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Artwork copyright (c) 2003 HNH International; review copyright (c) 2004 James Southall



The Big T Out West


Isn't it ironic that Dimitri Tiomkin - a Russian - will forever be best associated with his scores for films in the American West?  He defined the sound of the cattle country as well as his illustrious contemporaries, but in a rather different way.  Listen to a few bars of Red River and there'll be no doubt you're listening to music telling some story from the old west.  This is nothing like the Copland/Moross/Bernstein sound which we have come to automatically associate with the genre - but there is no taking away from the sheer colour, breadth and depth of the imagery Tiomkin conjures up.  Notably, Tiomkin has never quite attracted the same following among younger listeners today as, say, Herrmann or Rózsa.  No doubt this is due to his showmanlike approach to scoring a film - this is music designed to be at the forefront of a movie, to make it seem like the images were created as accompaniment to the music, rather than the other way round - and these are the very qualities that engender such fervent support for the late composer amongst, shall we say, the more "mature" listeners.

The latest rerecording project from the acclaimed team of reconstructionist John Morgan and conductor William Stromberg, once again they traveled to Moscow for this recording.  They have made some fine recordings there of other composers' music - most notably Alfred Newman's, Max Steiner's and of course Bernard Herrmann's - but arguably this was always going to be something special, given not only the quality of the material, but also because the musicians would finally get to record some music by "one of their own"; and whether consciously or (no doubt) not, there seems to be an even greater shine to the gloss on this recording.  Evocative of the American west, absolutely; but there are also strong hints of the great Russian composers, particularly Shostokovich, from the muscular brass through the deep male choir.

Red River is commonly regarded as the most personal movie made by the legendary Howard Hawks, it sees John Wayne traveling out west to build an empire for himself, an epic tale by nature but one based not around scenery and fights, but people and their relationships, as most of the great westerns are.  It inspired Tiomkin no end.  Built around an outstanding core of themes, many of which sound like they're probably folk songs, but aren't, it is one of the finest in the genre which arguably inspired more great film music than any other, at least until its virtual death in the 1960s. (There are a handful of folk tunes interpolated, but no more than in other scores for westerns of the time.  Tiomkin seems to have deliberately written music which sounds like folk music but is actually original.)  The portentous opening title music sets the tone, wonderfully rich and colourful, with Tiomkin's trademark chorus in tow, but there's no cheery song here.  One only has to reach the second track, "Dunson Heads South", to discover one of the score's true highlights, an affecting piece filling a dual role of representing great emotion while evoking the beautiful landscape as well.

There is no shortage of powerful action music here: the furious "The Red Menace Strikes" is the earliest, a dark and powerful piece of orchestral aggression.  "Stampede" is another - surprisingly dissonant, the orchestra seems almost in conflict with itself at times; quite brilliant.  Some of the music for the later fight scenes sounds almost swashbuckling - "Fight for Life" could perhaps have come from The Sea Hawk or something, but is never quite so bright; what it is, is incredibly detailed, nuanced action music.  Of course, there is also a smattering of majestic, almost ceremonial music for some of the film's bigger moments, with two tracks in the album's centre - "Red River Ahead" and "Red River Crossing" - being a fine example when taken together.  And let's not forget the tender thematic material for the romantic scenes: they come no finer than "Foggy Night Surrender", featuring a gorgeous violin solo.  As the movie (and score) reach their climax, Tiomkin lays on fully orchestral versions of his main theme thick and fast, notably in "A Joyous Meeting" and "Approach to Abilene".  The choir appears in "A Big Day in Abilene", providing an almost carnival-like atmosphere.  "A Message for Matt" begins as a suspenseful piece, the calm before the storm perhaps, before going into a beautiful, subtle rendition of the main theme; and then everything explodes to high heaven in "The Challenge", the final, dark musical battle.  Everything then ends with the triumphant, rousing finale "The New Brand", a great way to go out.

Red River is a magnificent film score, perhaps Tiomkin's best; and this package is excellent.  The 32-page booklet includes liner notes from Jack Smith which are written the way these things should be, along with brief notes from a couple of others and various photos.  Sadly, those photos seem to have caused something of a problem, because reportedly there is a copyright dispute over some of them, meaning - tragically - that the album is yet to be released in the United States, and may not be (at least in this form).  Don't you just love lawyers?  However, you may have luck locating it at speciality stores, or if you're not in the US you shouldn't have many problems at all.  Don't let this one slip by - as someone might say, The Big T Rules.


  1. Main Title (1:30)
  2. Dunson Heads South (4:47)
  3. Red River Camp (1:29)
  4. The Red Menace Strikes (1:34)
  5. The Lone Survivor (2:15)
  6. Birth of Red River D (3:15)
  7. Mexican Burial (:58)
  8. Growth of the Dunson Empire (1:46)
  9. Roundup (:27)
  10. Suspense at Dawn (1:07)
  11. On to Missouri (1:36)
  12. The Drive moves North (3:04)
  13. The Brazos Trail (:31)
  14. Stampede (2:46)
  15. The Missing Cowboy (2:36)
  16. Latimer Burial (1:01)
  17. Thunder on the Trail (:45)
  18. Red River Ahead (1:26)
  19. Red River Crossing (2:01)
  20. Cottonwood Justice (:59)
  21. Dunson Swears Vengeance (1:24)
  22. Comanche Arrows (:40)
  23. In Wait (1:35)
  24. Fight for Life (2:20)
  25. Vigil in the Night (1:01)
  26. Foggy Night Surrender (1:54)
  27. The Spectre Takes Form (:43)
  28. Interlude (:22)
  29. Out of the Past (1:47)
  30. Memory of Love (1:31)
  31. A Joyous Meeting (1:53)
  32. Approach to Abilene (1:50)
  33. A Big Day in Abilene (1:40)
  34. The Spectre Closes In (1:02)
  35. A Message for Matt (2:50)
  36. The Challenge (3:22)
  37. The New Brand (2:22)