Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for the American film It’s a Wonderful Life is well known. In addition to this Christmas classic, he wrote several Christmas songs not associated with motion pictures.
The story of “The First Christmas” and other holiday music by Dimitri Tiomkin
by Warren M. Sherk
The carol “The First Christmas” was written for Woman’s Home Companion, a vintage magazine that was the quintessential homemaker’s guide to decorating, cookery, fashion, seasonal crafts, and other such things in pre-Martha Stewart days. In the December 1953 Christmas issue, the editor announced that the magazine had “paired a brand-new song with a brand-new star and created a special treat for your Christmas.” Available exclusively by mail order to Companion readers, this marked the first (and only) time the magazine had made such an offer in its eighty-year history. Fifty cents covered the cost of each record, including shipping and handling, and in the spirit of the season the magazine donated a portion of the proceedings to the American Heart Association. Readers were encouraged to give the unique, nonbreakable record as a gift. To that end, the packaging resembled a Christmas card, complete with the greeting, “Woman’s Home Companion wishes you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year / We take pride in presenting the music and recording of a new Christmas carol.”
Based on a poem by Ned Washington, Tiomkin’s “First Christmas” was a limited-edition record neatly packaged in a red-and-green sleeve. A piano arrangement, three pages in length, was printed both in the magazine and as part of the record packaging. Written in the key of F, a four-bar intro marked “Celestial” is followed by 32 bars marked “Moderato,” with the opening line, “There was a Christmas / Long, Long Ago.” Recorded by Columbia Records, the reverse side of the 78-rpm, 7-inch vinyl disc included “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The vocalist was teenage singing sensation Jill Corey, accompanied by an orchestra and chorus under the direction of Jimmy Carroll, best known as a jazz arranger for Rosemary Clooney and Mitch Mitchell. The carol was copyrighted on November 10, 1953.
The day before the copyright was registered, Jill Corey appeared on the cover of Life magazine, which featured an article and photo spread titled, “Small-Town Girl Gets New Name and a New Career.” How did Norma Jean Speranza of Avonmore, Pennsylvania, become Jill Corey, a Columbia recording artist in New York City, virtually overnight? Enter Mitch Miller. Miller, head of A&R (artists and repertory) at Columbia, received a demo tape of Corey and invited her to New York for an audition sometime around August 1953. After meeting with her, Miller signed Corey to a contract and arranged the Life cover story. At the same time, Miller and Columbia were producing “The First Christmas” for Woman’s Home Companion. Corey’s take on the song became the first commercial recording of her budding career. (The first disc in her Columbia catalog was recorded on October 13, the second on December 21, 1953.) Audiences nationwide got their first glimpse of the rising star in October on Garroway at Large, the Dave Garroway-hosted television music variety show on NBC. She went on to become a regular on the show for the 1953-1954 season. Corey spent seven years with the Columbia label, recording such songs as “Cry Me a River,” “Let It Be Me,” and “Sweet Sugar Lips.” She was featured as a lead singer on Your Hit Parade, starred in the film Senior Prom, and appeared on numerous radio shows, from Jill Corey Sings to Stop the Music. “Little Girl in the Big Time,” an article in the February 1955 issue of Woman’s Home Companion, documented her growing fame.
“Companionably Yours,” the Companion’s editorial page, contained a posed publicity photo of Jill Corey “singing” while holding the lead sheet for “First Christmas.” She is flanked on either side by editor Woodrow Wirsig and Mitch Miller. The professional relationship between Miller and Tiomkin in the early 1950s is unclear. Miller was behind the hit recording of the Tiomkin-Washington Oscar®-winning song “Do Not Forsake Me” from High Noon, covered by Frankie Laine, whom Miller brought to Columbia. Miller himself covered movie tunes and had a number of hits with Mitch Miller and His Gang and Sing Along with Mitch Miller. He went on to record a rendition of Tiomkin’s theme from The Guns of Navarone, among others.
Fifty years after it was written, the first known live performance of “The First Christmas” took place in December 2003 during a Christmas concert at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. The three-minute carol was arranged by Patrick Russ for soprano solo, choir, and brass ensemble. Russ has also arranged the carol for solo soprano (or alto), SATB choir, and orchestra. Tiomkin’s original musical sketches for the song, along with the Washington poem and an annotated carbon typescript of the lyrics, are housed in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California (USC). Tiomkin apparently made a piano demo of “The First Christmas” on August 22, 1953, and that recording, labeled “A Christmas Carol,” is also at USC.
