In Memoriam: The 10 Greatest Sci-fi and Fantasy Scores of James Horner

James Horner Film Music

As an ?ber band geek, I had quite the obsession with the music of film, particularly that of science fiction and fantasy films. The plan was that I would study music education in college, but my heart was in performing, and I dreamed of being a studio musician, recording scores to television and movies. It was the music of composers like John Williams, Michael Kamen and others that inspired me, but as a brass player, it was the music of James Horner that drove me to want to play professionally.

He was the king of the brass, whose horn and trumpet fanfares were almost orgasmic in nature, building gradually before exploding all over your ears in tinnitus-inducing decibels of triumph. While his music wasn’t particularly complicated, his themes would stick in my head long after the film was over. Hollywood agreed; themes from various Horner composed films were used almost relentlessly in film trailers over the years. People who had never seen Aliens had no doubt heard music from its soundtrack, as twenty-four films used Aliens tracks for their trailers and commercials.

James Horner’s plane crashed late Monday night, with the composer as the sole occupant of the aircraft. He leaves behind an incredible legacy that includes 156 films, two Academy Awards, and some of the best modern film music we have ever known. In celebration of his life, we humbly present the ten best genre soundtracks from the great James Horner.

10. Willow

While it isn’t anywhere near as daring or groundbreaking as its counterparts, the score for Willow is memorable, particularly for its slower, B-theme moments used for Elora Danan or to portray Willow’s family. Although the main theme, like The Rocketeer, sounds very much like the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn or Wagner operas, the rest of the soundtrack is like a James Horner greatest hits album. Almost every one of his “signature” sounds is portrayed. There are wordless choirs, ostinatos, blazing horn and trumpet parts as well. Aliens, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek and more Horner creations are all represented.

Thankfully, the Willow soundtrack isn’t just a rehash of old concept. His use of a pan flute would set the stage for more unusual instruments to make appearances in soundtracks such as Avatar. Tracks like “Willow’s Journey Begins” feature rare elements like a tuba solo, something that only John Williams had a tendency to do. While the original concepts in the Willow score might have been of Nelwyn size, they had a Daikini-sized impact.

Signature Track: “Elora Danan”

9. Brainstorm

After the struggle to complete the score for James Cameron’s Aliens, James Horner parted ways with The Terminator director. It’s almost painfully obvious that Horner’s score for Natalie Woods’ final film Brainstorm was the inspiration for the soundtrack to The Abyss, scored by Alan Silvestri. It opens with a haunting chorus that is both spooky and amazing.

Listening to the soundtrack, you’ll hear some of Horner’s signature sounds quite often. Long held, low brass notes give the score a very menacing tone, while strange sounds you’ll recognize from the score to Aliens will almost launch you out of your seat. It’s a beautiful and disturbing journey that finishes in a stunning reprise of the main theme that is near unforgettable.

Signature Track: “Final Playback/End Title”

8. Avatar

After Titanic, the tag team of the James’ seemed unstoppable, and for his next trick, Cameron created the world of Pandora. For a planet that unique, there was only one composer right for the job. Horner abandoned having his brass department taking the lead, instead allowing the influence of world music to be the star. African drums accompany the chanting of the Na’vi, creating a unique vision of Pandora that you don’t necessarily have to see to believe.

Some of Horner’s signatures still get to play a role. More tragic cues like “The Destruction of Hometree” have passages lifted right from Star Trek II, but it fits perfectly with the tone of the film. The main theme of Avatar is reprised in multiple ways, a throwback to some of the composer’s more basic, earlier scores, but it never becomes boring, and there’s so much variation that it feels unique every time.

The saddest aspect of listening to the Avatar score is knowing that Horner was already hired to write the scores for the next two films in the series. Quite frankly, I know of no composer who could fill the shoes he left vacant, and sadly, regardless of who composes the music, his absence will be noticeable in the forthcoming sequels.

Signature Track: “Jake’s First Flight”

7. Bicentennial Man

This is one of Horner’s more low key scores; you can tell Bicentennial Man will be different right from the first track, where a piano fills in for the typical brass. That’s not to say the brass aren’t represented at all; as the first piece builds, trumpets and horns make an appearance, though without their usual Horner force

In fact, the piano, Horner’s personal instrument of choice, is the star of the score. It’s a surprising change of pace when compared to his other science fiction and fantasy scores, and it has more in common with Field of Dreams, Braveheart, and the less disastrous parts of Titanic than anything else.

