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Dimitri Tiomkin (Dmitry Tyomkin) surely is one of the greatest success stories among those refugees from the Russian Empire who found a life and fame in Hollywood. There are a lot of these stories – enough to ask seriously what Hollywood would have been without Russia – but I always come back to Tiomkin as the one who holds the banner for the rest. It’s a subjective call, but this is a space for subjective opinions.
Tiomkin (the spelling he used in the U.S.) was born in the small Ukrainian city of Kremenchug (now known as Kremenchuk) in 1894. His family was Jewish – his father Zinovy a prominent doctor, his mother Maria Tartovskaya an amateur pianist. She taught her son to play the piano in his earliest childhood and by the age of 13 he had entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he rubbed shoulders with some of the greats of Russian classical music, including Alexander Glazunov (under whom he studied harmony). But his heart was drawn to the Stray Dog cafe, one of the most famous bohemian hangouts of that time in Russia. As he put it later in his memoirs, “I began living a double life – I spent my nights in the Stray Dog, and in the mornings I would appear at the conservatory.” It was here, at the Stray Dog, that he would have become acquainted with the avant-garde poetry, literature, painting and music of his time. All the greats hung out here, and Tiomkin, who played the piano all night to pay off his debts for food and drink to the owner, heard an earful and saw an eyeful. After the Revolution, he went to work for the political administration of the Petrograd military district. It was his job to provide music for special occasions, the most memorable of which was the famed re-staging in 1920 of the Storming of the Winter Palace. Directed by Nikolai Yevreinov, this theatricalized, mass public event, provided the film clips of frenzied soldiers overrunning the palace walls that, even today, we still see in place of non-existent historical films of the real event.
Things got a little hot for Tiomkin in St. Petersburg, however, and he soon realized it was time to get out. He was living in the town of Gatchina, a Petrograd suburb, in the home of a family friend, who happened to have been a general in the Tsar’s army. One night the Soviet police came and took him away to prison. Tiomkin, perhaps not knowing better, visited his friend in prison a few days later, but got stuck there for several days when a new set of guards, following a change in shifts, refused to believe that Tiomkin was not a prisoner himself. He finally was able to get a note out to his teacher Glazunov, who extricated his student from his predicament. It was not long before the budding pianist chose to join his father in Berlin, where he stayed from 1921 to 1923. He made his concert debut in Berlin, performing Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Berlin Philharmonic. He moved to Paris with his friend Mikhail Khariton in 1924, where he began writing foxtrots and waltzes, and made the acquaintance of Fyodor Chaliapin. Tiomkin and Khariton, who formed a piano duet that had no little success, then made the leap across the Big Pond to New York in 1925 upon invitation from the Ukrainian-born, American impresario Morris Gest.
Tiomkin and Khariton played vaudeville gigs and classical recitals at Carnegie Hall, and played in the orchestra of a ballet company. There Tiomkin met his second wife, Albertina Rasch, the head of the ballet troupe. In 1928 Tiomkin performed the European premiere of George Gershwin’s Concert in F at the Paris Opera. His life continued to unfold as it had way back in St. Petersburg/Petrograd – wavering back and forth between serious and “frivolous” music. And, while by the end of the 1920s, Tiomkin could look back at a varied and accomplished decade in his musical career, nothing could come close to comparing what was still in store for him ahead.
Chased by the bad times brought on by the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Tiomkin and his wife ended up in Hollywood. Tiomkin’s career in Tinseltown got off to a slow start, with several uncredited jobs. That would change very quickly, however. Tiomkin would soon become one of the greatest Hollywood composers ever. Imdb.com lists 126 credits for Tiomkin as a composer. It lists 163 in the soundtrack category and another 144 in the music department division. But that doesn’t come close to painting the complete picture of this man’s work, his influence on American cinema and on American culture. Let me drop one tidbit here: Tiomkin was the composer of the Rawhide TV series, all 217 episodes. Yes, that’s right, the music to that “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, Rawhide!” song was written by Tiomkin. If you are of my age or older, Tiomkin’s music was in your household every week of every year from 1959 to 1965.
The Rawhide connection brings us to, perhaps, the most amazing feature of Tiomkin’s career as a composer. He almost single-handedly created the sounds of America for Hollywood in its great golden age. From his very first Hollywood job in 1929, to his last in 1979, he was the composer who found the music and sounds that made America believe that it knew itself. This gentle, friendly, easy-going Jewish man from Ukraine created our musical perception of ourselves. His work on westerns and noir detective tales set the standard for the genres, two of American cinema’s greatest. He was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning four. He wrote the music for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), High Noon (1952), Dial M for Murder (1954), Giant and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The Alamo (1960), The Guns of Navarone and Town Without Pity (1961). The list of directors he worked for is a who’s who of the profession: Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, John Huston, John Sturges, Howard Hawks, George Cukor…
Upon his death in 1979, Dimitri Tiomkin was interred in the wall of the Columbarium of Memory in the Memorial Terrace of the Forest Lawn Mausoleum in Glendale. Next to him are his second wife Albertina Rasch and a Maria Tiomkin whose only identified date is 1960. I am guessing that this is his mother, who might have died in 1960, but I do not know that for a fact.
If you look for the Tiomkin urn, don’t follow the directions given in the Forest Lawn office. In fact, as soon as you enter the Columbarium of Memory, turn immediately to your left and look down. The urn is right in the left-hand corner of the long hall.
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