Tiomkin and Washington teamed up on another holiday song, “Give Me Your Love for Christmas.” New York newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, commenting on the creation of the winter song, wrote, “Mr. Washington may be found creating at his Beverly Hills pool in the 70 degree sunshine.” Composed in the fall of 1961, the lyrical secular love song contains the catchy line “Let’s make December a month to remember.” A demo was cut with a Bob Grabeau vocal backed by Danny Gould and His Orchestra. Baritone Bob Grabeau, best known as a big band singer with the Jan Garber band, and Danny Gould, an arranger and conductor now with the Warner Bros. music department, recorded the unpublished song.
“Give Me Your Love for Christmas” may have been intended for a long-in-the-planning Christmas special in the early 1960s. Tiomkin and writer-producer Eugene Solow had acquired the rights to Lloyd C. Douglas’s 1937 novel Home for Christmas and hoped to turn it into a musical spectacular for television. Douglas’s works previously had been adapted into the films The Robe and Magnificent Obsession. Prosper Buranelli was to write the adaptation, Lowell Thomas was to star and narrate, and John Wayne, Laurence Olivier, and Pat Boone were all mentioned at one time or another as possible headliners. When Tiomkin was scoring The Sundowners for Fred Zinnemann, he told Hedda Hopper that he was hoping to persuade Zinnemann to direct a feature version of Home for Christmas. However, it seems Tiomkin remained intent on producing the one-hour television musical spectacular. Around April 1960 Tiomkin wrote a Yuletide ballad with religious overtones as the musical theme for this project. The number was to be recorded by singers from five different nations. That summer, two other numbers were announced, a harpsichord duet titled “Reflections” and “Pumpkin on the Windowsill, Apple on the Table.” Singer Gogi Grant may have performed the latter at the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York in the fall of 1960. As late as September 1964, Tiomkin was still discussing plans for the television musical with producer Jim Morgan.
One of Tiomkin’s earlier Christmas efforts was the 1948 song “Child of Bethlehem,” with lyrics by William Xavier Walsh. The unpublished carol was written for and dedicated to Loyola University of Los Angeles, from whom Tiomkin received a music department award a decade later. Tiomkin played the carol on the piano at the end of a radio interview with popular Hollywood commentator Frances Scully on the program “Stargazing” on December 21, 1948.
“First Christmas” wasn’t the first poem set to music by Tiomkin. Hotelier Conrad Hilton penned “America on Its Knees” around 1955. Sometime after that Tiomkin set it to music and it was performed in 1958 by the Roger Wagner Chorale as “America’s Prayer for Peace” at the first annual Christmas candlelight luncheon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. Tiomkin was to conduct the MGM orchestra for the Christmas Eve day concert, according to one account; however, the event’s program lists Manny Harmon and His Orchestra as the performers.
Harmon was well known to Southern California audiences as music director of the Pasadena Rose Parade and the Miss Universe pageant. Although billed as a premiere, the music was sung by a sixty-voice choir earlier in the month at a Hilton hotel in West Berlin, which was hailed in a British review of the opening festivities as a “monument to capitalism in the Western Zone.” Early in 1959, the Los Angeles Times announced that Tennessee Ernie Ford was to record the song. The “Prayer for Peace” was recorded by the Pittsburgh Choralists, led by Tiomkin, on December 3, 1959.
In addition to these holiday songs, several films scored by Tiomkin contain Christmas-themed scenes. The earliest, I Live My Life (1935), features a Christmas Eve scene with Joan Crawford, although it is unclear whether the carol “Silent Night,” used in the film, was arranged by Tiomkin. The best-known film, director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), takes place on Christmas Eve and includes Tiomkin arrangements of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Adeste Fideles.” The medley that included the latter was taken directly from the soundtrack of the film and released on the CD “It’s a Wonderful Life / The Christmas Album / Music from and inspired by America’s favorite Christmas movie” by Republic Entertainment (S21-18138) in 1994. In his autobiography, Please Don’t Hate Me, Tiomkin recalled that Capra “loved Christmas and had religious and sentimental feelings about it. He always had a big family party at his house, and his friends came to it year after year. In his screen plays significant events often took place on Christmas.” A previous Capra effort, the war documentary Tunisian Victory (1944), features original music by Tiomkin and includes a scene with British and American soldiers celebrating Christmas with gifts and letters from home. Similarly, The Imposter (1946), a World War II-themed drama, includes a Christmas celebration scene and the song “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Even the Western Giant (1956) has a Christmas Day scene with James Dean.
© 2004 Volta Music
Woman’s Home Companion, December 1953; February 1955
“The First Christmas,” Columbia Records, ZP 49863 / 49864
All Music Guide
The American Film Institute catalogs
The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection