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LOST HORIZON – Dimitri Tiomkin

February 24, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

During the filming of It Happened One Night in 1934 director Frank Capra read and became inspired by the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. He was determined to adapt it to the big screen but had to delay production when his starring actor Ronald Coleman was contractually committed to another project. He eventually received the green light to proceed from Columbia Pictures executive Harry Cohn who provided a very generous budget of $1.25 million. The film was a passion project that Capra would produce and direct. The novel was adapted to the screen by screenwriter Robert Riskin, and a stellar cast was brought in led by Ronald Coleman as Robert Conway. Joining him would be Jane Wyatt as Sondra Bizet, H. B. Warner as Chang, Sam Jaffe as the High Lama, John Howard as George Conway, Edward Everett Horton as Alexander Lovett, Thomas Mitchell as Henry Barnard and Margo as Maria. The story centers on Robert Conway a writer and soldier set to return to England to assume the Foreign Secretary position in 1935. He is currently posted to China and ordered to evacuate 90 westerners lest they be captured by approaching Chinese revolutionaries. As they depart, the plane’s pilot has been replaced and they are hijacked, which ends with them running out of fuel and crashing deep in the Himalayas mountains. They are rescued by a mysterious man called Chang who leads them to a hidden and verdant valley called Shangri-La, where people live in idyllic peace and harmony, free of disease and blessed with unnatural long life.

When Robert meets the High Lama, he is stunned when the elder informs him that it was, he who brought them to Shangri-La. He then names Robert as his heir, and blissfully passes away at the age of 200 years. Robert’s brother George does not intend to stay and so Robert out of loyalty and concern departs with him and Maria only to discover to their horror that she ages rapidly and dies, no longer protected by the magical age preserving properties of Shangri-La. George falls to his death after losing Maria, and Robert suffers amnesia and nearly dies in reaching a mission in China. As he sails back to England however his memory of Shangri-La returns and he tells his fantastic tale to the crew. He then departs, determined to regain his destiny in the mystical land. A search party follows, yet loses his trail as he has regained his beloved Shangri-La. Lost Horizon was a commercial failure, as its $1.25 million budget had more than doubled to $2.67 million and it was unable to cover its production costs. However, the film was widely praised by critics as a grand adventure film of magnificent beauty and story-telling. It secured seven Academy Award nomination including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Assistant Director, and best film score, winning two awards for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.

Dimitri Tiomkin was ecstatic and thankful to Capra providing him with his first scoring assignment. He was very determined to make an impression and, in his autobiography, Please Don’t Hate Me! (1959), he relates how the two had a confrontation regarding musical style:

“He gave me the job without reservation. I could write the score without interference, and he would hear it when it was done. Lost Horizon offered me a superb chance to do something big… I thought I might be going a little too far in the matter of expense, and went to Frank one day as he sat in the projection room [and explained the score]. He looked shocked. “No, Dimi, the lama is a simple man. His greatness is in being simple. For his death the music should be simple, nothing more than the muttering rhythm of a drum.” “But Frank, death of lama is not ending one man, but is death of idea. Is tragedy applying to whole human race. I must be honest. Music should rise high, high. Should give symbolism of immense loss. Please don’t hate me.”

