Composer James Horner died the other day when the airplane he was piloting crashed. He was the sole passenger.
This is, quite simply, the worst news to hit the film music world since Michael Kamen, Jerry Goldsmith, and Elmer Bernstein all died within a year of each other.
For me, though, the hit is more directly personal. Although my relationship with Horner’s music has been rather complicated over the years, he still wrote a fair number of my favorite filmscores of all time, and when a score of his connected, it connected. He had the ability to hone in on the precise moment of a given scene’s emotional high point and construct his music to reach its high at the same moment. All film composers strive for this, but Horner’s gift for this was something else.
Moreover, I saw Horner’s career take flight, as he rose from obscurity to, well, stardom in his small corner of the film world. He started writing for films in the late 1970s, and I first encountered him in his fifth film, the Roger Corman space opera flick Battle Beyond the Stars. This is the first James Horner music I ever heard:
That score is still a fun listen to this day, even with all its minor faults: its heavy debt to Jerry Goldsmith (one of Horner’s strongest early influences), its occasionally awful orchestration (there is a track called “Cowboy and the Jackers” when you can hear the trumpet section slowly die), and occasional transitional missteps. Horner wrote a swashbuckling score that was better than the film it accompanied (although the film really is not all that bad, as long as you don’t ask too much of it).
When next I encountered the music of James Horner, it was for another science fiction film: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Gone was Jerry Goldsmith’s brightly optimistic bombast from The Motion Picture, and in its place was a lyrical score that had an older and more seafaring quality to it.
It wasn’t all lyricism, though; Horner’s action writing was impeccable, and the film’s climax gives a great example of Horner’s skill for matching the music to the exact visual and the emotional beats of the scene. Here is the music, titled “Genesis Countdown”:
And here is a portion of the scene as scored, starting with the Enterprise backing away from Khan’s crippled Reliant:
This entire cue is a clinic in how to spot a film: you hear the desperation as the ship begins to move so painfully slowly, the drive as Spock climbs down through the ship toward Engineering, a snippet of Horner’s theme for Spock himself as he mind-melds with McCoy, the desperate ticking down of the seconds as the bridge crew realizes they’re doomed, Khan’s final expressions of hatred. When Horner was on, this is what he could do.
Horner would return to Star Trek for the next film, The Search for Spock, but he never did any more Trek after that. This always seemed to me a pity. I would have liked to hear, perhaps, a more light-hearted take on his themes from Treks II and III in IV, perhaps, or maybe his take on the adventures of the Next Generation in any of their films. Alas, it didn’t happen. I next encountered Horner via his score to the SF film Brainstorm, which is notable mainly for being Natalie Wood’s last film and, well, for Horner’s score.
And then there was Krull.
It’s amazing to hear the progression in Horner’s sound from Battle to the Treks to Krull and beyond. You can really tell how much he was learning along the way, and his development along these lines culminated in 1988’s Willow.
One can detect a certain amount of the common lot of the film composer: often the scores are, on balance, better than the films. Not everyone can be John Williams, with a partnership with Steven Spielberg.
Horner was also able to do a lot more than genre films. He scored everybody’s favorite gentle baseball film Field of Dreams, in which he flexed his Americana muscles without quite aping the typical Coplandesque sound, and a couple years later he scored the Robert Redford caper flick Sneakers.
In the mid-90s, Horner reached what was almost certainly the height of his powers, and his filmography from about 1993 to 1998 basically includes one fine score after another, with three that were truly wonderful and one other which would become his single most famous work.
For Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Horner managed to capture both the optimism of the Apollo moon missions and the elegiac sense, looking back, that that was as far as we were willing to go at that time and for quite a long time afterward. Horner infused that entire film with amazing energy, never moreso than during that film’s incredible rocket launch sequence:
Then there was Braveheart. Horner’s score for this film is amazing, one of my favorites of all time, and I consider its first half to be some of the finest film music ever written. It’s really quite something, what Horner did here. Mel Gibson’s film takes a fairly ‘dreamy’ approach to its subject matter, with long, lingering shots and scenes that feel like meditations. Horner accompanies all this amazingly, never better than in the “Secret Wedding” sequence. This love music is more complex than it seems, with a main melody that is subtly varied through a number of different stepwise progressions, and as the scene becomes more and more intimate in the film, so too does Horner’s score, boiling down to the utter simplicity of the rhythm being set by an ostinato harp. The first half of this score amazes me each time I listen to it.
