Obituary: James Horner
Versatile composer who won two Oscars for 'Titanic', and provided soundtracks for more than 100 films
James Horner, the film composer, who died in a plane crash on Monday aged 61, won two Oscars for writing the soundtrack to James Cameron's Titanic (1997) and a slew of Oscar nominations for other Hollywood blockbusters, including Braveheart (1995) and A Beautiful Mind (2001).
He won a best original score Oscar for Titanic, and also took the prize for best song (shared with his lyricist Will Jennings) for My Heart Will Go On, performed over the closing credits by Celine Dion.
The teaming of Horner with the film's director, James Cameron, caused some raised eyebrows. The pair had worked together 12 years earlier on Aliens (1986), for which Horner won his first Oscar nomination, but had clashed after Horner was given just 10 days to complete the entire score - a "nightmare", as he recalled. As Cameron began filming Titanic, it seemed that another composer would be chosen.
At the time, Braveheart was the best known of Horner's film scores. The Scottish-flavoured music, including the booming melody which underscores Mel Gibson's stirring "Sons of Scotland" speech to his troops, spawned two soundtrack albums and persuaded Cameron to mend fences with the composer.
"Braveheart, apparently, was one of the best film scores he had ever heard, he told me," Horner recalled. "And he wanted to bring something to Titanic that he thought only I could do."
Unusually, Horner accepted the job, script and footage unseen, excited by the challenge posed by its emotional core - the relationship between members of different social classes (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) who fall in love. He resolved to avoid anything that would hark back to previous Hollywood maritime disaster epics or carry the stale whiff of costume drama. Instead, he played around with sounds that would evoke the contrasting cultural worlds of the passengers aboard the liner while signalling the looming tragedy, mixing his orchestra with synthesizers, voices, even Irish uilleann pipes, to create an elegaic soundscape that gave the score an "imagined", recollective quality.
"To me, writing and composing are much more like painting, about colours and brushes," Horner once explained. "I don't use a computer when I write and I don't use a piano... I think very abstractly when I'm writing. Then, as the project moves on, it becomes more like sculpting."
The best-known music in the film, however, the song My Heart Will Go On, was prepared in secret, Cameron having insisted that he only wanted instrumental music. Horner went on to make a demo recording with Celine Dion, but held on to it for three weeks before summoning up the courage to play it to the director. "I didn't tell him what it was," he recalled.
"And... he was completely flabbergasted. And I said, this is Celine singing this song that I wrote. Are you interested? And he said, this is unbelievable, I love this."
Horner's score went on to become the bestselling orchestral film soundtrack in history, while My Heart Will Go On reached No 1 in the charts.
Although it made Horner one of the richest musicians in Hollywood, he insisted it would not change his life: "The depths and the heights of the movie business are so extreme that I just try very hard never to feel too exalted or too depressed at any time," he said. "I try and keep a straight course."
James Roy Horner was born in Los Angeles on August 14, 1953, the son of the Hollywood production designer Harry Horner, but spent much of his childhood in London, where he studied at the Royal College of Music. He later took a degree in music from the University of Southern California.
Despite his Hollywood connections, Horner originally wanted to be a classical composer. "When I first did my movie... it was by accident," he recalled in 2010. "I was having a piece performed and in attendance was the director of the American Film Institute and he asked if I had ever done a movie before... I said sure, I'll give it a try."
The film was a short called The Drought, and to Horner's surprise, he found the experience exhilarating. "I found that I could write anything I wanted to write and there wouldn't be a label attached to it. I was no longer considered conservative, I was no longer considered avant-garde or anything in between."
He worked his apprenticeship on AFI shorts and on low-budget Roger Corman horror films such as The Lady in Red (1979) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), becoming acquainted with many up-and-coming talents, including a young cameraman called James Cameron.
Unusually versatile, Horner wrote scores for more than 100 films, ranging from the bombast of blockbusters like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) to the restrained emotional palette of Richard Eyre's Iris (2001) and the Hispanic rhythms of The Mask of Zorro (1998). Ron Underwood, with whom he worked on the ape movie Mighty Joe Young (also 1998), observed that he had "a way of taking another culture's music and integrating it into a score without losing the emotional, thematic elements that are needed for a movie".
In addition to his two Oscars for Titanic, Horner won two Golden Globes for the film and received Oscar nominations for the scores of Field of Dreams (1989), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), House of Sand and Fog (2003) and James Cameron's Avatar (2009). He also won an Oscar nomination and two Grammy awards for the song Somewhere Out There, written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil for the animated film An American Tail (1986), and earned four more Grammys, including one for Glory (1989) and three for Titanic.
Horner retained his interest in classical composition. In November last year, a double concerto for violin and cello was premiered in Liverpool, and in March this year his concerto for four horns was premiered in London. At the time of his death, he was working on the score to the planned sequel to Avatar.
He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and their two daughters.