Tiomkin understood that he would have to infuse his score with both occidental and oriental sensibilities. As such he consulted with composer Henry Eichheim who was an authority on Oriental music to better understand the sensibilities of Tibetan culture. Following his consultation Tiomkin took to the project with a passion and assembled an array of exotic instruments to create his soundscape, including; the Tibetan Rata drum, large and small Chinese cymbals, hand cymbals, large and small gongs, triangles, wood blocks, a piccolo vibraphone and two large vibraphones. Thematically, the Love Theme for Robert and Sondra anchors the film and serves as the essential and unifying thread of the score’s tapestry. It is born by lush strings romantico and offers a classic aching statement, so full of yearning, reflecting the long years of Sondra’s loneliness and Robert’s at last finding the woman of his dreams.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight, which is well-conceived and brilliantly executed. We open with dramatic horn declarations, which support the Columbia Pictures studio logo and launch of the opening credits. At 0:10 we flow into a brief statement of the Love Theme carried by strings romantico. At 0:36 as we pass over the majestic snow crests of the Himalayans, we transition carried by the celestial voices of the Hall Johnson Choir into an oriental monody, a melodic self-regenerating perpetuo that transcends traditional Western time meters in that it is self-renewing, flowing seemingly without beginning nor end. This chorus of joy ascends, ever upwards, achieving a stirring climax, which concludes with the display of Directed by Frank Capra. Clearly Capra plants the seed of Shangri-La from which will unfold our tale, and in a master stroke, Tiomkin’s music captures the wonder, the serenity and mystery of Shangri-La. We segue seamlessly into “Prologue” atop warm French horns as we see on screen pages of script. At 0:16 an exquisite solo violin sognante attended by a retinue of woodwinds supports a juxtaposition as we read “Haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” As the page turns, we are introduced to the story’s protagonist Robert Conway – “England’s Man of the East, soldier, diplomat and public hero.” He is charged with evacuating British nationals from Baskul, which is being engulfed by the violent revolutionary chaos overtaking China.

We again flow seamlessly into “Baskful!”, a ferocious action cue. As the page turns, we read “Baskul – the night of March 10, 1935.” Tiomkin sows peril atop dire horn declarations as we see Robert managing the evacuation of British nationals fleeing desperately to board the several chartered planes as Chinese forces attack the airport. Tiomkin sows peril and a rising desperation with swelling dire horn declarations and a torrent of orchestral menace. At 0:41 he introduces an oriental martial motif – a harbinger of the advancing Chinese forces as we see thousands fleeing for their lives. At 1:06 we have a diminuendo as Robert coordinates the evacuation in the terminal and calls British command in Shanghai for more planes. At 1:45 urgency returns atop strings agitato and horns bellicoso as Robert escorts seven more people to the latest aircraft to land. An orchestral maelstrom supports the chaos as they wade through the throngs of desperate Chinese. The airport loses power at 2:09 and with no lights, planes cannot land, so Robert in an act of desperation, sets fire to the hanger. We build to a climax at 2:55 as the hanger explodes in flames. The last plane lands and Roberts leads the final group through the now hostile Chinese crowds to safety. We close on a kinetic crescendo of desperation as the plane takes off amid machinegun fire, barely escaping the arriving Chinese troops. In “Refueling Sequence” Robert and the passengers awake to find that they are flying west, instead of east. They then discover that a Chinese man has hijacked the plane. Soon the plane lands at a remote desert outpost for refueling, guarded by hundreds of armed Chinese men. Music enters after they land with some of the score’s most aggressive and kinetic ethnic writing replete with racing strings animato, horns bellicoso, chattering xylophones and gong strikes. Orchestral frenzy supports the frenzied refueling taking place before our eyes, achieving a perfect confluence of film and music. We conclude resoundingly as the plane departs for a destination unknown.