While the score is beautiful without a frame of reference, tracks like “The Gift of Mortality” are almost unbearably difficult to listen to now due to Horner’s death, not to mention the tragic suicide of Bicentennial Man’s lead actor, Robin Williams. It’s some of the most heart-wrenching and yet beautiful music one could listen to at a time like this.

Signature Track: “The Gift of Mortality”

6. The Rocketeer

Long before Joe Johnston was giving us the First Avenger, he was busy bringing Disney’s second superhero to the big screen (the first being Condorman). There’s something absolutely magical about The Rocketeer, and it’s more than Jennifer Connelly in that awesome dress.

The score is an amalgam of elements that would be at home in films like the Indiana Jones series and The Right Stuff. It’s chock full of period action, but as soon as Cliff Secord takes to the skies, there’s a sense of wonder that is almost perfect. The theme of exploration as the Rocketeer soars is more inspiring than Horner’s sound barrier breaking work in Apollo 13. It’s totally dripping with cheese, particularly in regards to the love theme and the menacing tones of Neville Sinclair and his Nazi cohorts, but it’s the perfect kind of cheese for a film like this.

I also love how Horner could, with no notice, change the feel of the soundtrack from high adventure to a 1930s swing number and back again, as evident in the closing titles. The entire score is just fun from start to finish, and eclipses the less than stellar film it accompanies.

Signature Track: “Rocketeer to the Rescue – End Titles”

5. Field of Dreams

Ok, this might be a bit of a stretch since the majority of the film takes place on a baseball field, but one of the works Horner will always be remembered for is the soundtrack for Field of Dreams. (Phantom baseball players firmly plant the film in the realm of fantasy, even if it involves sportsball.) Gone are the bombastic fanfares and the pounding low brass, replaced with a score low key and moving, more similar to his work in Cocoon than anything else.

On its own, the score is powerfully emotional, but combine it with the film, and it can make even the hardest of grown men weep like babies. Anyone who is estranged from their father, either by choice or by death, will instantly feel a pang in their heart upon hearing just a few notes of the score, and before even one track is over, they’ll be longing for one last catch. Hell, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about the score, and I’m not even listening to the damn thing.

While it was robbed of its Oscar by The Little Mermaid, its place is baseball history is locked in. You’ll hear Horner’s signature theme from the film in almost any playoff baseball telecast, as it’s become just as synonymous with the great American pastime as “Take Me out to the Ballgame”.

Signature Track: “The Cornfield”

4. Aliens

Aliens wouldn’t be the first time Horner followed Jerry Goldsmith on part two of a franchise. Right from the start, you can tell Horner is steering away from the themes established in Alien. It’s a completely different score when compared to previous examples of Horner’s work. The story is that he was given much less than his requested six weeks to work on the score, and that requests to delay the opening of the film fell on deaf ears. The result was a score iwith which Horner was only 80% satisfied, despite its getting him his first Academy Award nomination.

While the entire score has references to Goldsmith’s (with some musical cues lifted straight from Alien), the film starts off slowly, with an interpretation of “Gayane’s Adagio” from the Khachaturian ballet. As the film progresses, more and more of Horner’s sci-fi elements used in Star Trek and other films begin to pop up, and it starts to sound like your typical Horner score, until we meet the marines.

While we heard hints of a muted, militaristic snare drum accompanying the title card, as soon as the marines join the cast, the percussion become a main character for the score. If THE Bruce Dickinson wanted more cowbell from the Blue Oyster Cult, the only thing that would have broken his fever in Aliens would be more Brake Drum. Strange orchestral sounds accompany jump scares rather than the hisses of Xenomorphs, and it’s terrifyingly effective. Aside from a few slower moments, most of the score has an atonal, almost primal feel, and it becomes just as alien as the acid-bleeding monsters themselves. It’s not pretty to listen to for the most part (though some of the slower, more somber tracks are lovely), but boy, does it help crank up tension on LV-426.

