James Horner, Oscar-winning composer of the Titanic soundtrack, dies in a plane crash

Best known for co-writing “My Heart Will Go On”, Horner wrote innovative and popular scores for a whole host of Hollywood films.

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The film composer James Horner has died in a plane crash in California aged 61. His assistant confirmed that he had been piloting his single-engine plane near Santa Barbara on Monday when it came down.

Born in LA but trained at the Royal College of Music in London as well as the University of Southern California, Horner scored over a hundred films, including Aliens (for which he earned his first Oscar nomination), Braveheart, Apollo 13, Avatar and A Beautiful Mind.

Horner was the composer for the two highest-grossing films of all time – Titanic and Avatar. For the former, he won two Oscars: one for the film’s score and the other for co-writing the theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”. It’s still the best-selling film soundtrack ever.

Titanic is so famous and well-parodied that it’s been at least ten years since I’ve actually had any contact with the original film or music. Watching clips of it now, you can see how key Horner’s musical decisions were to building up the sense of doom that runs through the whole film. For instance, at the iconic “I’m flying!” moment, a lesser composer would have unleashed a full-blooded, swooping orchestral sound to highlight the majesty of the ship crashing through the waves. But Horner chose instead to use a relatively lightly-accompanied wordless vocal reprise of the theme song instead, picking up on Winslet’s tentativeness and vulnerability:

Another iconic film moment that Horner scored was the “Freedom” speech in Braveheart. Again, it’s so well-embedded in cultural memory that we feel we know it backwards already, but if you do watch it again and pay particular attention to the music, you appreciate for the first time the dissonant subtlety of the backing Horner wrote for Mel Gibson to roar over. There are Celtic tinges to it, of course, but it just about avoids being hackneyed or clichéd:

But the most interesting bit of Horner’s music to re-encounter, I think, is his work for Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan. Horner got the gig after Jerry Goldsmith, who scored the first Star Trek film, was fired for being too expensive. Horner went back to the original TV series theme (the famous fanfare that goes under the “to boldly go” voiceover) and reworked it into something darker and more epic-sounding:

Other highlights from his career include the freaky, chilling music for the Alien sequel:

His gut-wrenching score for Iris:

His rather funky attempt to make Troy a bit less rubbish:

And finally, here he is at his swooping, emotive best at the climax of A Beautiful Mind (the best bit kicks in at 3:50):

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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