This apparently unpublished manuscript—reproduced in its entirety below—on perfection in music by composer Dimitri Tiomkin is centered around an anecdote about composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. But film music enthusiasts and those in cinema studies may find the material Tiomkin wrote about his own music that was to be inserted into the manuscript of far greater interest.
The undated typescript manuscript, titled “The True Experience I’ll Never Forget,” bears the stamp of literary agent Toni Strassman. As an authors’ representative based in New York for nearly four decades from the 1950s through mid-1980s, Strassman corresponded with authors and book and magazine publishers to connect creators with publishers. Strassman’s papers are housed at Columbia University and while most of her clients are from the literary world, the finding aid includes some film names, such as actor Anthony Quinn and director Fred Zinnemann.
Tiomkin’s published writings about music fall into two distinct time periods, early in his composing career in the late 1920s and early 1930s and later in his career in the 1960s. One could imagine this manuscript was written before 1959 when Tiomkin’s autobiography first appeared or, since he appears to refer to his mother in the past tense, “God bless her,” after the death of his mother in 1960. If it was written before 1959 it may have been circulated by Strassman for the purpose of finding a publisher for Tiomkin’s life story. Or, after Doubleday published “Please Don’t Hate Me” in 1959, Tiomkin may have been seeking additional outlets for writing about his career.
In “True Experiences” he writes, “Music itself has enriched my life immeasurably.” Tiomkin’s mother, Marie, “was completely intolerant of mediocrity,” and his early music training was under her tutelage.
“Though devoted to me, and to music, she set extremely high standards for my musical quality, an attitude which I now perceive had both a wonderful inspirational advantage and a discouraging psychological advantage.”
The bulk of the three-and-a-half page document relates an anecdote about Rachmaninoff. If Tiomkin was ten years old when he spoke with Rachmaninoff in Paris that meeting would have take place around 1904. Further research is needed.
The insert that accompanies the manuscript is of far greater interest. Details about adapting the music of Debussy for producer David O. Selznick for the score of director Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Portrait of Jennie (1949), are found in the three-pages titled, “Insert A-Tiomkin.” Since Portrait of Jennie is not mentioned in Tiomkin’s autobiography these pages offer a unique take into the composer’s creative input on the film. (Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock is only discussed in two of the 261 pages of Tiomkin’s autobiography.)
From the insert, we learn that Tiomkin’s first inclination was to interpolate Debussy’s music into the score exactly as the composer had written it. His first sketches, “used the Debussy passages virtually untouched.” But an inner voice told him that approach, of pushing whole passages into the score “would be a disservice to both the music and the movie.” The film was not to be a performance of Debussy, it was a motion picture. For cohesion Tiomkin concluded he needed to correlate the Debussy themes with the story which meant he needed to re-arrange, edit, and cut Debussy’s music.
To learn more about the scoring of Portrait of Jennie, read the chapter “Our Valedictory to Wild Extravagance” in Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood by Nathan Platte.
The second anecdote in the insert is on the conception of the theme song for High Noon (1952). Tiomkin reveals his initial attempts at the theme were too sophisticated musically for a “genuine Western-type ballad.”
Both the manuscript and the insert end with the statement, “You can do it.”
That inspirational catchphrase—similar to Nike’s advertising slogan “Just do it”—has been around a long time. Rapper Ice Cube issued a 1999 single, “You Can Do It.” Actor Rob Schneider has uttered the line, “You can do it!” as a running gag in Adam Sandler’s films, such as The Waterboy (1998). “If you can dream it you can do it,” has been attributed to Walt Disney, but the phrase apparently was actually coined by a Disney employee for an Epcot ride in the 1980s. And another variant, “We Can Do It!” is synonymous with a World War II poster featuring “Rosie the Riveter” as an inspirational image to boost female worker morale.
The typewritten line, “That feeling of never quite attaining the magnificent is probably the urge that gives the human soul its touch of nobility,” is followed by a handwritten appended line, “It is a divine discontent.”