In Memoriam – The James Horner Tribute Playlist

Today’s post is unscheduled, but important.

Last night, we were met with the tragic news of legendary composer James Horner’s untimely death. Like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman, Horner was responsible for some of the most memorable film scores of the past thirty years including Braveheart, Apollo 13, Titanic, The Wrath of Khan, and The Mask of Zorro. 

I wanted to celebrate his life and his work with a playlist of my favorite compositions of his. The themes of struggle, triumph, and redemption that characterized his music always seemed to inspire me. We’re sorry to see you go, James, but thank you for sharing your gift with the world for so many years. You will be missed.

1. The Plaza of Execution from The Mask of Zorro – One of the best musical intros in history, the restrained explosions of flamenco-inspired rhythms build and build and build into a triumphant heroic theme for the titular character who is fighting his last fight before retirement.
2. The Launch from Apollo 13 – My personal favorite piece of Horner’s. The complex harmonies of the beginning give way to the main theme which builds in intensity as the preparations for the launch move along with textbook-perfect smoothness. Blending orchestra, synthesizer, and choir masterfully, he really captures the excitement and activity of a rocket launch without making it stressful or chaotic. It’s as satisfying as watching a watch being assembled and when the main theme returns in full force as the rocket takes off, it’s this moment of cathartic release as you share in the NASA technicians’ relief that the rocket made it off the ground. It gives me chills every. single. time.
3. Never an Absolution from Titanic – There are other moments from this score that are perhaps more exciting or more romantic, but this gorgeous track really sums up the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. Uilleann pipes, soft orchestra, and a melancholy choir drift about like ocean waves. James Cameron originally wanted Enya to do the music, but when she wasn’t interested, Horner did his best to pay tribute to her beautiful style (while still making it his own), and that is most evident in this track. It’s just marvelous.
4. A Gift of a Thistle from Braveheart – I debated between this track and the “Freedom Theme.” While the second is more stirring in a general way, this short track just hits you right in the feels. It’s a simple statement of the main theme, but it doesn’t feel heroic or magnificent. It’s just meant to portray a moment of intense grief, and a little girl’s attempt to alleviate such grief. In less than two minutes, it covers multiple emotions and is one of my favorite musical moments from the score.
5. Opening Theme from The Wrath of Khan – Ok, moving away from tragedy and sadness, the next track is Horner’s inspired theme from the second Star Trek film. Jerry Goldsmith, composer of the previous The Motion Picture returned later on to score the most Star Trek scores, but Horner’s two entries are absolutely gorgeous. This score is sort of weird (but in a good way) in that it feels alien. The odd harmonies and controlled dissonance (seen in the ballet scores of Prokofiev) that Horner uses to populate this score make it stand out as one of his most inventive works.
6. Stealing the Enterprise from The Search for Spock – In a movie that suffers from odd pacing and some strange plot choices, Horner’s score is just as good, if not better, than his previous one. This track in particular is so much fun. It’s sort of a caper in which Kirk and friends sneak their beloved ship out from under the noses of the rest of Starfleet while the arrogant captain of the new Excelsior gets put in his place by some sneaky sabotage courtesy of Scotty. This track feels like a symphonic piece, perhaps the third movement of a symphony in which the whirling strings and aimless chords of the intro are reassembled into a heroic thundering statement of the main theme. I don’t care if you’re not a Trek fan; this is a magnificent piece of music.
7. Opening Credits from An American Tale – I adore this movie, and the opening credits are absolutely stunning. Starting with a quiet distant-sounding choir and a lone violin, the main theme swells to life as massive snowflakes drift across the screen. Then, the bouncing Russian-inspired theme brings some light and life to the landscape as we move in on the warmth of the Mousekowitz family home. The track ends with a slow sad Russian dance, foreshadowing how this happy family scene is about to be broken up.
8. A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics from A Beautiful Mind – This one begins with the kind of swirling beauty and elegance one usually sees in a Danny Elfman score, but Horner really makes it his own. The lone female voice sort of twirls and wanders through a shifting landscape that is at times chaotic and at other times somewhat bleak. I like how Horner really captures the essence of the two central characters, John and Alicia Nash in this one track.
9. Literally the entirety of the score for Aliens, but if I had to choose, I’ll say the Main Title – This isn’t really a score with any one standout track because it’s more of an overall atmosphere of dread that pervades the movie. There are a few themes that surface here and there (most of which appear in the Main Title), but they all fade in and out of one another throughout. It’s hard to describe this score any other way than saying “You’re walking through a dark hallway of an industrial facility and it’s dark and, at any moment, something is going to jump out at you.” I mean, Horner is basically the only composer who could have done this movie justice because his score so effectively elicits the emotions that the movie functions on. It’s like a big terrifying tapestry of sound that is at once beautiful and unsettling, a darker continuation of the alien sound he found with his Star Trek scores.
10. Climbing up Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven from Avatar – I wanted to end on a high note (pun intended). Horner is known for big inspiring moments and this one definitely fits in with the rest. Aside from its awed and quiet ending, the rest of this track is bright and beautiful. I get a sort of Adiemus feel with this one, especially with the Na’vi choir in the background. The rest of Horner’s score for this film tends to use musical paths he’s already beaten in previous scores, but this moment stands out as something new and wonderful that we haven’t seen before, and I really like it.
There are tons more pieces I could include, but I think we’ll end it at an even ten. So, take some time to enjoy the work of one of the greats in the film score world as we honor his memory.
I will return on Saturday with my normally scheduled post. See you then!
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