“Wireless Montage” reveals a montage of telegraph messages alerts of Robert’s and the plane’s disappearance. Tiomkin sows an agitato, which joins with a reprise the dramatic main title horn line to support the telegrams. We close on a dire crescendo of dissonance as the camera pans into Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s residence at 10 Downing Street. We see the plane flying over the imposing Himalayan peaks, with the altimeter rising ever upwards to 21,000 feet. Later that night the plane’s engines fail and they crash land, which kills the pilot. They are in uncharted land facing certain death. In “Morning at the Plane” grim low register woodwinds sow unease as the passengers contemplate their dire circumstance. Violins of uncertainty join with trilling woodwinds as we see fear in the eyes of each of the passengers. At 1:10 Robert and his brother return to the plane from a reconnoiter, which Tiomkin supports with grim Oriental auras. At 1:25 they observe a caravan approaching the plane supported by a plodding marcia orientale, draped in shifting auras of the east, which summon hope in the eyes of all. “The Arrival of the Caravan” is a brilliantly conceived cue, which attests to Tiomkin’s astuteness in capturing the physical and spiritual aspects of the trek to Shangri-La. We see Robert and the men greeting a mysterious man called Chang, who speaks perfect English. Chang graciously offers to escort them to safety and after outfitting them with proper clothes, they set out on what he states will be a short, but very difficult journey. Music enters as we see them walking along a treacherous narrow path over a ravine. The drum propelled, plodding, low register marcia orientale carries their torturous progress, ever rising in its register and power as they ascend. We see them struggling over the snow pack, rugged mountain outcrops and perilous rope bridges. I perceive the music to not only be supporting the arduous nature of their trek, but also the purification of their spirits through suffering as they prepare to pass from a world of strife and violence, to one of bliss and tranquility. We build grandly to stirring crescendo at 2:58 as they arrive at last, at the entrance of Shangri-La.

“Entrance to Shangri-La” offers a sublime score highlight. It reveals the party arriving at the entrance of the mystical Shangri-La, where they behold with awestruck wonder, a beautiful, tranquil and verdant land. As they walk through the streets to behold the great lamasery, Tiomkin speaks to the wonder of Shangri-La through the British people’s perspective with a pastorale abounding with happiness, graced with ethereal choir, which drapes us with mystical auras. His music perfectly captures the very soul and essence of this resplendent utopia, and we are filled with joy, serenity and happiness. “Nocturne” offers another wonderful score highlight. We see the two brothers, George and Robert on a veranda discussing their circumstances with both arriving at different conclusions. George desires to return to his life in the outside world, while Robert is inclined to remain and enjoy life here. Tiomkin supports the brother’s tenderly with a classic nocturne, which abounds with a pastorale of woodwinds and strings gentile. At 1:08, a harp adorned statement of the Love Theme is heard, an allusion to the blossoming of love, which will come when Robert meets Sondra. In an unscored scene Chang informs Robert that Shangri-La was discovered by a Belgian priest call Father Perrault over 200 years ago and that the valley bestows long life to those that live here. “Maria” reveals our first sight of her, a Russian girl who came to Shangri-La 47 years earlier in 1888. She appears very much younger than her natural age and when George sees her, he is smitten. Tiomkin supports her appearance with a misterioso of woodwinds romantico adorned with a twinkling radiance. We close with a transfer of the melody to a solo violin tenero draped with shimmering auras.

“Swimming Sequence” reveals an alluring Sondra riding past Robert on a morning ride. She elicits his interest and he rides off in pursuit of her. Tiomkin propels the chase through the beautiful countryside with a playful galloping motif. We culminate at 1:10 with resplendent strings joined by trilling woodwinds and harp glissandi as we behold Robert arriving at the foot of a gorgeous waterfall. As he looks upward, the music ascends and blossoms into the Love Theme with harp adornment when his eyes find Sondra aloft by the upper waterfalls. We conclude with a pastorale of strings and woodwinds gentile, which supports his climb. He finds her swimming au natural in a flower draped pond and playfully arranges her clothes. Like a gentleman he then leaves so as to allow her regain them with modesty. In “Shooting Sequence” George has become frustrated after two weeks of captivity, believing that he will never leave Shangri-La. He loses his temper and seeks Chang, firing his pistol at one of the servants before being knocked cold by Robert’s punch. Dire horns and vengeful strings propel him on his quest as we build on a crescendo of anger. At 0:20 Robert pummels George and his music of rage dissipates, and transitions darkly to strings affanato and a grieving solo oboe draped with plaintive violins as Robert lays him to bed.

