James Horner’s career spanned over 30 years and includes some of the most iconic movie scores of all time. His connection to the emotional core of a movie is unrivalled and his unique ability to amplify the emotional content of the story is one still sorely missed two years after his tragic death in a plane crash.

On October 24th the Royal Albert Hall will celebrate and pay tribute to James Horner and his vast body of work. Conducted by Ludwig Wicki and featuring, among others, soloists and close friends with Horner, Clara Sanabras and Eric Rigler, the concert will take the audience on a journey through the many worlds James Horner painted with his musical brush.

Starting out in academia, Horner eventually became disillusioned with concert music. It was hard to get commissions and even harder to get an orchestra to perform pieces he wrote. At the same time, he was also pursuing his doctorate in music composition and theory at the University of Southern California.

A director with the American Film Institute attended a performance of one of Horner’s pieces in the late 70’s. Afterwards he asked the young composer if he would be interested in writing the music for a student film. Horner agreed with some apprehension, but quickly fell in love with this format. He loved how music and images worked together on an audience, and it was a whole new world to quickly have a new piece performed. He also was much freer to write in any style, as this was now dictated by the movie, instead of academic styles in vogue.

Horner eventually appeared on the radar of Roger Corman, the famous B-movie producer. Here Horner scored primarily horror movies. Money was scarce and Horner often collected no salary himself, instead putting the money into larger orchestras. For Corman, Horner scored the cult classic Battle Beyond the Stars, a sci-fi movie heavily inspired by The Magnificent Seven. Here we also hear many of the seeds for later ideas in Horner’s sci-fi scores.

In 1982, at merely 29 years of age, Horner got his big break with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  The seafaring and adventurous score demonstrated Horner’s skills in orchestration and intricate action music writing, in addition to his sweeping thematic touch.

Horner’s career continued to soar throughout the 80’s. Brainstorm, Aliens, Star Trek III, Glory, Field of Dreams  and The Land Before Time are only some of many wonderful scores written in this period. They all show a composer who is maturing and finding his style. By the late 80’s, with scores such as Field of Dreams and Glory we hear Horner tap into his more emotional style which also was prevalent in the 90’s. This is in contrast to the busy, adventurous and

Through the 80’s and 90’s Horner’s star continued to rise and his assignments became more and more high profile. Aliens, Field of Dreams, An American Tail, Glory, The Rocketeer and The Land Before Time are examples from this period.

1994 and 1995 were very productive years for Horner, producing some of his most famous scores. Braveheart and Apollo 13 both were Oscar-nominated, while no Horner-concert is complete without Legends of the Fall. He also wrote the wistful and emotional score for Casper, and made the animated characters of Balto come alive in a whole new way.

James Cameron and James Horner didn’t have the best of experiences working together on Aliens in 1986. Cameron’s attention to detail meant he was behind schedule, and Horner already had little time to write the score. In short, the project left the two not on speaking terms. But when Cameron was looking for a composer for Titanic, he thought of Horner. It also so happens Horner had been thinking of contacting Cameron regarding Titanic, seeing it as a project right up his alley.

Horner chose an interesting instrumental palette with solo vocals (Norwegian singer Sissel), Uillean pipes and tin whistles (played by Horner’s good friends and collaborators Eric Rigler and Tony Hinnigan), along with an orchestra and synth choir. At the end of the process Horner found the ending of the movie lacked a proper emotional release after the turmoil of the latter half of the movie. James Cameron was very adamant about not wanting a song in his movie. Horner on the other hand thought a song would work perfectly to let the audience collect their thoughts and gently transition back into reality after three hours immersed in Titanic and 1912. He took the main themes and strung them together in song form and got Will Jennings to write lyrics for what became “My Heart Will Go On”. Then he went to Las Vegas and convinced Celine Dion to do a demo of the song.

