a Russian could compose music for an American Western, he replied, rather characteristically, "Did our producer on Red River know how to lasso a steer?"

• Near the rear exit (in the north transept) of the Alamo Church there's a guestbook that invites the signatures of all visitors. Somewhat paradoxically, though -- and in contradiction of the concept and principles of equality and the abolition of class distinction for which our Foundings Fathers fought -- there's another, special book kept behind the main desk in the Church: this one is designated as the VIP Guestbook. On a page in one of these (now elsewhere archived) exclusive Guestbooks from late 1960 - early 1961, the boldest signature is that of Dimitri Tiomkin. John Wayne's Alamo film premiered on October 24, 1960, at the Woodlawn Theatre in San Antonio. Many of those involved with the film and who were in San Antonio for the event were lodged at the still-extant St. Anthony Hotel, directly across the street from the southern perimeter of Travis Park. (According to the guest register, Tiomkin stayed in Room 320). Close scrutiny of this page in this VIP Alamo Guestbook also reveals some very familiar names, in various fields: Price Daniel; Lon Tinkle; several descendants of Gen. Sam Houston -- and the man who actually portrayed Gen. Houston in Wayne's film: Richard Boone himself.

• It's been said that Bela Lugosi's English was never fluent, and that our language was a hurdle that Dimitri Tiomkin never cleared, either. In his spoken English, he forever retained his pronounced Russian inflection, but being as inventive in his choice of English words as he was in his use of his musical materials, he was as masterful at verbal variation as Brahms was of the corresponding musical modification. Finding fewer attendees than he expected at a gathering one day, Tiomkin is reported to have said, "I see several who is not here." And once when rehearsing an orchestra, where most conductors would instruct their musicians, "Morendo, morendo" (dying away), Tiomkin directed the ensemble in his own inimitable way to make the music end quietly and mysteriously, explaining to the players just how the sound should gradually disappear: "It must varnish into the air."

• Shrewd and uncompromising in his actual business dealings, Tiomkin was known to have been among the most personable people in the film colony. It was often said that the composers in Hollywood were among the sanest and most enlightened of all the sometimes convoluted film folk. One characteristic that set them, including Tiomkin (to his credit), apart from others is that they crusaded for the Hollywood studio musicians by promoting better pay and residuals for them. Musician John Green described Tiomkin as "a fully effective human being. . . His gift for gracious hospitality gives him happiness. You have never been a guest until Tiomkin has been your host."

• The anecdote that might best typify Dimitri Tiomkin regards his second Academy Award. -- When in 1955 he accepted his Oscar for "The High and the Mighty", his speech included the (here paraphrased) remark, "I want to thank my 'collaborators': Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, . . ." It was a crystallized and thoroughly undisguised acknowledgement of the cinematic debt that some of the composers in Hollywood owed to the work of past masters, whose music had influenced what was written for the silver screen. Negative remarks were common about screen composers plaigiarising from the classics -- and here was Dimitri Tiomkin giving free acknowledgement to the ultimate influence the great composers had on Hollywood. Some swear he was being facetious by intent, while others (himself included) claimed he was paying a sincere tribute to the composers who came before him. With Dimitri Tiomkin, you couldn't always be certain just what he meant.
Franz Waxman 1950. Image from Jeffrey Dane's archive

An interesting tangential statistic is that Tiomkin invariably worked freelance, and that by the end of the 1950s he was the highest-paid composer in the history of film. Similarly, it was Franz Waxman who was certainly among the most musically earnest of all the composers in Hollywood: he was a very serious musician and he treated his work so genuinely that he often put more effort into a score than the movie actually deserved. Waxman was appalled by Tiomkin's Oscar ceremony remarks and soon afterward berated him for so seemingly trivializing their profession. Tiomkin replied, "I don't know why you're so annoyed, Franz. I don't hear any influences of these great composers in your music." Waxman was so mystified by this that all he could do was shake his head and leave.

The differences in personality between Tiomkin and Waxman were not only vast but also diametric. Tiomkin was obvious, Waxman was subtle. Tiomkin was the extrovert, Waxman the introvert. Where Tiomkin was explanatory, Waxman tended to let his work speak for itself. Where Tiomkin's ego was evident, Waxman put his ego into his music. Tiomkin was Slavic, ebullient and flamboyant, Waxman was Germanic, more restrained and casual. Tiomkin was the Romantic, Waxman the Classicist. Tiomkin broke some new ground, Waxman cultivated an existing musical garden. Tiomkin could be Mephistophelian, Waxman could be almost angelic.

