In every group of passionate devotees to any particular thing, there will be one topic that can instantly divide the group down the middle, leading to angry debate that is never resolved. It’s rather like gathering a bunch of baseball fans and asking, “So, should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame even if he never apologizes?” Film music fandom is no different, and their hot-button topic can be summed up in a single name:
Oh, how bringing up Horner in the midst of a bunch of film music afficionadoes can make the fur fly! When I was active on rec.music.movies, there were lengthy debates that cropped up every few months devoted to James Horner. They usually cropped up whenever any prominent film with a Horner score was released. It happened when Titanic came out; then it happened again when Deep Impact arrived. Ditto The Mask of Zorro, Enemy At the Gate, et cetera. They also cropped up in relation to the music of Star Trek (Horner composed the scores for Treks II and III), in discussion of music for fantasy films (Horner’s scores to Krull and Willow are popular examples, and both are hard to find scores on CD), and in the horribly morbid topics like “If John Williams dies, who should do the score for the next Star Wars movie?” I even remember a couple of instances where some individual trolled the newsgroup by posting a blank message whose subject line was simply, “Horner”; sure enough, those minimalistic trollings worked as the whole love-hate relationship with Horner reared its head.
Why, then, does James Horner arouse so much discussion in the film score community? It stems from a number of problematic aspects of Horner’s music. No film score enthusiast can ignore Horner; he is simply too big a name in the field these days. He is probably the biggest name in film music after the grand old men, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. His score to Titanic sold more copies than just about everything else. In a collecting area where special editions of long-awaited film scores can number less than 3,000 copies and still remain available for several years, the sheer numbers surrounding Horner’s success with Titanic are staggering. But his immense presence in film music cannot be ascribed to Titanic alone; he has scored more than 120 films since 1978. His body of work is among the largest in all film music, and he is still fairly young — he turns 50 next year — so Horner should be writing music for a long time. So why does his music inspire such fierce reaction, both pro and con?
I think that the pro-Horner side is easier to explain. His music, almost without exception, is immediately pleasurable. Horner has an almost-inexhaustible gift for melody, and his melodies vary from the quite simple (“My Heart Will Go On”) to the longer and more complex (the love theme from Braveheart). His orchestrations are usually lush and romantic, heavy on the strings and woodwinds; he does less with the brass than a Williams or a Goldsmith, using them more often for color or special melodic effect than as an overall part of his orchestral scheme. His orchestral writing is precisely the kind of writing that screams out, “This is beautiful music”, before one has even listened long enough to know if it is beautiful music. (Frequently, it is.) Finally, James Horner has probably the best sense of scene of any composer working today. He has an uncanny ability to home in on the emotional center of any particular scene, and he constructs his cues accordingly. The best illustration of this comes in Titanic, when Jack and Rose kiss while standing on the prow of the ship. His music for the scene doesn’t reach its climax with their kiss, but rather a few seconds later when Rose lifts her right hand to Jack’s neck in a gesture of desire. The result of all this is that James Horner comes up with wonderful melodies and uses them to lean on the emotional points of a story to a greater degree than any other contemporary composer. (I imagine that his approach would be thwarted thoroughly if he were to work with George Lucas, who has been known to not finish a scene, well, ever.) For a substantial portion of the film score community, film music is about highlighting the emotions in any story; thus, Horner receives high marks from them.
All this being the case, then, how could anyone disparage Horner’s work? If he is that good a musical dramatist, how can anyone not like him? The answer lies in the music. Despite all of his gifts for drama and melody (and despite the obvious talent in evidence in his best scores), Horner has a maddening tendency to be lazy at best and to outright swipe entire passages from his own music and others at worst. The more of Horner’s music that one hears, the more one realizes that he uses many of the same effects from one score to the next. One prime example is his use of the Japanese shakuhachi flute, which he first used in his score to Willow as a melodic instrument. Since then, he has used the shakuhachi in many of his scores to highlight transitions to tense scenes, many times in precisely the same way (the effect turns up in Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and The Mask of Zorro), and to provide bursts of sound in the midst of his action sequences. When scoring scenes of mustering intrigue, he often uses the same motif from film to film: an ostinato snare-drum pattern coupled with raucous piano chords. (This can be heard in Sneakers, Apollo 13, and to a lesser extent in Titanic.) Then there is a special effect of his which I lovingly call the James Horner Rolling Chord of Melodic Punctuation. This occurs in scenes where he gives a long, slow statement of a melody; after each phrase a sepulchral chord is heard, rolling upward from the bass. (The best example of this can be heard in Braveheart, just before the Battle of Stirling when William Wallace gives the Scots his pep-talk.) So in Horner we frequently encounter the same effects, over and over again, sometimes unchanged entirely. Horner has also been known to lift entire passages of his own music and use them in other scores later on; examples include Cocoon (the film’s climax includes music taken from Star Trek II) and Apollo 13 (where music from Sneakers is used in spots).
The other problem many have with Horner is more serious. There are times in his music when, to be charitable, certain phrases are highly similar to phrases in other composers’ works. His early score to Battle Beyond the Stars (a B-grade sci-fi flick by Roger Corman) is basically a pastiche of the music that Jerry Goldsmith was writing during the same period — the middle and late 1970s — complete with the echoing trumpet calls from Patton. And then, there are times when they are virtually identical: the second phrase of Horner’s Willow theme (the heroic theme, not the lyrical one) is not similar but note-for-note identical to a phrase in Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. His “Southhampton” theme from Titanic is eerily similar to Enya’s song “Book of Days”. Other works that have been cited as occuring in the Horner oeuvre are Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Britten’s War Requiem. (I’m not familiar with either work, but the people from whom I have heard these works mentioned are persons whose musical knowledge is far from suspect.)
James Horner strikes me as a composer who is more concerned with being prolific than with being truly good. Thus, he produces work that is almost always solid and workmanlike; and occasionally (these days less frequently than in earlier days) he comes up with something that is irresistable in spite of its borrowings and other flaws of derivation. Listening to Horner, though, puts me in mind of the scene in Amadeus when Mozart goes to Salieri for advice. “You put too many demands upon the Royal ear,” Salieri says. “Do you know that you didn’t even give the audience a good bang at the end of the numbers to let them know when to clap?” A James Horner film score always lets us know when to clap and when to cry, when to sit on the edge of our seats and when to reach for the popcorn. For many film music lovers, that is enough. For others, though, that is only the beginning.