The Passing of James Horner / by Chris Weigl

When I was growing up I loved listening to film music.  Keep in mind that I was in high school during the height of the boy band era, so just about anything seemed better than the latest N’Sync, Backstreet Boys or 98 Degrees offering.  There was something about film music that drew me in.  It wasn’t just the orchestral work.  The classic orchestral styles had been utilized by composers from the Baroque era to the modern classical era of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  What made film music especially alluring wasn’t just the timing of it’s emergence, but the unique styles of the mainstream composers at the time.  The 1990’s were about the growth and expansion of Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and James Horner.  In the late 1990’s we saw the emergence of one of my favorite composers John Powell who came out of the Zimmer school.  Other composers like Brian Tyler would fuse the Zimmer school and Horner school as would Howard in his own unique way through indie films in the 2000’s.

What pulled me in to Zimmer, Howard, and Horner was the breadth of their material and the lofty sound of their arrangements.  It was always a battle for me between Zimmer and Horner.  Horner, in my mind, was the best of the classically trained composers working at the time.  One of his signature scores which came for A Beautiful Mind in 2001 was a mixture of ideas previously thought up years earlier in Bicentennial Man yet A Beautiful Mind also borrowed an idea from Harry Gregson-Williams’ superb score to Spy Game; that of the soprano vocalist over chord scales.  It’s easy to spot it in retrospect, but few would have imagined at the time that A Beautiful Mind would be the last gem in the career of James Horner.  Although 2009’s The Amazing Spider Man built on components that were fleshed out in A Beautiful Mind the score was the most un-Horner sounding score I’ve ever heard.  I could trace elements back to Horner’s Land Before Time score, but everything else was a hybrid of something else he had worked on.  That was the rub with Horner.  He often borrowed ideas and at times even full themes from his earlier works.

I was never a big fan of Horner’s 1980’s works.  The Land Before Time was a spectacular score, but beyond that I just didn’t find much of value there.  Field of Dreams was interesting because the score meanders helplessly until the final four minutes of the End Credits where the strings break out into awesome techniques that – had they been present earlier – would have made for a superb score.  Some of Horner’s later ideas that would be explored in his best works like Braveheart and Legends of the Fall were first conceived for Patriot Games in 1992.  Patriot Games was an oddly Irish-inspired score with a Main titles sequence that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  When you listen to the album version of the score it seems almost out of place.  This was fairly common during the 1990’s where he would have epic failures like The Devil’s Own and Payback where no matter how good the music was it simply couldn’t save the film.  There were echoes of this in the 2000’s as well with films like the Four Feathers, a film that I still don’t know what it was about.

What made Horner a titan was his ability to stand between Zimmer and the fading glory of John Williams and present his ideas as a viable alternative.  1998’s Apollo 13 is still one of the most haunting scores I’ve ever listened to.  1998 of course also being the year that Williams would begin work on the Harry Potter series.  What made Horner an interesting composer to me was how he adapted to his projects.  I’ll never forget listening to 1996’s The Spitfire Grill, which has to be heard to be believed because the instrumentation is very similar to that of 1993’s Thunderheart, which was heavily reliant on woodwinds and Native American instruments.  What The Spitfire Grill proved was that Horner didn’t need to be working on big projects like Braveheart and Legends of the Fall to churn out amazing material.  It also showed that though his best scores often came when he was working with a polished group of professionals in the London Symphony Orchestra he was just as able to produce great material with a small ensemble.

Horner wrote some of the most complex and satisfying music of the 1990’s.  Although I personally got into the Zimmer offshoots like Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, I frequently returned to Horner for a more traditional approach.  Even works like Iris where Horner employed the services of the wonderful violin virtuoso Joshua Bell is full of technical mastery.  What proves the worth of a man like Horner is his ability to remain timeless.  You can go back to the Apollo 13 soundtrack and still be entirely moved by the Launch, Splashdown, and End Credits cues.  You can listen to Braveheart and still be moved by the For the Love of a Princess cue.  You can listen to Legends of the Fall and be wowed by the whole thing.  I still think that Horner’s cues for the haunted John Nash in A Beautiful Mind are among the most tragic and heartbreaking cues ever written.  He had that unique knack for nailing an emotion, which is precisely what the electronic geniuses like Zimmer, Williams, and Powell can’t do although Powell’s Forbidden Friendship from HIMYD is probably my favorite cue written in the last ten years.

James Horner defined an era in my life where I was passionate about unorthodox music and for that I’ll be forever thankful.  Those of us who are never satisfied with the status quo in music need an outlet like film music to listen to and there are even more people who need the calming effects of that genre of music to help in a variety of ways.  I actually stopped everything I was doing on Tuesday when I saw that James Horner had passed away.  It felt like an era of my own life had come to an end yet at the same time I was filled with wonderful memories of unique and special moments from my life that I would have likely never fleshed out had he not passed away.  Events like this remind me of how life can be both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing for me because it allows me to show my appreciation for someone who’s artistry was truly magnificent, but tragic because it took the taking of a magnificent life in order to make that happen.