Some associate power with size. To equate quantity with quality is a feature of the human condition, but they're not synonymous. Who but the shallow would say a fine string quartet must be of lesser value than a fine symphony because of the ensemble size? As umbrage takes many forms, so does scholarship: we find it in art (are large paintings greater than smaller ones?), in literature (are all books necessarily more noteworthy than newspaper or magazine articles by reason of their individual publication arrangement, form, and length?), and in countless other fields of endeavor. Can one claim a difference in significance between the 90-minute Battle of the Alamo and the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto merely by reason of their duration? Results should speak for themselves.

No-one comments on the absurdity of claiming that Maurice Jarre's score for "Doctor Zhivago" is six times better than Rozsa's for "Ben-Hur" because the former soundtrack recording eventually sold a million and a half albums while the latter sold a mere quarter of a million. Additionally, to imply that Rozsa, with three Academy Awards, was only 75-percent as good a composer as Dimitri Tiomkin (with four Oscars) would be, in a word, ludicrous, and even infantile. These awards have been bestowed largely through what's become known in our popular culture as the Hollywood mentality. It tells us often that you're only as good as your most recent success, while those of more substance would know that you're always as good as the best thing you've ever done. In many cases, the accolades are offered not "because" of particular quality, but in spite of its lack. Such circumstances might be best illustrated by a withering comment to a defense attorney by Judge Dan Haywood (portrayed by Spencer Tracy, "the Actor's Actor") in the 1961 film "Judgement at Nuremburg" (with a score by Ernest Gold). ". . . Herr Rolf, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic, so what you suggest [that these war-crime defendants will be free within five years] may very well happpen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. -- But to be 'logical' is not to be Right, and nothing on God's earth could ever make it Right."


In his book The Haunting Melody, Freud's disciple Theodor Reik crystallized in prose an explanation of music, or at least what it does, that's as good as any description could be. He said that language is at its poorest when it tries to grasp and communicate human nuances and shades of feeling -- that very area in which music is most efficient and expressive. He added that music is a language of human emotion, the expression of the inexpressible, that its vocabulary is an esperanto of emotions rather than of ideas, and can therefore express what people feel much more than what they think.

Actually composing music is among the most isolated, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and serious matters this writer can think of. Just as the French horn is one of the most difficult orchestral instruments to play well, one of the most difficult creative tasks in the world that involves music is writing effective prose that deals with it. How does one "describe" music? -- Tiomkin's countryman and long-ago fellow-student, Sergei Prokofiev, came close to verbalizing the effects. On a visit to New York in the 1920s, he wrote home, "The Blues are a type of mournful fox-trot, usually having the 'I-love-you-but-you-do-not-love-me' theme." In this, he very efficiently described in words what The Blues suggests in music. He also wrote, "While walking through the enormous park in the middle of Manhattan, I thought with a cold fury of the wonderful American orchestras that care nothing for me or my music." Here, he was clearly -- and very effectively -- describing in prose his feelings and reaction to his disappointments.

One of the twentieth century's most important composers, Prokofiev brought to the reader with his words what Dimitri Tiomkin brought to the movie-going public with much of his music -- and his finest music has always underscored the action in his films while telling the same story in its own unique language.

Author's Bio

Jeffrey Dane is a researcher, historian and author whose writing on classical music and on the history of 1830s Texas appears in print and online publications in the USA and abroad in several languages. He didn't choose these interests -- they chose him. He is perceived by some as being overly confrontational and thusly a real idealist, and by others as being insufficiently engaged and thusly an ideal realist. Both views have merit. His favorite city in Europe is Vienna, and his favorite in the USA is San Antonio de Bexar. He has a genuine passion for music, its composers, practitioners, history, and literature, and for the history of the early American West. He learned this trait of immersion during his student days from Leonard Bernstein, who was a mentor, role-model, and significant influence on him during his formative years. His most moving musical experiences have involved his visits to the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach, "the musical voice of God," was the organist for the last decades of his life. His most moving personal experiences have been meeting descendants of historical individuals, and in many cases getting to know some of these good people. They include Bill Redmann Bowie, Sandra Crockett-Giddings, Albert Seguin, Ben Warren and Alfred Davis (descendants of Edward Burleson), and Sam Houston IV, the great-grandson of Gen. Sam Houston.
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Updated 21-01-24