When news arrived of the tragic passing of composer James Horner, aged 61 at the controls of his own small aircraft in the forests of Santa Barbara county, immediate tributes recalled a generous spirit with a remarkable work ethic. The figures don’t lie: over 150 film credits as composer in a 37-year career, 10 Academy Award nominations (and two wins), and over 30 million sales (and counting) for his score to Titanic, the best-selling film score of all time. His major scores are recalled with fondness for their emotion and their diversity in genre, yet all were inescapably Horner’s.
Born in Los Angeles in 1953 to Academy-Award winning production designer Harry Horner and his wife Jane, Horner spent his formative years in London, studying in the Royal College of Music, before returning to California. He graduated with a PhD in music composition from UCLA, whilst scoring student films as a sideline. Like so many great film composers, Horner made the most out of an inauspicious start in the industry, scoring the likes of Battle Beyond The Stars (for Roger Corman) and Wolfen. His breakthrough came when he secured the job of scoring Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The resulting score was a rich blend of influences, primarily Prokofiev’s score to Alexander Nevsky and a Jarre-inflected epic sweep. Though following on from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to the first Star Trek, Horner’s music for Khan demonstrated a refusal to patronize the viewer/listener. His work was grand in scope, but often brimming with emotionality, regardless of the source material.
Horner continued in this vein, delivering solid work for 48 Hrs., Star Trek III, Commando and Cocoon, the latter being the start of a rich collaboration with director Ron Howard. Famously, Horner was a last-minute hire when the original composer for James Cameron’s Aliens dropped out. Due to the severe time constraints, Horner wrote the score without a completed edit of the film, recorded it in four days and vowed never to work with Cameron again. He ultimately reneged on that vow, but it scarcely mattered. The now-famous battling percussion of Aliens brought Horner his first Academy Award nomination.
Horner continued composing across a wide range of genres, though his orchestral style was synonymous with family entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When he wasn’t composing for Glory or Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan outings, his work added extra weepy memorability to the likes of Willow, Field of Dreams and The Rocketeer. The mid-1990s saw Horner bring his trademark epic sweep to films that fit his style to a tee. He reteamed with Glory director Edward Zwick for Legends of the Fall, before earning two Academy Award nominations in 1995, one for Ron Howard’s space rescue Apollo 13, the other for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. The latter was a notable commercial success, but bigger was to come.
James Cameron was so impressed by Braveheart’s Celtic intonations that he invited Horner to score his next film. The resulting score for Titanic, a blend of Horner’s beloved Celtic influences, sweeping romance and (controversially) synthetic vocal textures, was swept up in the mania surrounding the film, and thus became the best-selling film score yet. In addition, Horner took home two Oscars in the film’s 11-award haul, for Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Song. This success gifted Horner a brand and name recognition only John Williams or Bernard Herrmann could match at their height. All this should not overlook the fact that Titanic’s is a fantastic score, with all the Horner trademarks: emotionality, intensity and a scale to match Cameron’s (admittedly bloated) vision.
His Titanic success did not affect Horner prodigious work ethic. He continued to score films of all shapes and sizes, from adventure (The Mask of Zorro, Troy) to drama (He earned Oscar nominations for both A Beautiful Mind and House of Sand and Fog) to Westerns (His score for Ron Howard’s The Missing is arguably the most underrated on his CV). His 2000s CV is littered with work for names both famous and infamous: Malick (The New World), Woo (Windtalkers), Gibson (reuniting on Apocalypto). After an eclectic decade of films both big and small, he collaborated with Cameron once more to score his sci-fi epic Avatar. Horner retained a recognisable voice across his work, which was a mixed blessing. He could turn his hand to most genres, but his themes and choices of instruments were sometimes seen as repetitive, even self-plagiarizing. That said, the familiar flourishes were linked to an artist whose output was never less than consummate. He could make most any score stand out, linking it to the film with a standout theme or an exuberant use of a given instrument. His scores for Braveheart and Titanic are inescapably linked to the uilleann pipes, whilst the latter’s main theme ‘My Heart Will Go On’, still rings in the ears. Indeed, despite being cut down with works still to come (he was linked to Cameron’s Avatar sequels, and three scores of his work are still to come before the end of the year), James Horner’s work will go on, thanks to a combination of popularity and professionalism.
James Horner is survived by his wife and two daughter. R.I.P.