Last Monday, prolific film composer, James Horner, died when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed in the Los Padres National Forest, a few hours North of Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. As SmashCut’s resident composer, I figured it would only be fitting to write about some of my favorite James Horner scores.
Pablo Picasso once said:
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I think James Horner’s career is a testament to this idea.
There are few composers alive today who could match Horner’s breadth of knowledge or technical mastery. James Horner was among the youngest in a vanguard of composers working in the 1980s-2000s whose classical influences brought immense sophistication of technique and emotional clarity to the art, and his influence on Hollywood was impossible to mistake.
This may seem a bit weird, but I think it is for that reason that I want to start my brief list with his work on “The Land Before Time” (1988). His first cue for that film is nothing short of a symphonic overture.
Listen to “The Great Migration”:
Consider that this is music written for an animated children’s movie. On the surface, there’s no way a film like this deserves such incredible music, but Horner’s score takes its characters and story as seriously as the most epic drama.
His work elevated what could have been a silly road movie about some ridiculous dinosaurs to a film that seared into the hearts of an entire generation of children. Even a decade or more after its release, I used to laugh whenever I visited by grandma, because every time I walked in the door I’d find a flock of 3-5 year old cousins glued to the TV watching The Land Before Time on a continual loop.
I don’t think this happens without James Horner.
Another score I remember incredibly fondly from my own childhood, was Horner’s work on Lucasfilm’s unique fantasy, “Willow” (1988), starring an incredibly young Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer.
Again, Horner’s music elevates a film that could have been a disaster into something that remains entertaining and emotionally satisfying today.
This score has everything I love about Horner.
It has bold, sweeping melodic lines orchestrated with superb clarity and balance that hint at some of the Irish folk references he would later become known for through his scores to films like Titanic or Braveheart (more on those later). But we also get to hear Horner’s dark side in this piece. The more dangerous parts to this track are piercing and violent, featuring cymbal and tam tam scrapes, aleatoric scratching and sul ponticello techniques throughout the string section, with low brass taking the lead.
These techniques are a clear demonstration of Horner’s mastery and knowledge of composition in a way that I worry we might be losing a bit as more composers grow up only learning music on a computer.
And speaking of using a wide array of compositional techniques to evoke palpable fear through music… James Horner’s score for “Aliens” is a case study:
“Aliens” is the first James Horner score I’ve brought up that starts to incorporate more electronic elements, and it features a beautifully creepy sinewy melody that almost exists as a canon, starting in high strings and imitated throughout the orchestra. Yet again, there’s a level of sophistication in the writing and orchestration you simply don’t find very often.
This also may be a great moment to talk about the relationship between Horner’s music and that of one of my all-time favorite composers, Jerry Goldsmith, who composed the score to the “Alien” from which many themes in this score were derived.
Aliens wasn’t the first time Horner was brought in to score a sequel to a film originally scored by Goldsmith. In fact, the first time this happened was James Horner’s “big break”, when he was asked to score “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (1982), after the studio realized they couldn’t afford to hire Goldsmith, who had scored “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Like Horner, Goldsmith’s style reflected an incredible mastery of classical composition, influenced heavily by both neo-romanticism and mid-century modernism, culminating in what I think of as the true triumph of post-modern music. Goldsmith’s ability to incorporate luscious tonal melodies into a score with sometimes shocking atonal or percussive moments always seemed to cut right to the emotional truth of a scene.
James Horner’s work is like this.
In the same score, you can get the epitome of discomfort, mystery and fear:
…coupled with gorgeous heroism:
A lot of the Wrath of Kahn score pulls from Goldsmith’s original themes, of course, but this was basically James Horner’s first at bat in the major leagues, and it was the kind of home run he’d go on to hit over, and over, and over again.
Field of Dreams. Glory. The Rocketeer. Patriot Games. Clear & Present Danger. Legends of the Fall. Apollo 13. Go listen to any of these scores, and you’ll see what I mean. His work throughout the 80s an 90s is among the most iconic and memorable film music of all time.
Consider his incredible 1995 score for Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.
This is about as far from “Wrath of Kahn” as you can get, yet it remains today one of the most gripping and emotional scores in cinema history.
Often, I find that “epic” movie scores create a distance between the audience and the characters in the story. They’re all bombast and power, opting to score the scenery instead of the scene. By contrast, the score for Braveheart is filled with subtleties and darker moments that hint at sadness and loss, even within the most heroic cues. It never loses sight of the character of William Wallace.
And Horner’s by-then-trademarked incorporation of folk melodies brings me to James Horner’s biggest hit. That’s right… 1997’s “Titanic”.
Full disclosure: It’s not my favorite score on this list. But it’s unavoidable. I cannot talk about James Horner without talking about this film or the music in it. That said, it’s also excellent:
In some ways, it’s also peak James Horner.
It’s beautifully orchestrated, and showcases not only a depth of musical knowledge, but also now a mastery of compositional restraint. It features both the simple Irish folk elements and beautiful choral writing found in “The Land Before Time” and “Willow”, and a level of incredible melodic writing and harmonizing that mirrors some of his work on Star Trek, but it’s never really over the top.
There’s also a somewhat apocryphal story about Horner having tricked James Cameron into allowing him to record, “My Heart Will Go On” with Celine Dion, which I always loved.
Horner went to bat for the idea of writing pop music into the score – something that wasn’t even what the director even wanted. But there is no one who saw that film who doesn’t know that song still today. It’s not a product of dumb luck that Titanic remains the best-selling film soundtrack of all time.
And none of this is to say that Horner slacked off since Titanic. I can’t possibly mention every piece of amazing work he produced. Though I can rattle off a few more of my favorite scores, and suggest that you take a moment and check them out.
For example, “Enemy at the Gates”:
Or even, one of his last scores, “The Amazing Spider-man”:
The list is too long to do any justice to here. James Horner’s impact on film-music will not be forgotten.
He will be missed.