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James Horner 1953-2015: “There is no goodbye… only love”

James Horner passed away yesterday at the age of 61.  Long time readers of this website will know that I considered him not just one of the great film composers of his generation, but of any… one of the true titans of his field.  After that great group of unbelievable creativity and talent rose up together in film music in the 1950s and 60s – Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, John Williams, others – I think James Horner is the only comparable talent we’ve seen emerge.

His rise came remarkably young – his big break, Star Trek II, came when he was just 28.  He got there after he realised that if he spent his life writing music for the concert hall, it would rarely if ever be performed and nobody would hear it.  He moved back to California from London, getting work scoring B-movies for Roger Corman.  This got his foot in the door but he only got the rest of his body through there by somehow working on trash and lining it with gold – listen to Battle Beyond the Stars.  Full of an abundance of youthful naivete it may be – more than a dash of Jerry Goldsmith it may have – but it’s music, real music.  It’s no wonder he got noticed.

Whiz through the years following his big break – a remarkably diverse array of projects followed, a remarkably diverse and creative array of music written for them.  And patterns began to emerge.  That completely zany jazz fusion action style of 48 Hours – there it is again in Gorky Park – and there it is again in Commando.  The journey to his next big breakthrough, Aliens – there are the seeds of it in Wolfen, in Star Trek – and we’d hear the evolution of the same thing over the years all the way up to Wolf Totem.

James Horner collecting the Max Steiner Award at Hollywood in Vienna, 2013

James Horner collecting the Max Steiner Award at Hollywood in Vienna, 2013

Other seeds were being sown – the four-note “danger motif” nicked from Rachmaninov that appears all over the place.  That brilliant, completely unique “genius” piano sound first in Sneakers, then Searching for Bobby Fischer, then A Beautiful Mind.  The suspenseful, dynamic action style again introduced in Sneakers, then Apollo 13, Wolf Totem again.

When the internet was in its infancy, nothing was more controversial than this on film music discussion groups.  Horner… repeating himself again.  But far from being lazy, he was doing something very deliberate – he even described it very vividly when someone finally plucked up the courage to ask about it.  He saw this body of work he was building up as different paintings on one large canvas – the shade that worked here, well that one works over there as well.  Think about them and there is a certain logic to it – that heartbreaking melody in Swing Kids, a film long forgotten but a decade and a half later there’s the melody again in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  And why?  Well, watch the films.  Think of Horner’s words.  It’s obvious.

The elephant in the room is the liberal amount of inspiration he got from classical giants.  He’s not unique in film music circles for that.  It’s never bothered me.  It didn’t seem to bother him, either – again he was very open when asked about it and didn’t hide away from it.  And somehow he made all those quotes from Britten, Prokofiev and the rest – well, he made them sound like James Horner.  There’s no denying they’re there; it’s up to the listener to let him or herself be bothered by it, or not; my advice – choose not.  In 2015 it would be a miracle if a film composer standing in front of a 100-piece orchestra about to play in unison to some childish junk had even heard of Britten, let alone had the ability and confidence to take inspiration from him.

I think all of the truly great film composers – and James Horner was one of the truly great film composers – had something about them that nobody else had.  And he had an approach to scoring films that matured and developed over time, but was basically always there – writing these fluid, lengthy pieces that went through scene after scene, hit all the notes, all recorded without click-track.  That gave his music a natural, organic sound that I think was a huge part of its appeal, that made it work away from the picture.  A lot of the long, expanded albums of film music that have appeared over the last few years have revealed just how much even really strong film music can suffer when it’s taken away from the film – but somehow James Horner’s music never had that problem, even when he packed all his CDs with as much music as possible.  Even on massive action films like Troy or The Perfect Storm – big, long tracks, real musical development – no click-track.

I saw him being honoured at Hollywood in Vienna in 2013, David Newman conducting an evening of his music.  Almost all of it was taken directly from the original scores, not rearranged for the concert hall – and it sounded perfectly natural in that environment.  Rich, deeply textured, unusually well-developed for film music – he was the real deal.  And of course the other thing on display – those flowing, gorgeous melodies.  Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, The Rocketeer – you know the list.  For Horner, film music was about emotion – film critics have become increasingly snarky about music that attempts to manipulate the viewer.  I’ve always thought that was pretty much the whole point of film music – to manipulate the viewer, either consciously or not (and Horner was a master at both).

In later years, Horner seemed to fall out of love with Hollywood, or Hollywood fell out of love with him, or probably both.  In Vienna, he spoke of his frustration at no longer being able to work on a score with a director – he now had committees to satisfy, had too many masters to serve.  He was becoming attached to projects, then quickly becoming unattached again.  But something seemed to happen to him at that event.  I sat no more than three or four feet away from him during the concert and it was fascinating to watch him soak in the genuine love being shown towards him from thousands of people in the hall – he was genuinely overwhelmed.  He could barely contain his emotion when he spoke at the hospitality event afterwards.  I think he really did have no idea how much his music had touched people.  But after that night, he certainly did.

