I was very saddened to hear this morning (June 23, 2015) that prolific film composer James Horner died yesterday in Santa Barbara, California. This will now be the third public obituary I’ve done on my blog this month, following the deaths of Vincent Bugliosi and Christopher Lee, but as Horner’s music has proven so crucial to me throughout my life, I don’t think I could let the occasion go by without marking it in some fashion. According to news reports, Mr. Horner, a licensed pilot, went down in a small turboprop plane he was flying over the Los Padres National Forest in California. He was 61. My sincere condolences go out to his family and loved ones. All of us who grew up with his thrilling music will miss him greatly.
If you’ve been to the movies at all since the late 1970s, you’ve no doubt heard James Horner’s music. He penned the scores for numerous science fiction, historical and thriller films, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Avatar and Titanic. You’ve probably heard Horner’s music even when you didn’t know you were hearing it, as his themes are often recycled in movie trailers. I can say little more about Horner and his career; the best way to remember him, I think, is to showcase some of his wonderful music. Here is just a sampling of some of his themes that resonate with me personally.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Horner’s breakthrough score, this swashbuckling theme illustrates the wonderful complexity and extremes of emotion that Horner could imbue. The whole sampling here is great, but pay special attention beginning at 1:50, where the Star Trek theme–a classic call to adventure, composed in the 1960s by Alexander Courage–segues into a mysterious-sounding section, then a quiet little jig which builds and builds into an explosive, high-adventure nautical score. Star Trek II was envisioned as “Moby Dick in space,” and this score makes you think of sailing ships and booming cannons.
Deep Impact (1998)
Though not generally remembered as a great film, Horner’s score for Deep Impact is one of his best. Here is a very moody piece called “The President’s Speech” which evokes sadness, concern, compassion, and despair. In this particular piece you can hear numerous echoes of some of his other themes, most notably Braveheart and Apollo 13. All came during Horner’s most productive period during the mid-1990s.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
In addition to composing orchestral pieces, Horner wrote the themes for popular songs incorporated into the films he scored. For 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, he composed the music for this sappy but still satisfying love song, “I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You,” performed by Latin vocalists Marc Anthony and Tina Arena. Many of the musical cues from this song repeat often in Zorro’s orchestral score. As over-the-top as this song is–my husband detests it–it still resonates for me personally. Though never mentioned in the text, I imagined this as the “theme song” for the romance of Steven Giamotti and Cecile de Volanges in my book All Giamotti’s Children. I listened to it on my iPod over and over again during the writing of that book.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The movie Apollo 13 hits very close to home for me. I was a military brat, growing up with a father who was a career Air Force officer, and the often dangerous missions and long separations of military life wear hard on the wives, daughters and sons left behind on the ground. Horner manages to capture the fear, longing, danger and wonder of those situations with this outstanding piece from Apollo 13, a movie much more about love and family than it is about space and adventure. This particular bit, called “The Dark Side of the Moon,” involves haunting vocals by Annie Lennox. This song has been in my head many years, and it usually resurfaces when I’m far away from my loved ones, and dreaming of soon being home–as the endangered astronauts do in the film, exploring their connections with their loved ones that not even cosmic distances can break. This is Horner at his best.
This is the big one–the one Horner will always be remembered for, and the score for which he seemed to be rehearsing through most of the 1990s until he got to this. Horner used Irish melodies heavily in the film to evoke both the separation from the old country–the Titanic carried hundreds of poor Irish immigrants on its doomed maiden voyage in 1912–and the building of the great ship, which occurred entirely in Ireland and which used Irish labor. Love, longing, and separation recur here, just as they did in Apollo 13, but to this add even more epic disaster and the clash of great forces of history. This is probably Horner’s masterpiece. This particular song is a medley incorporating numerous themes from Titanic’s score, which was the best-selling orchestral movie soundtrack of all time.
As I was looking for the YouTube clips to put into this article I told myself, “I am not going to cry when I get to Braveheart.” I found the clip. I started playing it. Guess what happened? I ended up bawling like a little baby.
I have a very complicated relationship with Braveheart, as I explained years ago in what turned out to be one of my most famous articles. This piece, “Freedom,” is one of the most emotional bits of music of my life. It became associated, for me, not just with the film, but with the memory of someone very meaningful in my past, and his untimely death at a young age. The film definitely faded for me in importance, but this remains in my opinion the musical pinnacle of James Horner’s life and career. This music will never leave me, I think, as long as I’m alive.
Goodbye, James Horner. We will miss you, but your music will never leave us.