Probably the reason why many of us know the name James Horner is because he wrote the soundtracks to some of the films of our formative years. The public at large remembers him from Titanic but in many circles he’s the man who gave us the music for The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. It wasn’t exactly what this highly educated and classically trained composer had intended for his life’s work, but intentionally or not, he left his mark on popular culture.
We should start our appreciation with a discussion of Khan, his breakthrough Hollywood score, having previously written for Roger Corman films and The Lady in Red. (Before that he had earned a PhD and was teaching music theory at UCLA.) The Khan score was developed like much of that film, out of a response to the first Star Trek film in 1979. While Jerry Goldsmith’s music for that film would come to define The Next Generation, its lyrical and romantic quality, mixed with deep, dramatic passages, was out of place for the sequel. The whole attitude on Khan was to be “punchier” and simpler than before. Rather than seeking out elaborate and complex forms of life and grappling with vague mystical questions, this time around the stakes were mostly human, and the action sequences more of a straight-ahead space battle. Nicholas Meyer, the co-writer and director, got the job partially because he equated Kirk with Horatio Hornblower, an early influence on Gene Roddenberry, and understood that the dynamics of the Enterprise were very much like an18th century sailing ship. Horner’s score picked up on that premise and produced music that would be just as much at home on the high seas as in deep space. He brought the film to life in a profound way.
For example, one of best known cues of his occurs during the first attack of Khan on the Enterprise. That familiar trumpet phrase is set over percussive stabs, finally giving way to a pulsing, tense cry of brass over an almost industrial beat. The 7/8 time signature for this section is a great evocation not only of 1980s Heavy Metal, but of a general sense of unbalanced determination. It’s not an ethnic cliche like Jerry Goldsmith’s Klingon theme from the first movie. It’s much more primal, and like many good scores, it hooks into sound effects that serve subliminal story purpose (in this case, the sound of a battleship on the high seas).
His score for The Search For Spock is a slightly unappreciated triumph, as it is essentially an adaptation of the score from the previous film with some middle eastern and medieval music cues for the Klingons (notice how their theme evokes small-ensemble chamber music). Taking many of the same themes, Horner spins the music for that sense of deep determination overlain with a great deal of grief and sadness.
Not only was Horner a master composer, he understood the art of music cueing, carefully timing music to correspond to transitions and emotional beats in the film. The sequence when night falls on the Genesis Planet in The Search for Spock, for example, perfectly coordinates the growing shadows with a growing minor-key anxiety in the strings. In the finale of The Wrath of Khan, Horner keeps the music going almost right up until the death of Spock (but he wisely pulls out all the music for that actual scene itself). That sequence balances the “ticking clock” plot tension with Kirk appreciating the newborn beauty of the Genesis planet, and Horner shifts seamlessly back and forth between the two moods, perfectly in sync with the film.
That cue syncing didn’t come by accident: Horner was legendarily fussy about only composing music to a sequence that was in its final, edited form. Being classically schooled, he would write all the music out and set it in front of an orchestra to perform, as the film was played back. To make small timing changes to accommodate editing changes would require whole sequences of music to be laboriously re-written and then re-scored, which in those days meant writing out a whole score and then sending it off to a music copyist to create individual parts for the musicians to play. That process takes time, and Horner was emphatic in only going through it once per film. On James Cameron’s Aliens, this came to be a big problem, as Cameron fussed with the editing of the film, particularly the famous “Ripley vs Queen Alien” sequence at the end, right up until the last minute. This left Horner with little to do but wait until he was done, which infuriated producer Gail Anne Hurd to no end. Horner needed his process to be respected, and most of the time it was.
Over a decade later, James Cameron approached him for his new film, Titanic, which surprised Horner (after Aliens he figured he’d never work for Cameron again), but the score turned into one of Horner’s greatest. It’s fashionable today to trash the gravely under-written film with its cartoonishly simplistic characterizations (why didn’t he give Billy Zane a mustache to twirl?). But Horner’s contribution to the film’s success can’t be overstated. One has to remember that Titanic was originally marketed as an action film. It was only due to James Horner’s music that it was rec-cut, and re marketed as an action/romance, and thus made it unstoppable at the box office.
The conventional score for Titanic would be big, orchestral, majestic, perhaps even Victorian, and would emphasize action and movement. That would be Cameron’s inclination in any case. But instead, over the title card for the biggest movie ever made up to that time, there was only a light electric piano score with Northumbrian pipes playing that lilting Irish melody that repeats two major points, that Titanic was built in Ireland and that it’s doomed, as is the love between the two main characters. Celtic music in particular is great at evoking love and tragedy at the same time. It’s part of the cultural character (it’s called “Murphy’s” law after all) to celebrate what you have now, because it’s all going away. That’s what Horner captures in just a few notes, and gentle few notes to boot. It’s almost the exact opposite of what a lesser composer would have done. The famous (or infamous) song that grew out of the score sealed the deal: Titanic would be an “action-romance”, a genre that brings tears of joy to the eyes of Hollywood marketing people for its broad appeal. Titanic would not have been the success it was without James Horner.
Horner of course wrote lots of other scores, and his musical auteurism is consistent. One of the more notable later scores was for Enemy at the Gates, the Stalingrad film from 2001, where he re-used the trumpet flourish that signified Khan’s theme to add to the mystique of Ed Harris as a German sniper. He collaborated with direct Jean-Jacques Annaud four times, including the “spiritually dangerous books” of The Name of the Rose, and most recently this year for Wolf Totem, Annaud’s Chinese-language film. The fact that directors came back to Horner multiple times speaks volumes to his success as a composer and as a collaborator. His credits also include the stirring old-fashioned Americana of Apollo 13, the moody, beautiful score for Terence Malick’s The New World, and the haunting strains of House of Sand and Fog. The list goes on and on: Horner’s musical fingerprints are all over the films of the last 30 years.
His tragically early death this week in a plane crash means that future films won’t receive the benefit of his considerable talent. But, as it is traditional to say when a composer passes away, we will always have his music, and that’s a very rich legacy.