May 10, 1894 - November 11, 1979
Dimitri Tiomkin was the most successful Russian-American music score composer in the history of Hollywood. He is best known for his music for some of the iconic Western movies, including Duel in the Sun, High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Alamo. A genius of capturing atmosphere in music, Tiomkin was nominated for Academy Award twenty-two times and won four Oscars, as well as eight Golden Globes, plus a number of most prestigious international awards, including one from the King of Spain himself.
Dimitri Tiomkin - The Musical Wizard of Hollywood
Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin was born to a Jewish family of Zinovy and Maria Tiomkin in Kremenchug, Poltava, then Russian Empire and now Ukraine. His mother taught piano professionally, and so the boy got introduced to the world of music from the very start of his life, and by the age of 13 was able to enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. While studying, he would earn some money by playing the piano in silent movie theaters - the job that introduced him to another world, the world of cinema.
He would also frequent the local artistic cabaret The Stray Dog, where he for the first time heard American music - Alexander’s Ragtime Band by another great Russian-American Irving Berlin - and fell in love with it.
After the October Revolution of 1917, Tiomkin was hired by the new authorities to stage massive theatrical and musical propaganda events, including the famous reenactment of the Zimniy Palace capture, performed by 500 musicians and thousands of actors.
It soon became apparent to Dimitri, though, that the new regime would not let him achieve his goals, and so, in 1921, he emigrated first to Germany, where he took lessons from Ferruccio Buzzoni, and later to France, where he performed, touring the country. Three years later, taking advice from the famous singer Fyodor Shalyapin, he left for America, which would become his new homeland for many decades to come.
His career in the New World started in the American Ballet of Albertina Rush, whom he would soon marry. In 1929, the Ballet was invited to perform at the premiere of one of the first sound films - Broadway Melody. Executives from the MGM studios noticed the performers, and very soon they got an invitation to create a series of musical acts for upcoming musicals, with Dimitri creating musical scores and performing at the piano.
By mid-30s, Dimitri had become an established composer, invariably chosen to create scores for Western movies because of his extraordinary ability to feel the atmosphere of the location we never visited.
Once he was asked how he was able to capture the very spirit of the prairies, to which he answered simply: "A steppe is a steppe anywhere", implying that it was his childhood in the limitless steppes of Ukraine that made him capable of understanding the prairies.
In 1937 he met Frak Capra, who invited him to work on the Lost Horizon movie, giving him full creative freedom. Tiomkin used this opportunity to a great effect, employing groundbreaking sound techniques, including supplying dialogues with matching background music themes. The film was a huge success and earned him the first of his Oscar nominations.
A string of successes followed, culminating into the Academy Awards ceremony of 1953, when Tiomkin stood on the stage with two coveted golden statuettes in his hands, becoming one of the very few American artists to receive a double Oscar: one for his musical score for High Noon, and the other for his Do Not Foresake Me song from the same film! His musical scores were so highly regarded and so prolific, that for his thirty-plus career he was nominated for the Academy Award 22 times, winning 4 Oscars!
In 1969 he tried his hand as a producer in Mackenna's Gold and proved to be quite successful: the film was a commercial success and became one of the few American movies to be allowed into the Soviet Union.
Just three years later Tiomkin got his first (and last) opportunity to visit his former homeland... In 1972 he was invited to create the score for Tchaikovsky, filmed by Igor Talankin at Mosfilm, and received a permission to enter the USSR for the duration of the filming.
Dimitri died in 1979 in his house in London, where he had moved after marrying an offspring of an English aristocratic family, Olyvia Synthia Patch, just a few years before. He left behing a trophy shelf unmatched by any of the Hollywood stars even today, two orders of Legion d'Honneur he received from France and the order of Isabella the Catholic, awarded to him by the King of Spain, plus an undying musical legacy...
His works are widely sampled or used as is in many of today's movies. The opening theme of Tarantino's famous and controversial Inglourious Basterds is nothing else as part of Tiomkin's score from Fort Alamo!
Robinson, Harlow. Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image, Northeastern Univ. Press (2007)
Warren M. Sherk (2003), "Biography: Dimitri Tiomkin"
Palmer, Christopher. The Composer in Hollywood, Marlon Boyars Publ. (1990)
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