Horner was a classically trained musician and scholar, who began playing the piano at age 5. He attended the Royal College of Music in London as a youth and later went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Southern California and his master’s and doctorate at the University of California Los Angeles, where he taught music theory.
Alex Harwood, an American composer, is quoted in an article from The Guardian, stating that “James was one of the last of that old school of composers, like John Williams, with proper classical training and unbelievable music knowledge.”
Horner told the New York Times in an interview in 2000 that, “I [write] it at a desk with pen and paper … I don’t use a computer in writing at all. I’m sort of old-fashioned about it.”
Horner notes that many of his scores were influenced by classical composers including Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Thomas Tallis, many of which are often heard on All Classical Portland.
Horner won two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes and received 10 Oscar nominations during his lifetime. His first full length score was for the 1979 film “The Lady in Red” and his first major breakout score came from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in 1982.
The success of Horner’s score for “Titanic” as well as his original song “My Heart Will Go On” performed by Celine Dion, for both of which he won an Academy Award, has not been forgotten in the 20 years since he composed it. Many orchestras and vocalists have done recordings of Horner’s work because of its richness and popularity.
His music for “Titanic” focused on Celtic instrumentation in order to reflect the ship’s origins, which was built in Belfast and carried hundreds of Irish natives.
Horner’s music is known and critiqued as music on an “epic scale” with “bolder and more contemporary sounds” and a “subtle and contemplative flare” as critiqued by the New York Times.
The Atlantic also noted that Horner’s scores “tended to be more delicate things; rummaging through musical history and diverse cultures.”
James Cameron said jointly with producer Jon Landau from “Avatar” in a BBC News article that, “James’s music affected the heart because his heart was so big.”
Cameron is also quoted in an article from the Hollywood Reporter saying that Horner totally committed himself to “Titanic.” “He blocked out his schedule and sat down and watched maybe 30 hours of raw dailies to absorb the feeling of the film.”
Cameron also mentioned that the orchestra loved Horner and that he worked with a lot of the same musicians and also conducted his own music, which not all composers do.
Horner’s score for Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar” showcased his experimentation and dedication to providing listeners with exotic sounds that resonated deeply.
Horner said that Avatar was one of the most difficult films he has worked on and the biggest job he has undertaken.
Spencer Kornhaber writes in his article about Horner in The Atlantic that the best film music does two things: “It emphasizes the story on screen and it creates its own parallel story.” Horner’s scores did just that as he was ambitiously driven to produce the highest quality of sounds for film.
Though the world may never again see a composer as gifted, dedicated and thoughtful as Horner, it is left with more than 100 scores for listeners to track down and authors to curate, as many of the great artists who leave us leave with them an astonishing lifetime of work.
Tune in Saturday, July 11, at 2 p.m. for a tribute program to James Horner on The Score with Edmund Stone.