Ironically, he went full circle and started writing for the concert hall again.  “Pas de Deux”, his double concerto for violin and cello, premiered last year; earlier this year, “Collage” for four horns premiered.  The notoriously shy, private man conducted some of his music at a concert in Norway just a few weeks ago.  After three lean years following The Amazing Spider-Man, he signed up for five films and tv projects to be released in 2015.  He was back.  Now he’s gone.

Star Trek II was the second soundtrack album I bought.  But my love for Horner didn’t come quickly, not really – I was for a while taken in by the hostility on the internet in the 1990s, the snarks and snipes.  Then I decided I could make my own mind up and I fell in love.  I don’t know when my iPod last broke and everything reset itself – but I do know that since whenever it was, the play counts show that I’ve spent 50% more time listening to James Horner’s film music than anyone else’s.  And I know why – it touches me, deeply.  It speaks to me.  It takes me on journeys.  It is full of zest, full of life.  My baby daughter’s eyes light up when I play her “Somewhere Out There”; my father-in-law’s when I play him “The Ludlows”.  Music has that power – James Horner’s has it more than most.

Later in 2015, cinemas will play new films featuring his music for the last time.  Southpaw and The 33 will come and they will go.  His music will remain.  Thank you, James Horner.  Your life has made my life better.  My thoughts are with your wife and daughters and I hope they take comfort from the number of people’s whose lives you have enriched.

Some favourites:
Star Trek II | Brainstorm Krull | Cocoon | Apollo 13 | Avatar


  1. Ian Smith (Reply) on Tuesday 23 June, 2015 at 20:55

    A very honest and fair appraisal James. My first encounter with Horner’s work was with Brainstorm and I fell in love with it. Over the years that followed his scores became a soundtrack of my life; I simply adored so much of it… Cocoon, Glory, Apollo 13, Braveheart, Legends of the Fall. It waned in the post-Titanic years. I think the last score of his I bought was The New World (of course I would continue buying his earlier work if it was expanded or re-remastered). Maybe it was the success of Titanic, a pressure to repeat that success, or maybe the films simply just weren’t as good as they used to be. Its not that I fell out of love with his music, just that my interest in his later work waned as the years went on but I did quite enjoy that Spiderman score.

    I’m sure he had great things ahead of him, great works we will now never hear. We’ll simply never know what we will miss.

    But Brainstorm. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Field of Dreams. Simply magnificent work. He was a huge talent and you’re quite right, likely on his own as a modern talent to challenge the Goldsmiths and Williams etc of the earlier generation of composers.

  2. Chris Avis (Reply) on Tuesday 23 June, 2015 at 20:57

    This might be the finest tribute that I’ve read to Horner. I really can’t imagine that we’ll ever see another film composer of his talent emerge again in Hollywood. Thanks for your words


  3. Maarten (Reply) on Tuesday 23 June, 2015 at 21:46

    Beautiful, James. Thank you.

    Thank you James Horner for your wonderful music. You will be missed.


  4. Billy (Reply) on Tuesday 23 June, 2015 at 22:15

    Thank you for this terrific tribute, James. Horner’s work was truly one of a kind, and I’m so thankful his talent came around at a congruous time that worked for him and, in turn, us. He’d have a tougher time prospering in the same way as a young composer today, that’s for sure.

    May peace be with him.

  5. Jockolantern (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 01:56

    This is the best and most thoroughly rounded Horner tribute I’ve read– particularly in the way it addresses the oft-repeated nay-saying regarding the composer’s unique approach, something in which even I have partaken.

    It has only been in recent years, experiencing of the general degradation in film music quality (the “score by committee” approach which Horner was so irritated with) that I have actually learned to appreciate the emotionally honest, unabashedly orchestral and texturally rich approach that composers like Horner refused to abandon. I remember hearing The Amazing Spider-Man in-film and being floored that a movie of its caliber actually featured such an overtly romantic and classically-natured scoring approach in 2012 amongst a sea of relative big box office musical mediocrity. Even at his most “self-derivative” in scores like Troy, he was writing compelling musical tapestries that rang true of what film music is there to accomplish and is, as you said, undoubtedly listenable on an album of any length.

    Thanks for the beautiful words, James, as I know they speak for all of us who have been touched by the man’s music through the years. The Mask of Zorro was one of the very first film scores I purchased for my budding collection as a teenager and it’s so hard to believe now in my early thirties that he is gone…

  6. Pepper Skyberry (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 03:31

    Wonderfully written. My only criticism would be the lack of “*****” beneath your review. 😉

  7. Movie lover (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 06:14

    Truly, the finest tribute to this extraordinary film composer who will be sorely missed.

  8. Simon (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 09:34

    Thank you, James. Beautifully expressed.

