Dimitri Tiomkin

1894-c. 1921 (Kremenchuk and St. Petersburg, Russia)

Dimitri Tiomkin, circa 1900

Dimitri Zinovich Tiomkin was born in Kremenchuk on May 10, 1894. His mother, Marie (née Tartakovsky), was a music teacher and his father, Zinovie, a physician. A student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he excelled as a solo pianist under the tutelage of Felix Blumenfeld and Isabelle Vengerova, and also studied with composer Alexander Glazunov, the conservatory’s director. In his spare time, Tiomkin frequented the “Homeless Dog” café, fraternizing with other avant-garde bohemian artists, including fellow student Serge Prokofiev and dancer Mikhail Fokine.

Tiomkin’s professional debut in film music came in St. Petersburg’s cinemas, where he accompanied Russian and French silent films. He also provided piano accompaniment for the ballerina Thamar Karsavina on army post tours and improvised on the piano during performances by the comedian Max Linder. These experiences and the skills he gained helped lay the foundation of his American film music career. Even Tiomkin’s interest in American popular music began in Russia, where he first heard Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band at the “Homeless Dog,” and where he was exposed to ragtime, blues, and early jazz through one of his piano students, a black minstrel-show singer from New Orleans who had remained in Russia after a vaudeville tour.

In St. Petersburg, Tiomkin’s early life was marked by such political events as the overthrow of the Tsar, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Soviet Russia. His whereabouts from 1919 to 1921 are unclear. He apparently was involved in the music direction of the 1920 reenactment of “The Storming of the Winter Palace.” This massive pageant featured thousands of performers, including 500 musicians and 125 ballet dancers.

Sensing a bleak future in music, Tiomkin decided to leave Russia and boarded a freighter bound for Germany, where his father had taken up residence in Berlin with his stepmother. (Fortunately, Tiomkin spoke both German and French.)


c. 1921-1923 (Berlin, Germany); 1924-1925 (Paris, France)

Dimitri Tiomkin with Michael Khariton, circa 1925

Tiomkin studied with pianist Ferruccio BusoniIn Berlin, Tiomkin studied with pianist Ferruccio Busoni and his disciples (Egon Petri and Michael Zadora), worked as a concert pianist, and wrote light popular and classical music, including etudes, fox-trots, marches, and waltzes. His appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic for Liszt’s second piano concerto helped further his reputation as a pianist. At the urging of roommate and fellow pianist Michael Kariton, both Tiomkin and Kariton left for Paris to perform programs featuring two pianos, which were fashionable at the time. Russian singer Feodor Chaliapin regaled Tiomkin with stories of America, including the well-paying vaudeville circuit and the demand for European touring musicians. That eventually led to an offer from Broadway theater magnate Morris Gest, another Russian immigrant, for the piano duo to join a vaudeville tour in the United States.

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1925-1929 (New York, New York)

Dimitri Tiomkin and Albertina RaschTiomkin arrived in New York in 1925. He and Kariton played the Keith/Albee and Orpheum circuits accompanying a ballet troupe headed by Albertina Rasch, an Austrian-born ballerina and choreographer. Over time the professional relationship became a personal one as well, and Tiomkin married “Albertinotchka” in 1926.

In early 1927 Tiomkin had parted ways with Kariton to embark on a coast-to-coast tour with “Albertina Rasch and her American Ballet.” He served as music director and arranger for the company of 30 dancers. The movement inherent in ballet would later influence Tiomkin’s film-scoring sensibilities, as he came to think of the movement of people within the film frame as dancers on a stage. Later that year he performed a Carnegie Hall recital that introduced contemporary works by Alexander Scriabin, Francis Poulenc, Alexandre Tansman, and Maurice Ravel to American audiences, as well as his own composition, Quasi-Jazz. While Tiomkin continued to perform in concert as a solo pianist, Albertina produced dance acts and staged lavish musical productions. At one of these, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was on the program, featuring Tiomkin at the piano.

The newlyweds traveled to Paris in 1928, where Tiomkin performed at the Paris Opera. The program included the Rhapsody and the European premiere of Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Gershwin himself was in attendance. Returning to the United States, Tiomkin launched a national concert tour, playing French impressionistic music with a few jazz numbers mixed in. It was to be his last tour, as the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 curtailed work for both Tiomkin and Rasch. An invitation to perform at a Hollywood film premiere inspired the couple to move to California and seek work in the burgeoning field of musical sound films.

