Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In Memoriam: James Horner

In previous posts, I’ve detailed how I entered the world of Classical music via the back door marked "film scores".  This started in 1977 with John Williams’ score for Star Wars, then Superman; and expanded to Jerry Goldsmith in 1979 with his score for the first Star Trek film.  (Coincidentally, I recently relistened to the first Star Wars score and was appalled how weak the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra was – with scrappy strings and repeatedly misfiring brass.) 

In 1982, a new name entered my pantheon of film composers: James Horner. 

Fresh out of USC, Horner got his start scoring documentaries for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s.  From there, he went on to score several small films, including Roger Corman’s schlock-fest Battle Beyond the Stars – the score was the best aspect of the movie.  His work got the attention of director Nicholas Meyer, who was looking for a composer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Partly on the basis of his work for Corman, partly because he could compose a score in four weeks – as opposed to the twelve weeks required by bigger names like Williams and Goldsmith – but mostly because his fee was lower, Horner was selected for Trek, which turned out to be one of the largest hits of 1982.  This is how Horner came to my attention.  Upon seeing the film (for which I waited in a long line the day after it opened), I purchased the soundtrack LP – which still graces my collection.  Horner’s work was impressive enough to Trek’s team that he was selected to score The Search for Spock in 1984.  Leonard Nimoy’s decision in 1986 to forego Horner for The Voyage Home, in favor of his old friend Leonard Rosenman, was ill-advised.  Rosenman’s score mishmashed Schonbergian pretentions with a cartoonish mentality and was the weakest aspect of an otherwise fine film.  It also went against the inner continuity of Trek’s de-facto trilogy.

Born in the United States, James Horner was raised in London, attended the Royal College of Music, and spoke with a British accent.  His music was cosmopolitan and adapted to the needs of the films he scored.  Horner’s scores covered a variety of genres, from the jazzy, strolling theme from Sneakers to the otherworldly dreamscape of Brainstorm.  His music for Field of Dreams has a uniquely American flavor, and his use of orchestration, repetition, and thematic metamorphosis take the movie’s emotional climax to a level that reaches straight for one’s heart.  Without Horner’s score, I doubt Field of Dreams would have become known as the film that made nearly every American male weep.  

Horner’s best known score is undoubtedly to James Cameron’s Titanic.  The director’s selection of Horner to score the film was counterintuitive – an epic film would normally call for a pompous, bombastic score.  But Horner’s scoring, which used an orchestra lightly enhanced by female chorus and synthesizers, was decidedly Irish-hued, briskly paced, and hovered around in major keys (until the ship hit the iceberg) and helped the three and a half hour film move along.

It has been disparagingly noted that Horner occasionally borrowed from other composers’ works (and often his own), far more liberally than most of his colleagues.  Two things are worth bearing out: film composers work under nearly impossible time crunches, and Horner was known as a “fast” composer who could deliver the work on time – an important consideration when an offset premiere date can mean the loss of millions of dollars; also, the actual uniqueness of the music itself must be secondary to its ability to enhance the action on screen.  Max Steiner’s scores were heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss – and it can be argued they often distracted from the action on screen and lacked the physiological insight of Bernard Herrmann’s scores.  Just as Williams’ score for Star Wars is in influenced by Walton and Elgar, Horner’s scores (particularly the early works) are shadowed by Prokofiev – including paraphrasing from Alexander Nevsky and Romeo and Juliet.  But most often Horner borrowed from himself – one of his standard motifs involved a flatted 6th alternating with a natural 5th, played by the brass, usually to denote building tension.  Making repeated use of the same motif is in the tradition of Beethoven himself, whose three dots and a dash motif appeared in the Fourth Piano Concerto, and Appassionata Sonata, and throughout the Fifth Symphony.  Speaking of Beethoven, has anyone else noticed that the theme used in Titanic’s “Take her to Sea” sequence is based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? 

Borrowing and all, I’ll take Horner’s work over the percussive hammering of Hans Zimmer and the empty gimmicks of Michael Giacchino any day.

The news of Horner’s death brought me more than the usual twinge of sadness.  Only 61, he had many years of creative live left to him.  As Grillparzer said of Schubert, “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.”

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