Tuesday, June 23, 2015

James Horner 1953-2015

As regular readers will know, I cannot paint figures without a musical accompaniment. Mostly I listen to orchestral film soundtrack music and try, as far as I can, to get the music to fit the subject matter. I own a lot of film soundtracks and actively seek out those (often at some expense) which may be more difficult to acquire, due to limited release or the fact that they are long out of production. In the past, “original film soundtracks” were often nothing of the kind with specially recorded arrangements (Henry Mancini was notorious for this) being recorded by, often, much smaller orchestras (Basil Poledouris’ Conan score, for example particularly suffered from this).  There are a number of firms now, however who are going back to the original masters and producing limited edition expanded soundtracks.

One of my favourite soundtracks (and one where I did seek out the expanded soundtrack) is the one from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982); the breakthrough work of James Horner who was tragically killed in an air crash yesterday. Horner was a prolific composer, producing no less than thirteen scores in 1993 alone but amongst the slew of scores for action films, historical dramas and children’s films he composed were some of my all time figure painting favourites. 

So here are my favourite half dozen James Horner scores.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The first Horner score that registered with me. I went to see this film at university where the Trek-loving lady who accompanied me was delighted at the quotations from the original TV scores in it. Horner nailed the concept of Hornblower in space with his epic, swashbuckling main theme but there was brilliance throughout a soundtrack which I never get bored with.  Director Nicholas Meyer famously hired Horner as he was much cheaper than Jerry Goldsmith who scored Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  By the time Meyer took on Trek again for The Undiscovered Country, though, he couldn't afford Horner.

Good for: Building pirate ships to (oddly).

Favourite track: The Battle in the Mutara Nebula; a tone poem worthy of Richard Strauss (or, stylistically, Rimsky-Korsakov and Khachaturian). 

Krull (1983)

One of those soundtracks where the main theme is so strong that I could remember the tune having only seen the film once on TV.  Many films tried to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon and Krull was supposed to be the fantasy equivalent and a franchise launching (and big budget) production. The film was a flop but Horner's music is probably the best thing in it (apart from Lysette Anthony). 

Good for: Painting 18mm fantasy figures to.

Favourite track: Main title and Colwyn’s arrival. 

The Rocketeer (1991)

This film is a Pulp favourite and was sadly under appreciated at the time. Horner takes on Hollywood in the thirties with some nice pastiches of Korngold, a big love theme for Jennifer Connelly's character (well deserved!) and a stirring main theme.

Good for: Painting pulp figures to.

Favourite track: Main title/takeoff

Titanic (1997)

Part Oirish whimsy and part clanging metal (Horner loved his clanging metal) action cues, the biggest selling orchestral soundtrack of all time (27 million copies) is redeemed by some atmospheric music in the first third of the film, which depicts the doomed ship and always pops into my head when we are leaving Southampton on the Red Funnel ferry to the Isle of Wight!  Oh and there is a song in it too.

Good for: Making model liners to
Favourite track: Take her to sea, Mr Murdoch.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

After Titanic, something a little different with this score and the successful use of the percussive sound of the feet of flamenco dancers as a musical instrument in their own right.  Zorro's theme is another stonking tune.

Good for: Painting Mexicans to.

Favourite track: The Plaza of Execution

Troy (2004)

Horner was notorious for not only reusing his own themes (but so did Handel) but “interpreting” bits of music by other (mainly classical) composers. So this has a big theme which is, essentially, a retread of Elgar’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.  It is also lumbered with one of those inappropriate songs that soundtrack composers are now forced to add in an attempt to replicate Horner's own success with My Heart will go Awwnnn from Titanic.  

Good for: Painting Bronze age warriors to. 
Favourite track: Achilles leads the Myrmidons.

I have other Horner scores on my system (Braveheart, Star Trek III, Avatar etc) but these are the ones I  listen to the most.  Horner had his detractors and some, in film music circles, were quite vicious but, given his large output, his ability to regularly produce major scores put him at the top of the post war generation of film composers, approaching some of the greats like Williams and Goldsmith and well above hacks like Hans Zimmer.   He could regularly pull out a monster tune in the way that, for example, the much vaunted Alexandre Desplat cannot.

He will be missed.


  1. A lot of good choices. I shall have to watch the rocketeer again now you've reminded me of it awesome movie!

  2. My son has played quite a lot of James Horner's music in the orchestra he plays in... excellent stuff. I always liked the look of The Rocketeer but somehow have never seen it.... must look out for it.

  3. IMHO, Horner's score for "Wrath of Khan" was so good that everything that followed it was a bit of a let-down; and he tended to over-use his choral effects, so that while his music was instantly recognisable it also became a bit samey. But he was undoubtedly one of the greats and the world is poorer without him.

    1. Wrath of Khan is one of the greatest soundtracks ever, I think.