  9. ANDRÉ -- Cape Town. (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 14:58

    Our JAMIE has gone – and reading your heartfelt homáge James, while listening to the crystalline luninescenses of AVATAR, had my eyes brimming with tears. HORNER was a Master composer, dazzling the mind with the complexity of his compositional techniques for massive Symphonic Orchestra, mixed choruses (including the resonances of boy-choirs), ethnic instruments, electronica and computerization. Then, there were his beautiful melodies AND the ability to project such potent emotion into his themes, that they interfaced with our souls. JAMIE only recently returned to film scoring after a four year hiatus, exploring the tonalities of ancient & futuristic instruments…dabbling with concert works AND recuperating from very negative experiences while working with TERENCE MALICK on THE NEW WORLD, later on THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN and then, on the abandoned score for ROMEO AND JULIET (maybe whoever owns this score will release it, in memory of HORNER). That awful plane crash deprived our World of his genius, and silenced an amazing talent. But, it’s my emotional connection to JAMIE’S music and, consequently, through a holistic paradigm to him as its creator, that leaves my beingness aching from the void his unexpected departure has caused. It was BRAINSTORM, in the early 1980’s that alerted me, and lovers of film music, to a new talent that had emerged among that glittering constellation – GOLDSMITH, DELERUE, BERNSTEIN, JARRE & MORRICONE. And he never disappointed as his scores explored the genrés of SciFi, human dramas, animated fantasies, Westerns & horror. And HORNER followed the template of writing music-for- movies as formulated by ALFRED NEWMAN, MIKLOS ROZSA, MAX STEINER, DIMITRI TIOMKIN & FRANZ WAXMAN. I wish his family strength as they sit Shivah for our JAMIE.

  10. Matt (Reply) on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 20:32

    Great tribute and couldn’t agree more. For me, Horner was one of my favorites due to the emotion that he could draw from a scene musically and he will be forever missed. What a musical legacy he leaves behind.

  11. Terry Walstrom (Reply) on Thursday 25 June, 2015 at 01:56

    Horner could make you hold your breath and lean forward into a moment so magical the suspension in his chord perfectly matched the suspension of an audience’s disbelief.

    Feeling something makes us human. Feeling something knowingly is what makes movies an art form reflect our humanity.

    Musical simplicity isn’t simple to achieve in Hollywood where a musician is hired like a house painter to camouflage the gulf between make-believe and heartfelt empathic response.
    Bigger, louder and more obvious are the primary colors of today.

    What set Horner apart was his fight to circumvent both the obvious and a producer’s worst instinct; underestimating the intelligence of an audience.
    Perfectly capable of creating craters in the landscape of sound–his luminous penchant for less rather than more was pure genius.

    He understood the power of melody and unashamedly wove its threads into the drama without showing the seams. He and John Williams are perhaps the last to do so.
    This exacerbates the tragedy of his passing all the more.

    He loved flying his single engine plane. He loved his wife and two daughters. He loved music.

    And we have loved his invisible touch . . . as numinous as the sound of a child praying.

    May he rest in peace.

  12. Jeff (Reply) on Saturday 27 June, 2015 at 18:24


    Thank you for posting this endearing tribute to Mr, Horner. You really touched on what was indeed the magic in his music. I personally consider James Horner to be in the top tier category of score composers, right up there with John Williams. He stayed consistently true to form in his writing and did not succumb to the “assembly-line” style of writing as we now regularly hear from other composers such as Hans Zimmer and Remote Control Productions, et al, I will miss him tremendously, he was only 61 so I just imagine how many beautiful works could have been yet to come from him for many more years. It’s such a tragedy, my prayers go out to his family.

    Thank you for the wonderful tribute,


  13. Terry (Reply) on Monday 29 June, 2015 at 02:34

    This is my first attempt to write anything since the passing of a musical genius. Your tribute is spot on James. When I first heard the news, like so many, I wanted it to be a mistake. Yes, even hoping it was a publicity stunt of some kind. The confirmation was so slow in coming that I think many of us were hoping against hope that somehow it wasn’t true.
    I found myself thinking of the musical scores not to be written by this towering giant of film music. So quiet and kind and unassuming in person. But imagine being inside the mind and heart of this man. I read a quote in which James Horner said, “If my music makes me cry, I know that I have nailed it!” He must have cried a lot.
    Alfred Newman wrote his musical opus “How the West Was Won” at about the same age of James’ passing. What musical treasures we have been deprived of only God knows. Perhaps as someone stated God needed the Maestro to compose music for the heavens. He certainly had a touch of the divine in my opinion!

  14. Jay (Reply) on Saturday 4 July, 2015 at 01:22

    Wonderful tribute to a great composer. You summed up what a lot of us are thinking and feeling. I have always been a fan of his. He carried the mantle that Goldsmith and Williams started and had his own unique voice. It is ashamed that it has been silenced. But we have his awesome body of work to study and enjoy for years to come. Thanks so much for this heartfelt tribute.

  15. Scott M (Reply) on Friday 23 June, 2017 at 13:06

    I had to re-read this today. Two years and it still tugs at me. A lovely tribute to a man who’s music helped shape my life in many ways. Today will be filled with his work.