We now come to a pivotal scene, “The High Lama”, where Tiomkin exercises insight and subtlety in his musical approach, understanding that this was the film’s key scene, and that his music needed to be supportive, yet unobtrusive, allowing the dialogue to unfold and drive the narrative. Robert’s request for an audience with the High Lama has been granted. As he escorted to his quarters by Chang woodwinds solenne carry his ascent up a staircase. He enters the sanctuary and an organ chord of reverence sounds at 0:28 as the door closes behind him. As he accepts the High Lama’s welcome and sits by him, woodwinds and strings gentile create a soothing ambiance. At 1:17 the music darkens slightly as Robert notices a crutch, a missing leg, and determines that the High Lama is in reality, Father Perrault. The High Lama explains that he founded Shangri-la as a sanctuary of peace and art as he foresaw with every passing century man increasing his capacity to destroy and murder. He states that man’s greed, brutality and lust for war will eventually lead to the destruction of the world, and from out of its ashes the love and kindness of Shangri-La will blossom and redeem the world. Religioso auras by resplendent strings, reverential woodwinds, twinkling metallic percussion and organ solenne create a mystical, yet tender and intimate interaction between the men. At 5:34 the music descends and darkens as the High Lamar relates that his time is at an end, that he brought Robert here because he was impressed by his character, and that he intends for him to succeed him as High Lama. The men part with an understanding, with the scene ending with the music brightening and portending hope. I believe this cue is one of the finest of Tiomkin’s canon, one which achieves a sublime confluence with the film’s narrative.

“The Valley of the Blue Moon” reveals Robert journeying through the valley and taking in the people and sights. Tiomkin supports the scenes with sumptuous strings, from which arises and ebullient exposition with joie de vie, as we see Robert enjoying his travels and discoveries. “Chinese Children Scherzo” reveals the joy of children released from class running across a bridge to get to the swimming pond. Strings animato abounding with playful, youthful energy propel the children to their beloved pond. In “Cherry Orchard” the first 35 seconds of the cue, which offers another gentle pastorale, were excised from the film. This cue offers a score highlight where we are graced by an extended rendering of the Love Theme. Robert and Sondra discuss their lives, and how they happened to come to Shangri-La. We perceive a growing affection between the two, which Tiomkin supports with an unfoldment of their Love Theme, by strings romantico, with an exquisite statement by solo violin. Once again, the music and film narrative are perfectly aligned and synergistic. The music for “Lovett and Bernard Play with the Narratives” was dialed out during editing of the film, but restored to the original uncut director’s version. In the scene Lovett and Barnard are out and about and ask some native girls for a glass of water. Instead, they are served wine. Tiomkin scores the comedic scene with a bouncing, playful and mischievous exuberance. In “Sow a Wild Oat” Lovett shows a newfound enjoyment with his stay in Shangri-La as well as his more youthful physical appearance. The happy go lucky playfulness of Tiomkin’s music continues with him channeling classic American folk tunes.

“George and Maria” reveals Maria’s desperate longing for George’s affection, but he does not respond, instead demanding to know the secret of Shangri-La and why they are incarcerated. Tiomkin supports the scene by weavings a portentous valzer doloroso filled with Maria’s longing for George to end her loneliness and love her. “Conway and Sandra” offers an exquisite cue where we are again graced by the Love Theme. The scene reveals Robert and Sondra in the garden enjoying each other’s company and engaging in playful banter. Their eyes lock, and Robert kisses her, only to be kissed back passionately by Sondra. Tiomkin supports the precious moment with an exposition of the Love Theme now adorned with shimmering chimes and glockenspiel. Once again, a reprise of the theme by solo violin is exquisite, bringing a quiver and a tear. “George Raves” offers a tension cue where George erupts in anger. Chang and Robert have just finished a game of chess when George bursts in, again accuses Chang of imprisoning them. He storms out vowing to depart, porters or not. The music is dark, threatening and emotes frustration, and anger.