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1929-1967 (Hollywood, California)

Dimitri Tiomkin and Arthur LangeThe “Broadway Nights” prologue at the world premiere of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Broadway Melody at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in February 1929 showcased the Albertina Rasch Dancers, “brought from New York and Europe to Los Angeles for the first time by Sid Grauman exclusively for this presentation.” The program also featured the “Romantic Ballet” with music by Tiomkin and choreography by Rasch, performed by her dance troupe. By the end of the year, Rasch had choreographed production numbers for three MGM musicals. (Tiomkin had continued to supply the Albertina Rasch Dancers with music. As he put it, “If you can’t make a sale to your wife, all is hopeless.”) Rasch mentioned Dimitri’s Mars Ballet to MGM executives, who commissioned him to score two Rasch-choreographed numbers. In the fall of 1929, the studio signed Tiomkin. Over the next two years, he composed music for Rasch’s ballet sequences in Devil-May-Care, The Rogue Song, and Lord Byron of Broadway.

Dimitri Tiomkin with Edmund Carewe, 1930

Dimitri Tiomkin with Edmund Carewe, 1930Tiomkin was hired by Universal in 1931 to score the Russian-themed Resurrection, his first effort at a nonmusical film. In the fall of 1932, Tiomkin was back in New York, producing the short-lived Broadway run of the Montague Glass play Keeping Expenses Down. Tiomkin was dabbling in several Broadway ventures and wrote the music for an unproduced play and musical. The following year he returned to California, and it was Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland that offered Tiomkin his first chance at composing and arranging the underscore and songs for a major motion picture. Film music assignments continued sporadically until he met director Frank Capra at a party and a personal friendship blossomed. The two first worked together on Lost Horizon (1937). That score helped make Tiomkin’s reputation as a creator of music on a grand scale for large symphonic and choral forces – a fortunate development given his interest in rich orchestrations. (His lifelong fascination with musical color led him to use unusual combinations of instruments and to write around the dialogue, so that the instrumentation interacted with the range and timbre of the actor’s voice.) Tiomkin’s music for Lost Horizon was nominated for an Academy Award, although the nomination itself went to the head of the music department.

Dimitri Tiomkin, War Department identification card (front), 1943The Capra-Tiomkin partnership continued with You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). During World War II Capra recruited Tiomkin to score the “Why We Fight” series of training and indoctrination films produced by the Army Signal Corps. Music for a dozen documentaries, including The Negro Soldier (1944) and The Battle of San Pietro (1945), was the result.

Town without PityFriendships formed while scoring the Army films brought more work Tiomkin’s way. For producer Stanley Kramer he scored So This Is New York (1948), Champion (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), and The Men (1950). However, it was the film High Noon (1952), produced by Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann, that changed the course of Tiomkin’s career. The unorthodox score, incorporating a song with lyrics, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” fueled a theme-song craze. Songs written for films – as opposed to preexisting songs used in films – grew in popularity. Over the next dozen years, Tiomkin himself wrote a title song or ballad for nearly every picture he scored, often collaborating with Ned Washington or Paul Francis Webster. A number of Oscar-nominated songs followed: “Thee I Love” from Friendly Persuasion, the title song from Wild Is the Wind, “Strange Are the Ways of Love” from The Young Land, “The Green Leaves of Summer” from The Alamo, the title song from Town Without Pity, and “So Little Time” from 55 Days at Peking. His songwriting talent, combined with his scoring expertise, led to song compositions that graced their films with a dramatic narrative.

Strangers On A TrainA gift for melody is part of Tiomkin’s enduring legacy. As an artist, he followed his instincts, which perhaps contributed to his success. Production manager Henry Henigson said, “He yesses everybody but does what he believes.” Tiomkin’s musical talent, endearing personality, and broken English (he reflected on his inability to master the language without an accent in his 1959 autobiography, Please Don’t Hate Me may have enabled him to get away with this in Hollywood. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and other European émigré composers also made their mark in Hollywood; however, Tiomkin is the only Russian composer to do so.

His long-term relationships with Capra, Kramer, and other filmmakers are a testament to Tiomkin’s interpersonal and business skills. For Alfred Hitchcock he scored Shadow of a Doubt (1942), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), and Dial M for Murder (1954). The fruits of his 20-year collaboration with Howard Hawks include Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Red River (1948), The Thing (1951), The Big Sky (1952), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and Rio Bravo (1959).

Duel in the SunEven though he scored Westerns such as Duel in the Sun in the 1940s, he is most closely associated with the genre because of his work on High Noon; the John Wayne films Red River, Rio Bravo, and The Alamo; Giant (1956); and the theme for the television series Rawhide. Two of his most impressive Western scores, The Westerner (1939) and Friendly Persuasion (1956), directed by William Wyler, are lesser known but equally notable.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Tiomkin was at the height of his popularity, having received four Academy Awards in the six-year period from 1952 to 1958. His fame as a film composer was nearly unprecedented. He claimed two Oscar statuettes (for score and song) for High Noon and earned two more best score Oscars for The High and the Mighty and The Old Man and the Sea. The lush, lyrical musical strains of the latter was inspired by his fishing trips with his old friend Frank Capra. Tiomkin’s large-scale scores continued with The Guns of Navarone (1961) and in his collaborations with producer Samuel Bronston for 55 Days at Peking (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and Circus World (1964).