For the next four weeks, Horner walked around with the demo in his pocket, waiting for Cameron to be in a good enough mood to play the demo for him. One day, the time came. Cameron liked the song, but was still wary of including it in the movie. Only days before the finished movie was to be previewed with an audience did he put the song in. The reaction from the audience was impossible to misunderstand – the song stayed! Titanic went on to be the most sold orchestral score of all time, and “My Heart Will Go On” is one of the most successful songs in history. Horner won Oscars for both score and song in 1998, two of the twelve awards Titanic hauled in that night. The movie also became the highest grossing movie of all time, a record that held for twelve years.

Titanic made Horner a superstar, being able to pick and choose whatever project he wanted. However, instead of only picking big assignments, Horner increasingly chose smaller and more dramatically oriented movies rather than big spectacle going into the 2000s.

The early parts of the previous decade brought scores like The Perfect Storm, A Beautiful Mind and Troy. All of them are highly diverse movies and yielded very different scores. Troy was an exercise in speed, being written in only ten days after Gabriel Yared’s original score was thrown out, something that to this day is a controversial topic. The Perfect Storm gave Horner the challenge of another movie about people in peril at sea, with the end result being a totally different score from Titanic. A Beautiful Mind challenged Horner to musically describe numbers, mathematics and a man whose imagination and reality was almost impossible to separate. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie won an Oscar for best movie and Horner was nominated for best score.

In the period of 2005-2010 Horner reduced his output and mostly wrote music for smaller movies like The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, set in and around Auschwitz during World War 2. From 2008 he focused full time on James Cameron’s next big project: Avatar. The movie revolutionized cinemas by bringing in 3D in full force. The colourful, exotic world of Pandora mesmerized the world and knocked Titanic off its perch as the world’s most financially successful movie.

The score worked as an emotional anchor. While employing exotic and new instrumental combinations, it still had classical elements which were recognizable to an audience and gave them a source of familiarity. From the tiniest solo whistle to the grand, majestic horn statements, Horner made us connect with the Na’avi people and relate to the characters.

In the latter years of his life Horner continued to cherry pick projects he liked. At the same time he too felt how Hollywood had changed and how classically oriented scores no longer were as sought after. First he was replaced on the movie Ender’s Game, with Transformers-composer Steve Jablonsky coming in as a replacement, then shortly after he was replaced on Romeo and Juliet, just weeks before release and after the score was recorded and mixed.

He didn’t hide his disillusionment on Hollywood either. In several interviews he’s quite openly criticizing how Hollywood has changed and how the business aspects now have permeated and dominates even all the creative aspects.

During the last year of his life, Horner made somewhat of a comeback. His two first concert works in 30 years were premiered, his double concerto written for violinist Mari Samuelsen and cellist Håkon Samuelsen even topping the pop charts in the duo’s home country of Norway, and he wrote magnificent scores for Wolf Totem, Southpaw and The 33. He also had started working on The Magnificent Seven remake for Antoine Fuqua and had signed up to score The Great Wall, Hacksaw Ridge for Mel Gibson and Norwegian movie The 12th Man for Harald Zwart. Unfortunately these projects were not to be, as Horner perished in a plane crash on June 22. 2015. He was an avid hobby pilot and it was his big passion besided music. His music team, led by Simon Franglen, completed The Magnificent Seven, leaving it as Horner’s final contribution to cinema.

On October 24th his fans will celebrate Horner’s career. Frequent collaborators Mel Gibson, James Cameron and Ron Howard all will provide on screen commentary regarding their working relationship with Horner. Highlights from his career will be performed in the same venue where Horner himself was present for the premiere of Titanic Live just two months before his death. It will be a very emotional evening paying respects to this giant of film music composers. Ludwig Wicki will be joined by the Cinematic Sinfonia Orchestra, Clara Sanabras, Alice Zawadzki and Eric Rigler as featured soloists, and the Crouch End Festival Chorus

Here is a Spotify playlist to prepare you for the concert. It does not represent the program for the concert, but illustrates some of Horner’s styles and signatures.


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