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.
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.
Tiomkin was hired by Universal in 1931 to score the Russian-themed Resurrection, his first effort at a nonmusical film, and it was Paramount’sAlice 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. Tiomkin’s music for Lost Horizon was nominated for an Academy Award, although the nomination itself went to the head of the music department.
The 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.
A 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.