“Death of the High Lama” is a poignant scene which achieves a stirring confluence between film narrative and music. The High Lama declares to Robert that his life is at an end, and recites to him with his final breaths, the three governing tenets he must embrace to rule Shangri-La; “To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, and to preside in wisdom while the storm rages without.” The intimate scene is supported tenderly, with paternal affection by strings tenero, which bind the two men together. At 2:44 as the High Lama’s head drops, religioso strings ascend and are crowned with a bell toll as wind blows out a candle to mark the High Lama’s passing. We close solemnly atop the wordless voices of ethereal choir. “Funeral Procession/Leaving Shangri-La” offers a cue of tremendous emotive power. The High Lama’s funeral procession from the Lamasery unfolds dramatically with thousands of torch-bearer’s lighting the night sky. Against this backdrop Robert joins George and Maria’s exodus from Shangri-La out of safety concerns after he is unable to dissuade them from leaving. The steady cadence of drums is joined by ethereal chorus, yet the music offers not a sad marcia funebre, but instead an optimistic marica della speranza, which offers a powerful and stirring testament of faith. As Sondra sees Robert depart from afar, she races to him at 3:40 carried by a slow growing crescendo of the march. She is desperate to reach him and we climax with a dramatic statement of the Love Theme as she reaches the entrance but fails to reach him in time.

“George Dies” reveals the three condemned to certain death as an avalanche sweeps the porters who had abandoned them off the mountain pass to their deaths. Maria weakens and then George makes the horrific discovery that she has aged dramatically and died. Grotesque discordance supports the revelation. He flees in terror from the cave supported by frightful flight music, loses his balance and falls to his death, carried by a horrific descent motif. At 0:24 we segue into “Snow Sequence” as Robert struggles on against the implacable frigid windswept might of the Himalayas. Tiomkin sows an eerie otherworldly misterioso, replete with wordless voices and harp glissandi. At 1:35 a descent motif supports his tumbling fall down a steep slope. The music becomes torturous as he rights himself and struggles onward. At 2:10 a cascading cacophonous descent motif support the collapse of a snow bridge atop a crevasse over which he just passed. As we see him struggling tortured strings with frequent descents support his agony and frequent falls. At 3:40 he reaches a Tibetan border marker and collapses, unable to continue. At 3:44 he is rescued and carried on a liter by a Chinese party, supported by a wonderful marcia orientale. Regretfully after 3:59 the music was dialed out of the film due to film editing, which shortened the scene.

“London Montage” offers an ever-shifting musical narrative as Tiomkin is forced to shift back and forth between dramatic headlines with quiet dialogue interlude scenes. We see a montage of newspaper headlines declaring that Conway has been found alive at a Chinese mission. The cue opens grimly with music that sustains the sensibilities of the former cue, however this was dialed out of the film and the film version enters at 0:18 with a series of dramatic statements, each supporting a different newspaper headline. A diminuendo carries a courier to the Prime Minister’s office where he is advised that Conway suffers from amnesia. The dramatic opening statements return anew at 0:59 as a new montage of headlines declare that Conway suffers from amnesia. We shift back atop a diminuendo to the courier at 1:13 who brings news to the Prime Minister that Conway had regained his memory, spoke of a place called Shangri-La, and jumped ship in Singapore after he was locked up and prevented from returning. At 1:42 the dramatic opening statements return as we see newspaper headlines stating first that Lord Gainsford was in pursuit, and later that he had returned to London, unable to locate Conway. At 1:52 another diminuendo carries us to the Embassy Club where Lord Gainsford tells his amazing tale of pursuing Robert Conway, a man he said was driven by his desire to regain Shangri-La no matter the costs. In the end, Gainsford states that he believes that Shangri-La exists, because he wants to believe that it exists. An extended passage born by sentimental strings and woodwinds draped in mystery support his tale as the men listen attentively.

