If you were a musician living in New York in the 1920s, as was Dimitri Tiomkin, you would have been familiar with the name Leonard Liebling. Largely forgotten today, Liebling was a leading cultural figure at the time, looming large over the city’s music scene as a critic for a daily newspaper, as editor of a weekly journal, and as a noted toastmaster and man-about-town.
Liebling served as the editor-in-chief of the Musical Courier from 1911 until his death in 1945, having joined the staff of the periodical in 1902. Under his tutelage, in the 1920s the weekly journal included a column covering motion picture music.
Tiomkin and Liebling’s paths crossed in New York, witness this vintage photographic print kept by Tiomkin. The stately side-lit portrait captures Liebling in a five-button suit and tie in a pose befitting a stockbroker or banker. Before Facebook and Instagram, celebrities and those who could afford it would swap portraits such as this one, sometimes signed admiringly from one star to another.
Liebling’s Musical Courier carried Tiomkin’s comments on modern music in a March 1928 issue. At the same time a French-language program related to Tiomkin’s performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Paris quotes Liebling, who would have been familiar with Tiomkin through his solo piano recitals in New York.
Through the Musical Courier, Liebling announced Tiomkin’s nascent Hollywood film composing career. The article, “Tiomkin under Contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” ran in an October 1929 issue that appeared on newsstands on the eve of Wall Street’s Great Crash.
Liebling hailed from a pedigreed music family, his father made a living as a piano accompanist and two of his paternal uncles studied piano with Franz Liszt. His brother and sister both spent their lives making or teaching music. As a critic, Liebling once defended a pianist’s performance of Chopin by noting that few New York critics knew enough about piano playing to play a simple scale on the piano.
Like Tiomkin, Liebling pursued the piano in his youth. Liebling studied with Polish American pianist Leopold Godowsky who later dedicated his music composition “Meditation, for the left hand alone, E flat major,” to Dimitri Tiomkin.
In March 1929, Liebling spoke at the National Democratic Club in New York on a program devoted to words, music, and motion pictures. On the same bill, theatrical impresario S. L. (Roxy) Rothafel proclaimed that sound motion pictures were here to stay and, as reported in the New York Times, predicted that the greatest composers would eventually be writing original music for the screen. “There is a fortune waiting for the composer who can produce something different, something original, for the films.”
Although Liebling didn’t live to see the full extent of it—he died in New York in 1945—Tiomkin went on to compose original music for films thereby fulfilling Rothafel’s prediction made at the dawn of the sound film.
“Tiomkin Comments on Modern Music,” Musical Courier, March 1, 1928
“Roxy for Sound Movies,” New York Times, March 3, 1929
“Leonard Liebling, Librettist, Critic,” New York Times, October 29, 1945
Blickstein, Edward , and Gregor Benko. Chopin’s Prophet: The Life of Pianist Vladimir de Pachmann. Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Saxe, Leonard S. “The Published Music of LEOPOLD GODOWSKY,” consulted at The New International Godowsky Society, January 13, 2015
(Fifth in an occasional series featuring rare or unusual photographs.)
Behind the photograph: Dimitri Tiomkin with His Excellency the High Commissioner for Kenya, Mr. Ng-Ethe Njoroge and Mrs. Njoroge at the London premiere of Tchaikovsky