Today I’m reminded that it has been exactly one year since the passing of composer James Horner. I’m not going to discuss his untimely death at the controls of his small aircraft. He went out doing what he loved. Flying, like music, was his passion. Instead, I can think of no better way to honor the man than by discussing his music and, more importantly, how I discovered it. I entered cognizant reality via Star Wars. It’s my first memory. John Williams was the first film score composer I latched on to, and everything I know is because of him. To this day, I respect him with the very core of my being. Because of that awareness, I was able to quickly learn other pieces he did, that music was a created art, and that others were making music too. From Williams, I discovered the legendary Jerry Goldsmith at the age of 5 thanks to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. When I got to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I somehow expected that, like the Star Wars films, the music would be similar and from the same composer. This was how I met James Horner the first time. This was how many of us discovered him. His first movie was Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, but Star Trek II was where he became mainstream. Star Trek II had half the budget of its predecessor, and director Nicholas Meyer has often joked that Horner got hired because they couldn’t afford Goldsmith. All I know was I was captivated by what I heard playing over that star field in the opening credits. By this time, I knew what a soundtrack album was, and I wanted it. I didn’t get it until later, but it was right near the top of a list that grew dramatically by the time I had money enough to spend at the music store. We didn’t have Amazon in those days. Or digital downloads. Or the internet. Hell, back then, the CD wasn’t a thing, and I was late to that party as it was due to lack of funding. My original copies of all the Trek film scores were on cassette. I still have them.
I didn’t become aware of Horner’s name on that first viewing in 1982, but I did latch on to the music. It’s beautiful scoring. I think there was a subconscious thing that made his name stick in my mind, but I was still developing my understanding back then. Likewise with 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Commando, Cocoon, Aliens, The Name of the Rose, Batteries Not Included… all of these registered his name for me, but for whatever reason I didn’t latch on. It was 1987’s Willow that made me sit up and take notice of James Horner. It was a production where George Lucas was involved on some level, but no John Williams. Who did they get? Horner. Where had I heard that name before? That’s when it clicked into place.
It wasn’t long after that when I absolutely fell in love with this man’s music all over again. This time it was for a little Disney movie called The Rocketeer. There’s so much about this film I love. I crushed all over Jennifer Connolly. I came to learn about and admire both the character and its creator, Dave Stevens, whom I eventually got to meet. I learned that Timothy Dalton was an amazing actor even when he wasn’t playing James Bond, which is how I came to discover his back catalog in short order. The nightclub singer, Melora Hardin… I crushed hard for her too. I noticed when she’d pop up over the years in random roles, and I thought she’d missed her calling as a singer. Today, I own her albums. Seems she didn’t miss out after all. But the score… there’s such a pulpy, unapologetically heroic tour d’force here. This is where I came to understand a truism about Horner and his work that would forever define my understanding. You see, many composers are subtle. Horner’s subtle when he wants to be, but usually a composer will give you a heroic theme with a little darkness, or a dark theme with some kind of other underpinning or whatever. Horner is direct. His music puts his heart on his sleeve. If you feel the emotion the way a little kid does, then he considered himself successful. So The Rocketeer was heroic. Sneaky for the villain parts. And romantic in a girl-next-door kind of a way. His theme for “Jenny” remains one of my favorite of Horner’s compositions.
Horner redefined himself for me after that. I went back and discovered his scores for Field of Dreams and Glory about the time he was releasing some new favorites: Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, Apollo 13, The Mask of Zorro, and of course, Titanic. I had to mention that, even though I agree with Mel Gibson in that Braveheart was first and far better. I’m biased, as Braveheart is one of my all-time favorite scores, but Titanic remains the best selling soundtrack album of all time, and not without merit.
And I could continue listing his scores, many of which you’d recognize if you heard them.
The point is, Horner is one of those composers who helped me to understand and discover classical music. I learned that he tended to borrow bits here and there, from himself and from others. His soundtrack for Wolfen has motifs that would be developed later on in Trek II and III, Krull, Aliens, and a couple of others. I can hear the evolution. Likewise, I can tell you there are bits from Prokofiev in Star Trek II, specifically from Alexander Nevsky andRomeo and Juliet. Willow is based on Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, and Glory uses themes from Wagner and Orff. Good artists borrow, great artists steal. I used to wonder why he did that. Critics have raked him over the coals for this for decades, citing him as unoriginal. With greater understanding today, I would respectfully disagree, given that variations on a theme are well-established in the world of classical music (it’s how composers impressed each other), and Horner’s compositions still, above all, pack an emotional punch that few today could ever hope to rival. With Williams, I learned the art of the leitmotif. With Horner, I learned true abstraction of emotion. Between the two, I learned how to navigate the world of classical music.
A year later, I find that the surprise of his death no longer affects me, but the void is still there, as it was for Jerry Goldsmith and his son Joel Goldsmith. The difference is that we’re still getting more of Horner’s music posthumously, so each release is a bittersweet gift as it comes. His themes have been a part of releases for Southpaw and The 33, and soon we’ll be hearing the last of his work on the remake of The Magnificent Seven. It’s a hell of a thing to have to compete with Elmer Bernstein’s classic score on this one, but I’m curious to see what comes of it. I expect it to be something completely different from the original just based on the fact that he was eager enough to volunteer his music for the film rather than being approached. Rumor is, it may (or may not) utilize unreleased material from his unused score for Young Guns.
I’ll always have his music, so I think the thing I’ll miss most from him is his honesty. Whenever you hear composers speak about their projects, they’ll often be very genial about it, telling you how wonderful it was, how they enjoyed themselves. Horner would tell it like it is. If something was terrible, he’d say so. He’d tell you about how he was given two weeks to score a film that wasn’t even finished, or how the director of a movie was just horrible to work with, or even how he might be disappointed that one of his own works didn’t quite come together as he hoped. At the same time, he turned that critical eye into raw emotion. As I said up top, he enjoyed flight as much as he did music. You can hear that joy in every flying sequence he’s ever composed.
Let me leave you with that thought. Here’s the “Main Title / Takeoff” from The Rocketeer. Enjoy your flight.