Signature Track: “Bishop’s Countdown”

3. Krull

There are two names that come to my mind when discussing “screech trumpet” – Maynard Ferguson and James Horner. While Ferguson could crank out those high notes, Horner could write them, and the soundtrack to Krull is a perfect example of a lip-splitting and ear-piercing trumpet part.

Aside from the star of the film (the Glaive, a razor-tipped magic boomerang; not Ken Marshall), the most memorable aspect of the film is the music. As with most of Horner’s early work, it features a trumpet fanfare for a main theme that gets repeated in some variation in almost every scene of the film, yet for some reason doesn’t get old. The score is very basic with only three major themes: the fanfare, the love theme that sounds like it would be perfectly at home in an Errol Flynn film, and the splatting low brass used to represent the Beast and his Slayers. It’s simple, but I guarantee you, it will be difficult to get it out of your head after hearing it.

Signature Track: “Ride of the Firemares”

2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Sadly, one of the best aspects of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was its sweeping soundtrack by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith. It was creepy, mysterious, and fit the slow, plodding tone of the film perfectly. When a new direction, one of adventure rather than a cure for insomnia was chosen for the follow up film, away went the overture (The Motion Picture was one of the last films to feature an overture before the opening titles), the Blaster Beam instrument, and the mysteries of space, replaced with a Horner score which exemplified the adventure of space exploration.

Horner’s theme is easily my favorite from all of the various Star Trek series and films. Its sweeping strings and brass give it a sense of wonder and adventure, while the percussion gives it a little bit of a military feel, similar to the way Starfleet is both a military and scientific operation. Starting the titles with Alexander Courage’s signature fanfare is a perfect nod to Star Trek‘s roots.

One of the scenes that stands out is when Khan decided to give Chekov and Captain Terrell the brain-numbing wet willie of doom. While the concept of an evil Babelfish is enough to send shivers down my spine, it’s the music that makes the scene all the more chilling, particularly how the violins bend their pitch upward. Just listening to that track on the score is enough to give me chills. In fact, so many Star Trek memories are attached to the James Horner’s Trek scores, when Leonard Nimoy passed, Horner’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” was the first song to pop in my head.

It’s also in Star Trek II that Horner perfects his “Oh Shit Music of Dread” that he first premiered in Battle Beyond the Stars. According to music professor Dr. Jon Fowler, it’s called an eighth note rhythmic ostinato, and every time Horner uses it, it’s creepy. Another Horner debut is his epic ascending triplet pattern that he uses every so often in science fiction scores. It’s first heard during the track “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”, but it’s heard again in Star Trek III, Aliens, and many others.

But wait, there’s more! I’m actually willing to go out on a limb and say that I prefer Horner’s Star Trek III over The Wrath of Khan score. The main themes are there (except of course Khan’s Oh Shit Music of Dread), but they sound much more subdued, older, and wiser, just like our crew.

Signature Tracks: “Genesis Countdown”/”Prologue and Main Title”

1. Battle Beyond the Stars (and Space Raiders…and Barbarian Queen…and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom)

While he had already written music for film, the project that brought Hollywood’s attention to James Horner was Roger Corman’s attempt at cashing in on the Star Wars craze – his sci-fi remake of the Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai. This is a film that launched one of the greatest partnerships in science fiction filmmaking: James Horner and James Cameron. It was also this early in his career that Horner took the most grandest of musical risks.

If ever there were a piece of music that could cause horn and trumpet players necks to erupt in arterial sprays of blood, the fanfare for Battle Beyond The Stars would be it. Listening to the soundtrack closely, and you’ll undoubtedly hear multiple flubbed notes and other various mistakes, all likely due to the difficulty of the score. In fact, re-recordings of the main theme by other orchestras often “dumb down” the arpeggios by removing the bottom note of the sequence, likely to prevent musicians from walking out or passing out.

While the strings take the lead for the melodies in quieter scenes, the trumpets are once again showcased in almost all of the action sequences, and while the brass are most often the ones responsible for the mistakes (because of the relatively low two million dollar budget being spent on George Peppard and Robert Vaughn, it’s likely the score had to be recorded with little practice time, and relatively few takes), they also stand out the most.

Battle Beyond the Stars was Horner’s most daring score, one which got him noticed for projects like Star Trek II, Aliens, and so many more.

Signature Track: “Cowboy’s Attack”

Rest in peace, Maestro

Previously by Jason Helton

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