Friday, September 26, 2008

Dimitri Tiomkin: composer of background music

Studio-Era Hollywood had a distinctly Central and Eastern European character. Scores of talented writers, musicians and actors fled the bloody upheavals that convulsed Europe for the promise of a better life in America. Most headed for New York and it's many opportunities to find work. Some of the more intrepid headed west to the mythic land where names like Warner, Zanuck and Selznick held sway and folks from places with funny names had found fame and fortune. Where Lazar Meir from Minsk could become Louis B. Mayer, titan of the motion picture industry.

Dimitri Zinovich Tiomkin was born 1894 in the village of Kremenchuk in the Ukraine. His odyssey took him first to the hallowed halls of St. Petersburg Conservatory -- where he rubbed elbows with Prokofiev and Glazunov -- then to Berlin, Paris, New York, finally arriving in Hollywood in 1929. This was only two years after Warner Bros. broke the sound barrier with their "talking picture" The Jazz Singer. The young composer fell in love with the novel idea of composing music for film soundtracks ("background music" he wasn't too proud to say), but it wasn't until 1937 that his career took off after a chance meeting with director Frank Capra. The two hit it off and began a long, fruitful partnership -- including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1947).

Dimitri Tiomkin was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock too, scoring four of his films (only Bernard Hermann scored more). I've been watching Dial M for Murder Hitch's glossy 1954 mystery thriller for Warners starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Tiomkin's score is a masterful example of underscoring that calls attention to itself sparingly -- for example in the first reveal of Kelly which is accompanied by one of his most soaring themes (you can listen to it here). Some of today's film composers would do well to study his unobtrusive style. Scan Tiomkin's long list of credits and you'll see the majority are Westerns, including two I've discussed this month -- High Noon (with it's oddly effective opening title song featuring Tex Ritter) and Rio Bravo. Tiomkin never shed his thick Russian accent, but his name is forever identified with this genre that's as American as apple pie. Quite a journey. Quite a life.

Dimitri Tiomkin:

Dialogue, of course, is of primary importance in determining the genre of background music. It entails problems that must be overcome, and can be overcome only by certain musical techniques. It is difficult for a layman to realise that speaking voices have astonishing variation in pitch and timbre. It may seem incredible, but many actor's 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 characterisation 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. Jimmie Stewart is another actor for whom it is a delight to write music. Paradoxically, 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 moonlit coiffure. But don't pursue this appeal of imperfect voices too far, or you'll run into Andy Devine. Jean Arthur and James Stewart also illustrate another point; utilising music to "soften" a face, or to give it qualities it does not have inherently. This is not necessary with Stewart or Arthur because both have faces that reflect great sincerity. (Frank Capra, with whom I have had the pleasure of working on a number of pictures, once pointed out to me that unless a player has the sort of face that bespeaks sincerity he is not likely ever to become a great star.) The camera is a merciless, analytical instrument. Even after every artifice of lighting and make-up, the close-up can be cruelly revealing. The composer, by providing pleasant melodic music, can direct attention from what the make-up artist could not hide. And in doing so the composer is surprisingly successful.

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.

Dimitri Tiomkin (Copyright 1961 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.)

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