A very sad day for music today. As my lovely wife has often said, creatives seem to live long lives, making and exploring until their last moments. The news of composer James Horner’s untimely death undoubtedly robs us of decades more beautiful music; I can’t imagine his family’s feelings at hearing any of his wide history of work in the coming days.
His name is synonimous with the biggest feature films and movie names, from Avatar and Titanic for Cameron, Braveheart for Gibson, and how many films for Ron Howard? The list goes famously on. Melodies so universal across his work, musical emotion so accessible, that the runaway success of so many of these productions invited easy parody out of such familiarity. In a way, it’s a modern composer of such strong melodic soul like James Horner that might have fallen prey to the sort of critical snobbery about simply good tunes that was part of music’s evolution in pop culture during his time. It didn’t hold him back from doing what was best for the story in each case, and bankable directors wanted his name against their projects, bringing their stories to life, because of his approach. They knew just what they were doing, and so did he.
This, though, is one of my personal favourite sequences in film. From a masterpiece of adventure storytelling, the score to Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan is surely itself a required study in composition to picture, from Horner’s very first feature score. The scene that’s really the perhaps whole point of the film, where Kirk breathes a confident sigh of relief at the con having escaped the Genesis shock wave by a nacelle’s breadth, only to hear Bones’ quiet voice telling him to get to Engineering, and he looks over at the empty Science chair… perhaps it’s this scene, as Kirk instinctively then runs to his friend, where we realise how good Horner’s musical storytelling is in this film. The themes he weaves in and subverts here, the lightness of touch with the etherial intensity of those rising strings around the captain’s theme, the sheer lack of music in all the right moments, the melodic grace drawn from a seafaring romp that is really, as we see in this scene so movingly, a story of friendship, of brotherly love across a lifetime, and how it leads to loss, sacrifice and love.
This is stunning. A heartbreaking farewell to a much loved, exemplary, timeless composer.