CD Review: Two by Tiomkin

Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin
Labels: Film Score Monthly / Screen Archives Entertainment
Suggested Retail Price: $19.95 / $24.95
Grade: A

For a composer who hailed from the Ukraine, Dimitri Tiomkin sure loved the old west. Like the great concert hall composers who blazed a new musical path in the untamed wilderness of Hollywood, Tiomkin had been fed on the operatic strains of Wagner’s demigods and dragons — a melodically muscular sound that he capably transferred to such purely American heroes as the brave sheriff, daring cowboy, and stand-by-your-man farmwife. It was an epic sound that filled such memorable westerns as Duel In The Sun, Red River, Rio Bravo, The Unforgiven and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. But perhaps none of Tiomkin’s western scores has had the epic cache of High Noon. Gary Cooper was the lawman left alone by a cowardly town to face off against a villainous posse — a huge metaphor at the 1952 time for leftie film intellectuals abandoned to the anti-Commie witch hunts. But never mind all that, as Tiomkin’s score for High Noon is concerned with the western here-and-now of a stalwart sheriff faced with impossible odds, a tremendously suspenseful sound that’s now heard in its original glory on this Screen Archives release.

Though selections from Tiomkin’s score have been performed many times over on re-recordings, it’s especially nice to finally get the original High Noon tapes 56 years after the fact. Sure the sound might be a bit musty, and the players might make the occasional sidestep in their enthusiasm. But there’s no denying the power of listening to the real deal, which packs the kind of orchestral punch that any two-fisted sheriff would appreciate.

Composed at a time when “hit” songs were insidiously integrating themselves into movie soundtracks, Tiomkin was asked to base his High Noon score around “Do Not Forsake Me,” a tune written by Ned Washington (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) that spells out the predicament that Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) faces from the impending outlaws. While the lyrics might not be as memorable as Washington’s latter ditty for Rawhide, Tiomkin wasn’t so old school that he couldn’t put a memorably romantic theme against the song, and then integrate it throughout the score like a fateful country Greek chorus that even Johnny Cash would envy. And as voiced by western crooner Tex Ritter (also humorously heard here trying to get it right with Tiomkin), “Do Not Forsake Me” proved a textbook example of how to make an unnecessary pop tune into one of the cinema’s most memorable integrations of song and score, a melody that proves the backbone for all of High Noon.

Where most western scores of the time were about outward action, High Noon continues to stand out for its inward, suspenseful approach. While there are robust Mexican rhythms and romantic flourishes, most of the score plays the impending doom of the outlaws’ arrival by train. The score is a ticking clock of suspense, ominous, tones that Tiomkin sets up through hoofbeats, striking low piano chords, and pulses that literally telegraph the suspense. But for all of the tension at hand. Tiomkin is also well aware of the western score conventions, which come across here with a wistful harmonica, a player piano and an accordion. Sure doom might be coming for Will Kane, but Tiomkin is sure to provide the melodically romantic release when needed.

When the big musical showdown finally arrives, Dimitri Tiomkin lets lose with furiously valiant blasts of the orchestra. And as “Do Not Forsake Me” turns into a symbol of thematic righteousness, High Noon shows why it’s remained a highlight of western scoring. Sure the streets of Hadleyville may be an entirely different playing field for Tiomkin than the Germanic operas that first inspired his musical greatness. But their heroic spirit is right there in the shining, symphonic badge of Gary Cooper.

The word “epic” might be an understatement when it comes to Tiomkin’s thundering score for 1955’s Land Of The Pharoahs — a film that is to camp fiestas what High Noon is to legitimately great westerns. But that isn’t to say this Howard Hawks production isn’t great, gaudy fun, especially in the energy that radiates from Tiomkin’s balls-out score. Next to Duel In The Sun, this was probably the hugest soundtrack that Tiomkin would compose until such latter big screen scores as Giant, The Alamo and 55 Days At Peking. And you could build the pyramids on the gusto with which Tiomkin hits the Egyptian empire. Choruses and brass sections of what seem to be a few thousand musicians sound off as stone block-carrying extras mix it up with Joan Collins’ cheesecake, a balance of spectacle and ancient soap opera that works brilliantly.

But if Tiomkin’s musical pyramid building paved the way for such biblical scores as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur (not to mention Stargate), the use or raging brass and voices is probably a lot more fun here. Pharaoh’s montage sequences build to a fever pitch of spectacle, the voices and players almost careening out of control at conveying the glory of it all. And in an ancient Hollywood era when scores were lathered onto pictures by the pound, Tiomkin’s ability to keep Pharoah’s nearly two hours of music interesting, if not enthralling, is a testament to his skill of the leitmotif. If a movie can boast of having a cast of thousands, Tiomkin seems to have a theme for all one of them, effortlessly switching between their emotions of valor, strain and skullduggery. Yet as he hits every turn of the story with imperious orchestrations and exotic beauty, Tiomkin also knows when to rein the lush thunder in, switching from moments of brass-squelching majesty to subtle, poetic drama.

Elmer Bernstein first resurrected Land Of The Pharaohs for his film music collection in the 1970’s, but could only understandably put out a few bricks in Tiomkin’s towering pyramid. Now after putting out that stellar tribute in their deluxe set of Bernstein’s recordings, Film Score Monthly has gotten around to the real thing, releasing a complete Land Of The Pharaohs as a jewel in their archival crown. And just as the Egyptians hoped to keep their mummies fresh for the afterlife, producer Lukas Kendall has restored Pharaohs with amazing musical vitality. Between this and High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin couldn’t hope for better presentations to show off his legacy as one of the greatest kings to rule an age of robust orchestral scoring. And thanks to releases like these, it will never turn to dust. Even though he came from the Ukraine, Tiomkin understands the international language of the musical dream machine like no composer’s business.

Buy the CDs: Shoot it out at High Noon, then excavate The Land Of The Pharaohs

1 Comment

  • May 12, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Hi – I recently finished a project featuring Shuggie Otis and Jimmy Vivino. All of the music is film oriented. Please let me know if you would be interested in reviewing the cd. Thank you, Mark Lotito

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