High NoonTiomkin’s independent personality was reflected in his music and business life. Unlike his contemporaries, he was never under a long-term studio contract, making him the most prominent independent composer during the studio system’s heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s. In a magazine article he said, “If I have some success it is all on account of independent film.” His free-agent status allowed him to negotiate contractual terms to his benefit, which in turn benefited other composers. He aggressively sought music publishing rights and formed his own ASCAP music publishing company, Volta Music Corporation. He once told publicist Dave Epstein, “My fight…is just for certain amount of dignity. Not only for composer, but for all artists responsible for picture.” To this end he fought for the placement of black musicians in orchestras. (He worked closely with many black musicians, notably Jester Hairston).

Dimitri Tiomkin accepting his Academy AwardIn light of all the wonderful scores and songs written over a 40-year career, it may come as a surprise that Tiomkin’s fame was cemented by a single incident, thanks to the then-budding medium of television. When Tiomkin accepted his Academy Award for best score for The High and the Mighty in March 1955, he wanted to mention his appreciation for the composers of classical music. In his fractured English he offered his “appreciation to very factor which makes me successful and adds to quality of this town…” When he started naming long-dead composers Brahms, Strauss, Wagner, and Beethoven, the audience burst into laughter. In his attempt to honor the musical past, they mistakenly believed Tiomkin was acknowledging that film music borrowed freely from classical music.

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1968-1979 (London, England, and Paris, France)

Dimitri Tiomkin in MoscowTiomkin’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 to Europe. He executive-produced and arranged the music for Tchaikovsky, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language film category. Filmed in Russia, this pre-glasnost American-Russian coproduction allowed him to return to his homeland.

In 1972 Tiomkin wed Olivia Cynthia Patch in London. They maintained residences in London and Paris, where Tiomkin enjoyed playing classical music at the piano. Dimi, as he was known to friends, died in London on November 11, 1979. Tiomkin did not live to witness the proliferation of interest in film music recordings and concerts. Thanks to the preservation and restoration efforts of several institutions and individuals, overlooked themes and music from his lesser-known films have been made available, including original soundtracks for The Big Sky and 36 Hours, rerecordings of music from Tension at Table Rock and Tarzan and the Mermaids, and concert performances of suites from The Well, War Wagon, and The Westerner.

On celluloid and CD, Tiomkin’s legacy and spirit live on through his music.

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Warren M. Sherk
music archivist
© 2003


Dimitri Zinovich Tiomkin
Tiomkin’s first name can be transliterated from Russian as Dmitri or Dmitrii, his surname as Tiomkine or Temkin. His Russian patronymic name was Zinovich, meaning “son of Zinovie [or Zinoviia]” (again, depending on the transliteration).

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Kremenchuk
Located in the Poltava region of the Ukraine approximately 200 km southeast of Kiev.

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May 10, 1894
Many sources give Tiomkin’s birth year as 1899, the year indicated on his passport. When Tiomkin left Russia for Germany, his father, who had remarried and was living in Germany, helped arrange for his travel papers. His father may have shaved five years off Dimitri’s age in an attempt to conceal his own age from his second wife.

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Felix Blumenfeld
Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld (1863-1931) was a pianist, composer, and conductor. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Many sources incorrectly spell it Blumenthal.

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Isabelle Vengerova
Isabelle Vengerova (1877-1956) taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1906 to 1920. She was musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky’s maternal aunt.

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The “Homeless Dog”
Alternately translated as the “Stray Dog,” this gathering place for artists was located in a cellar in central St. Petersburg from 1912 to 1915. It reopened for business in 2001. See “Russia’s Treasure-House,” on prerevolutionary St. Petersburg landmarks, in Smithsonian (May 2003), p. 78.

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Michael Kariton
Also known as Michel or Michail Khariton, and as Raskov in Tiomkin’s autobiography.

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Keith/Albee and Orpheum circuits
In Boston in the mid-1880s, Benjamin Keith and Edward Albee introduced variety shows that eventually became the Keith/Albee vaudeville circuit. In 1927 the Keith/Albee circuit merged with its West Coast rival, the Orpheum circuit, to form the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit.

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Cover of autobiography.

Please Don’t Hate Me
Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1959. See also Christopher Palmer’s Dimitri Tiomkin: A Portrait, London: T. E. Books, 1984. Purchase from amazon: Please Don’t Hate Me.

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