Also in this same period came what I consider to be Horner’s finest score, Legends of the Fall. This melodrama is actually a favorite film of mine, and Horner’s approach to its big emotions is to basically say, “To hell with subtlety”. It’s a choice that works amazingly well, as Horner moves from big moment to big moment. This is a movie that blends World War I tragedy with Native American mysticism and Depression-era bootlegging with the generational drama of a family of strong-willed men and women underneath the Big Montana Sky, and Horner turns in a lush, Romantic score that proves that sometimes less is not more.
And then, in 1997, Titanic arrived.
Oddly, while I love the movie Titanic to this day, I’m not a huge fan of its score. It does, though, have a number of great moments. Horner would win his only Oscar for Best Original Score for Titanic (he also won Best Original Song that year for “My Heart Will Go On”). Titanic seems to be mostly laughed-at these days, which I always find unfortunate, but Horner did play a crucial part in its success, from the wonderful energy of “Southampton” to the way he scored the scene where Jack shows Rose how to “fly”. Note, in the latter scene, how the music seems to swell, only to swell again, with an upward modulation, when Rose lifts her hand to Jack’s neck, making the kiss all the more intimate.
One thing that’s always struck me about Horner’s Titanic score is how unobvious it is. He doesn’t go for the type of “seafaring” sound that one might expect from a disaster-at-sea film; nor does he particularly try to capture a “British” feel with proper Elgarian pomposity. Horner’s score, even if it’s not one of my favorites of his, still does manage to somewhat lift the film from its period setting, thus helping make the love story a bit more eternal, if that makes any sense.
The best part of this score, though, comes when Horner sends the orchestra home and uses a simple solo piano for the scene when Jack draws the portrait of Rose. It’s the film’s most intimate scene, and the solo piano is an inspired choice.
Listening to all these selections, I’m struck by something I’d never totally noticed before, with regard to Horner’s melodies. He leans toward long melodies that seem at first to meander, before settling into an internal logic that makes a lot of sense.
Since the late 90s, I’ve lost track of Horner a bit. Partly this is because I stopped seeing as many movies, and he wasn’t scoring as many films that I actually wanted to see. Also, it seems that he wasn’t scoring as many films in general. He was active right up to the end, but he wasn’t getting as many of the blockbuster assignments and high-profile films, as tastes in film music have shifted toward the kind of tuneless soundscapes of Hans Zimmer and the like. I think Horner’s style has somewhat fallen out of favor, but he didn’t disappear entirely. The last new score of his that I heard to any significant degree was his music for James Cameron’s Avatar. I didn’t care for it all that much at first, but it has grown on me on repeated listens.
Horner had his detractors, of course, and sometimes they had cause. Over time, it became clear that Horner had little sonic “tricks” that he liked to use repeatedly throughout his scores — a particular motif to indicate that something bad was in the offing, for instance; film music fans would sometimes call this the “Danger Motif”. Another is what I came to call the “James Horner Rolling Chord of Melodic Punctuation”. More than a few times I would see a film with a Horner score and notice these very tricks playing out, and though it wouldn’t much faze the general audience, I knew what was going on.
Horner’s gifts of melody and his skill at spotting a film were always in evidence, however, and I can’t name a single film that he didn’t enhance with his music. After John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner’s music was the most familiar to me growing up. His musical storytelling, in its finest moments, stands with any film composer who has ever put pen to paper.
And his voice will be missed. I may not have heard much of his music of late, but I don’t like knowing that there will be no more to discover. I didn’t like everything he did, but I liked most of it and loved a lot of it. Seeing his name attached to a film was always exciting.
So thank you, James Horner. Your music is part of the soundtrack of my life.