James Horner’s 25 Most Magnificent Scores

From Star Trek and Field Of Dreams to The Rocketeer and Krull: we salute the film scores of the late, great James Horner.

When composer James Horner died in a plane crash in June 2015, cinema lost one of its most profoundly emotional voices, and the final chapter on Horner’s astonishing career has now closed with his last work: Antoine Fuqua’s Western remake The Magnificent Seven. Horner actually wrote the score based on the script before the film even started production, such was his passion for it, and it’s been posthumously completed by his longtime collaborator Simon Franglen.

To mark the occasion, here are the 25 most seminal scores from a lamented, legendary figure of film music.

1. Legends Of The Fall (1994)


Despite his reputation as a composer of melodrama, throughout much of the eighties and early nineties Horner had largely been pegged as a bold composer of action, fantasy and animated films. It was Edward Zwick’s turn-of-the-century frontier epic that marked Horner’s finest excursion into the broad dramatics that would define the latter part of his career.

Soaringly beautiful and with at least half-a-dozen memorable themes that range from poetic intimacy to thunderous action and wrenching heartbreak, it’s a masterpiece that transcends the oft-overblown nature of the movie for which it’s written. As expansive and glorious as a Montana sunset, it encapsulates all the hallmarks of Horner’s career in a glorious package.

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2. Field Of Dreams (1989)

Horner’s music was, and still is, often attacked for its unerringly fulsome nature, but he was capable of genuine restraint and subtlety when the occasion called for it. His spine-tingling, skin-prickling and ethereal tones for the timeless Kevin Costner baseball tale are quite simply exquisite: a James Horner score that derives visceral power from its quietly mysterious nature that builds inexorably to a masterful final movement rippling with a devastating emotional impact.

It proves Horner’s skill as a dramatist: feeding off the haunting father/son themes that course throughout the movie, it’s a score burgeoning with slow-burning wonderment and compassion.

3. Apollo 13 (1995)

Director Ron Howard’s engrossing look at the Apollo 13 space disaster is praised for its commitment to authenticity and attention to detail. It was therefore crucial for the soundtrack to avoid queasy patriotism, celebrating the understated heroism of the central characters without ever becoming overblown.

Horner responded with a tremendous display of understatement that fully earns its more emotive moments, Tim Morrison’s lyrical trumpet solos and Annie Lennox’ haunting vocals capturing, respectively, the nobility of the space race and the coldness of the unknown magnificently. The re-entry sequence is still one of Horner’s career highpoints.

4. Glory (1989)

Horner had an exceptional year in 1989 with In Country, Field Of Dreams, Honey I Shrunk The Kids – and this enormously powerful Civil War extravaganza, his first of three scores for director Edward Zwick. In a consummate display of the composer’s ability to get beneath the skin of a movie, Horner paints the story of one of the war’s first African-American units as a haunting spiritual odyssey, utilising The Boys Choir of Harlem to exceptional effect in capturing the soldiers’ valiant sense of courage.

Rich with some of the finest choral and orchestral writing in Horner’s career, it’s amazing that the Glory score was only awarded with a paltry Golden Globe nomination. It deserved a lot more.

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5. Braveheart (1995)

One need only play the first few bars of the Braveheart theme and it’s likely even non-score fans will recognise it. Such was Horner’s great gift at composing a melody that captured the singular heart of a project. In his second collaboration with Mel Gibson (following 1993’s The Man Without A Face), the composer was given a prime opportunity to develop the Celtic textures of which he was so fond, the end result being a quintessential Horner score.

With its assortment of Uillean pipes, Bodhran drums and other authentic textures, the music depicts the legendary William Wallace’s journey as one strewn with a sense of melancholy and darkness, eventually building into the sort of wondrously beautiful lushness that classic scores are made of.

6. The Spitfire Grill (1996)

Drawing on the understated, haunting wellspring of Field Of Dreams but with less of a synthetic presence, this score for a long-forgotten, Catholic-funded drama sees Horner at his most tender and lyrical. With graceful passages for piano, woodwind and strings that are as inviting as a cool breeze on a summer’s day, it’s a quiet yet impactful score whose sense of profundity creeeps up on the listener to establish itself as one of the composer’s finest nineties offerings. 

Horner loved nothing more than to score humane, emotive drama and one can sense his pleasure seeping through every note of the music.

7. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)

When Jerry Goldsmith’s services proved too expensive for the second Star Trek movie, director Nicholas Meyer turned to then-up-and-comer Horner to score the picture. It was an inspired move: galaxies away from the ponderous, intellectual tone of The Motion Picture, The Wrath Of Khan‘s sense of exhilarating exuberance required a score to match, and Horner duly responded.

His rollicking, brassy main theme was to become one of the most celebrated and influential of his career and was nothing less than a spectacular announcement that Star Trek had finally got its mojo back.

