Tiomkin, Dimitri (1894–1979)
Lost Horizon (1937)
“Lost Horizon was Tiomkin’s first score of substance and the one which raised him to the forefront of Hollywood composers. [Frank] Capra in his autobiography wrote of the finished film: ‘Curiosity had forced me to sneak unseen into the music scoring stage to overhear Steiner’s first orchestral rehearsal of the main-title music. I left with stars in my eyes. Tiomkin‘s music not only captured the mood, but darned near captured the film.’” 1 (Max Steiner had been loaned to Columbia by Warner Brothers to supervise and conduct Tiomkin’s score. [At this early stage Tiomkin had not yet learned how to conduct and was still relatively inexperienced generally at fitting music to timed sequences.]) 2
That this is an out-of-the-ordinary score for its time becomes apparent early in the main title. According to Christopher Palmer:
The written score has bar lines, but they mean nothing; strong and weak beats, metric definition, conventional Western phrase structure that involves one phrase ending and another beginning—all are absent; should we try to phrase the melody, the phrase mark would never come to an end. Rather there is an affinity with oriental or medieval monody in which tune is never-ending; it just flows on and on, perpetually regenerating itself—the ‘continuous continuation’ of the Orient as opposed to the Western concept of ‘moment in time.’ There is no ‘stress’ here (in the technical, musical sense) just as there is no ‘stress’ (in the wider, general sense) in the Valley of the Blue Moon; we have in fact the ageless beauty and serenity of Shangri-La in a musical nutshell: immortality, lux perpetua. Anything further removed from the tradition of trumpery Chu-Chin-Chow-like confection that so often in Hollywood does duty for the Orient would be hard to imagine.3
Note that Max Steiner is listed in the opening credits as “Musical Director.” Lost Horizon was released two years before Steiner’s scores for Dark Victory and Gone with the Wind, each including dramatic vocalization.
“The wonderful unaccompanied choral music behind the scene of the travelers’ first sight of the celestial Shangri-La in Lost Horizon is not in any way a Hollywoodian ‘Heavenly Chorus,’ simply because it represents Tiomkin’s natural, instinctive, spontaneous response to the poetry of the scene. To my mind, the affinity is more with a work like Delius’s Song of the High Hills, where the wordless choir is also used to convey the related emotions of awe, rapture, and ecstasy. To point to the lack of surface polish and elegance in Tiomkin’s work, to the absence of any gloss of sophisticated ‘correctness,’ is simultaneously to draw attention to one of its greatest sources of strength, its rough-hewn quality, its quasi-primitive vitality, its earthy peasant-like directness. It can pierce to the core of a dramatic situation with an instinctive, instinctual soundness.” 4
“As Conway looks on the clear, sunlit valley, a myriad voices sound from afar. The sound of massed voices singing or murmuring wordlessly in the distance has a mystical quality that almost defies analysis. When used, as here, in its rightful context it seems to stand simply as a symbol of ecstasy, if by ecstasy we understand rapture, wonder, mystery, a withdrawal from the common life and common consciousness—these are the kindred emotions pervading Conway’s soul, and through the medium of this choral sequence, Tiomkin gives them expression in music. Here is the essence of Shangri-La, ‘an earthly paradise whose walls are splayed with centuries-old vines flaunting their fragrant blossoms; whose broad stairway beckons to the great portico of the lamasery; whose acres of flat white roofs shimmer in the sun; where voices are as murmurous as the hum of insects in summer, and rainbow-haloed fountains splash and tinkle in harmony with the evanescent aerial music of circling white doves—a cloistered Eden where people live to unheard-of ages, sedated by a wondrous herb, observing a sunset as men in the outer world hear the striking of a clock, and with much less care, and where the art, culture and accumulated knowledge of the world are treasured against the day when civilization will be torn asunder by mechanized warfare on a global scale.’ (Capra) Near the end of this scene voices and bells are raised in a chant based on the Chinese pentatonic, or five-note, scale . . . which, like the main Shangri-La theme, conforms to no Western standards of metrical regularity; it has rather the cold and tranquil beauty of ancient Chinese lacquers or pearl-blue Sung ceramics.” 5
|The High Lama|
Quiet vocalization at the end of this clip.
“Here the ‘Eastern’ theme is given to the mixed chorus keening wordlessly over the persistent funereal thudding of the timpani; the orchestral texture incorporates a variety of exotic percussion, metallophones, gongs, xylophones and bells redolent of the Javanese gamelan or percussion orchestra. The procession files endlessly up the hill to the lamasery, torches flicker round the courts and pavilions, the musicians blow and beat, the keening voices fade on a veer of the wind, returning to fade again.” 6
1 Christopher Palmer, Dimitri Tiomkin: A Portrait (London: T. E. Books, 1984), 77. Much of the material on Tiomkin quoted from this source also appears in the author’s later book The Composer in Hollywood (New York: Marion Boyars, 1990). See also William H. Rosar, “Lost Horizon: An Account of the Composition of the Score,” Film Music Notebook 4 (1978): 40–52.
2 Ibid., 78.
3 Ibid., 82.
4 Ibid., 64.
5 Ibid., 84.
6 Ibid., 82–83.