We close with a score highlight; “A Toast to Robert Conway/End Title” The scene reveals Lord Gainsford proposing a toast of hope, that Conway succeeds in finding Shangri-La, and that all of them one day find their own Shangri-La. As Gainsford and the men toast we are graced warmly by shimmering strings di Speranza. At 0:27 tremolo strings misterioso carry us to the snow-covered slopes of the Himalayans where we see Robert climbing to his destiny. At 0:30 repeating portentous phrases of the Love Theme arise as he sees at last the gateway to Shangri-La, finally coalescing into a wondrous full statement as he regains Shangri-La. We conclude with a refulgent marcia celebrativa replete with bells of joy as we see the lamasery and verdant valley of Shangri-La, concluding gloriously with a flourish.

I wish to commend James V. d’Arc and Brigham Young University, Jack Smith, and Craig Spaulding for this premier CD release of the complete score of Dimitri Tiomkin’s masterpiece, “Lost Horizon”. The Herculean audio restoration of the 62-year-old 78-rpm records was daunting and I must commend Ray Fiola for his digital editing and sequencing. It suffices to say that the restoration was largely successful, but one that in the final assessment does not achieve the quality of modern recordings. Never the less, the timeless beauty of Tiomkin’s music shines through and in the end this CD provides a good listening experience. This was Tiomkin’s first scoring assignment and he was determined to make a good impression. He understood given the setting, that he would have to capture the mystery, and idyllic wonder of Shangri-La, and infuse his score with both occidental and oriental sensibilities. To that end he assembled an array of exotic instruments to create his soundscape, including; the Tibetan Rata drum, large and small Chinese cymbals, hand cymbals, large and small gongs, triangles, wood blocks, a piccolo vibraphone and two large vibraphones. Thematically, the Love Theme for Robert and Sondra, a lush romantic construct full of longing and desire serves as the unifying thread of Capra’s wondrous tapestry. Throughout the film Tiomkin captured the beauty, wonder, mystery and desolation of each scene, whether it be the implacable frigid snow swept slopes of the Himalayas, the imposing grandeur of the lamasery, the wonder of the verdant valley, the gentleness of the High Lama, or the tranquil serenity of Shangri-La. I believe in the end that it was Tiomkin’s music, which allowed Capra to realize his vision. This score is Tiomkin’s first opus, a gem of the early Golden Age and I believe an essential purchase for lovers of film score art. I encourage you to explore this masterpiece and gain a new appreciation for the talent of Dimitri Tiomkin.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the iconic Love Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc_P39e0ufM

Buy the Lost Horizon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:12)
  • Prologue (0:51)
  • Baskful! (4:24)
  • Refueling Sequence (1:39)
  • Wireless Montage (0:39)
  • Morning at the Plane (1:11)
  • The Arrival of the Caravan (5:06)
  • Entrance to Shangri-La (2:41)
  • Nocturne (3:06)
  • Maria (1:00)
  • Swimming Sequence (4:24)
  • Shooting Sequence (1:31)
  • The High Lama (8:24)
  • The Valley of the Blue Moon (1:34)
  • Chinese Children Scherzo (0:23)
  • Cherry Orchard (3:50)
  • Lovett and Bernard Play with the Naratives (1:41)
  • Sow a Wild Oat (0:35)
  • George and Maria (1:09)
  • Conway and Sandra (2:49)
  • George Raves (0:40)
  • Death of the High Lama (3:33)
  • Funeral Procession/Leaving Shangri-La (6:07)
  • George Dies/Snow Sequence (5:01)
  • London Montage (4:16)
  • A Toast to Robert Conway/End Title (1:22)

Running Time: 69 minutes 08 seconds

Brigham Young University Film Music Archives FMA-DT-103 (1937/1999)

Music composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. Conducted by Max Steiner. Original orchestrations by Charles Maxwell, Herman Hand, Max Reese, William Grant Still, Bernard Kaun, Hugo Friedhofer, George Parish, Robert Russel Bennet and Peter Brunelli. Score produced by Dimitri Tiomkin. Album produced by James V. d’Arc.

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  1. October 17, 2021 at 1:20 pm

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