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8. The Rocketeer (1991)

When it comes to listing Horner’s greatest themes, it’s hard not to feel the soul stirring when memories of The Rocketeer enter one’s mind. Joe Johnston’s underrated comic book adventure soars off the back of Horner’s spectacular score, what with its quintessentially heroic main theme calling back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, swooning romantic material and bombastic action sequences.

More important than anything, however, is the score’s sense of fun: Horner really did capture the exhilaration of flight quite beautifully, making one lament the dreary audio nonsense allowed to clutter so many movies in the current age.

9. The Land Before Time (1988)

Generations of eighties and nineties kids had their eyes turn raw off the back of Don Bluth’s tear-jerking dinosaur adventure, and a great deal of the movie’s impact must be credited to Horner. Always a composer who excelled at constructing long-form music pieces that traverse a host of different emotional cue points, Horner was tailor-made to score The Land Before Time, conjuring a wrenching tapesty of happiness and sadness in which the choral work in particular really gets the water-works going. His main theme of course formed the basis for Diana Ross’ hit end credits number If We Hold On Together.

10. Brainstorm (1983)

One of Horner’s early, career-defining success stories came with Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi drama, a story about a research team’s quest to record sensations from the brain. Best remembered as the final film of Natalie Wood (who died during production) the movie is also remembered today for Horner’s score, a bracingly unpredictable journey between dissonant terror and some of the most outstandingly beautiful compositions of his entire career, ones that would lay the melodic groundwork for many of his ensuing scores.

As proof, just check out the track Michael’s Gift To Karen – Horner simply doesn’t get better.

11. Krull (1983)

Horner had an oft-underrated penchant, particularly in the early stages of his career, for innovative experimentation, almost certainly the by-product of a young talented composer finally being able to let loose with all the toys at his disposal. His sweeping work on Peter Yates’ much-derided sci-fi fantasy is a grandiose and gargantuan one in every sense of the word, one of his first great epics that mixes heraldic brass fanfares (the famous Ride Of The Firemares) with pioneering electronic textures depicting the film’s otherwordly landscapes.

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In terms of nuance and sheer scope, Krull stands as one of Horner’s most impressive scores.

12. Aliens (1986)

One of Horner’s most notoriously difficult assignments ultimately yielded his first Oscar nomination, helping further establish his Hollywood credibility whilst also introducing a host of instrumental stylistics that would be developed in later years.

When it came to the xenomorph sequel Horner, struggling against impossible deadlines, continually clashed with James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd over the placement of his music but no matter how badly it was shredded in the movie, there’s no denying its brutal effectiveness. Mixing atonal terror with thunderous, timpani-led action sequences, it’s a landmark Horner work.

13. An American Tail (1986)

The first step in Horner’s longstanding collaboration with animator Don Bluth signalled his intuitive flair for family film scoring. With the very nature of animated soundtracks requiring long sequences of music hitting a great number of specific cue points, Horner found a perfect outlet for his warm and effusive style, able to range from light menace to heart-melting beauty in the course of just a few seconds.

And in the form of his wrenching ballad for our lonely Russian hero mouse Fievel, Somewhere Out There (emotively performed in the movie itself by voice actor Philip Glasser), Horner reinforced his formidable ability to pull on the heart strings and then some.

14. Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

Like many celebrated creatives Horner got his big break in the realms of B-movie exploitation. Early on in his career he was Roger Corman’s go-to composer and whatever may be said about the quality of the films, they certainly allowed Horner to assert himself in fine style. This shoddy Star Wars knock-off features an enveloping and exciting Horner fantasy score that pretty much laid the groundwork for his subsequent efforts in the genre; the echoing trumpets of the celebrated main theme in particular is a technique replicated in later classics like Aliens.

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15. The Mask Of Zorro (1998)

Much of Horner’s post-Titanic work dwelled within the realm of drama, but there was still delicious fun to be had in his rollicking score for Martin Campbell’s terrific Zorro reboot. Clearly cueing off the director’s Spielbergian sense of fun and Antonio Banderas’ swashbuckling lead, Horner broke away from his usual bag of tricks to unleash the full force of foot-stomping, hand-clapping flamenco, an approach that lends The Mask Of Zorro a sense of freshness and creativity compared to his other scores from the same period. With its memorable main theme and brilliantly constructed action sequences, it packs a real punch.

16. Titanic (1997)

An important watershed moment, Titanic was the first Horner/James Cameron partnership since 1986’s strained Aliens (a reunion inagurated by the latter’s love of the Braveheart score). It may have nabbed Horner his one-and-only Oscar but Titanic perhaps suffers more than his other scores on the basis of its now-dated synth choir sections; very much in vogue at the time of the film’s release, they can’t possibly hope to hold a fraction of the innovative impact they once did (and let’s not go near that Celine Dion number).

The true impact of Horner’s score resides in the stunning vocal work courtesy of Norwegian soprano Sissel, whose undulating voice is a lament for all those lost in the 1912 disaster.

17. Cocoon (1985)

Horner had a rare ability to conjure a sense of wonder in his scores, a sense of a steady build towards a moment of catharsis that’s genuinely earned. His music for Ron Howard’s enduringly popular fantasy, the story of a retirement community rejuvenated by an alien pod, was an important step in his early career, signalling the unashamed sense of melody and wide-eyed joy that was to become one of his trademarks.

Truly the Cocoon theme is one of his greatest creations, although its impact threatens to be lessened by virtue of all the other Horner scores that borrowed from it.

18. Willow (1988)

Horner was no shrinking violet when it came to cribbing his own material for different scores. Nor was he averse to liberally taking inspiration from past masters, often reworking entire passages in his own house style without crediting those he’d pilfered from (something that got him hit with a double lawsuit for Honey I Shrunk the Kids).

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Horner’s score for Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy leans heavily on the works of Robert Schumann, particularly his Rhenish Symphony, which makes appreciation of the score difficult. Nevertheless it’s a richly detailed and enjoyable experience, one that established many important Horner hallmarks including boy’s choir, shakuhaci wood flute and bold brass.

19. Testament (1983)

This relatively small-scale Horner score is no less powerful in its impact, a sure sign that the composer could wring a massive amount of emotion from even the most restrained material. An acclaimed nuclear drama exploring one family’s personal fallout against an apocalyptic backdrop, Testament is one of Horner’s most significant early works, utilizing sparing orchestral and choral textures to depict humanity slowly leaching from the face of the Earth, a soundtrack that manages the tricky feat of being both weighty and intimate.

20. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Superhero scores were in a bad way in the mid to late 2000s, bogged down in noisy bombast that sacrificed rich ideas for volume. Alan Silvestri restored credibility with Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, but it was Horner’s robustly exciting Spider-Man score that reminded us of what we’d been missing in the genre.

Picking up where Danny Elfman left off by anchoring proceedings around a memorably brassy main theme, where Horner really excels is in the tear-jerking romantic material for Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, re-introducing grace notes of sensitivity and compassion that had long been absent from soundtracks in this area.

21. Apocalypto (2006)

Horner and Mel Gibson made for formidable collaborators. Over the course of just three movies they established three distinct styles: understated melancholy (The Man Without A Face), richly bold Celtic drama (Braveheart)… and this savage blast of mayhem. Gibson’s ferociously gruesome Mayan adventure offered Horner a rich opportunity to step away from his more accessible approach and let rip with a whole host of brutal percussive and vocal effects, the joint vocals of Terry Edwards and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan growling beneath the onslaught.

A clear influence on Avatar but much less derivative a score in its own right, Apocalypto is one of Horner’s great late-period works.

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22. Avatar (2009)

The final collaboration between Horner and director James Cameron acted as a summation of sorts of the composer’s career. Horner’s infamous tendency to self-plagiarize his own material is rendered on an epic scale here, with bits and pieces of Titanic, The Spitfire Grill, Glory and Apocalypto blended into one sweeping package.

However, perhaps more than anything else Avatar embodies Horner’s key philosophy that film composition was akin to painting, motifs and textures borrowed and utilised in new contexts to create a sense of one great career canvas. It’s a controversial approach but one cannot deny the astonishing level of musical nuance and detail hidden within Avatar‘s musical fabric.

23. Commando (1985)

Horner went through a much-derided electronic period in the mid-eighties, with many of his works from the time best appreciated as relics of a bygone era rather than career highlights. With its abrasively synthetic nature, perky steel drums (and drum machines) and pervading sense of cheesiness, there’s no denying Arnie score Commando falls well within this bracket.

However, so ridiculous is it that one can’t help be swept along for the ride. Plus, it’s arguably the exact sort of score the movie needs: heroism laced with a self-aware sense of silliness.

24. The Missing (2003)

The longstanding collaboration between Horner and director Ron Howard, one stretching back to 1985’s Cocoon, came to an end with this gritty Cate Blanchett/Tommy Lee Jones Western. Horner apparently thought the movie lacked the courage of its convictions, although you’d never know it from his full-blooded and stirring score.

Always a composer juiced by grand drama, The Missing expertly mixes Horner’s lush string arrangements with fascinating vocal, woodwind and percussive elements alluding to Native American history, a haunting epic that singlehandedly encapsulates the passing of the old West.

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25. The New World (2005)

Working with the famed Terrence Malick on this 15th century epic turned out to be one of Horner’s most unpleasant and trying experiences. Ultimately the majority of the composer’s emotionally direct and lyrical material hit the cutting room floor – a familiar Malick story that also befell Days Of Heaven‘s Ennio Morricone and The Thin Red Line‘s Hans Zimmer.

However, at least their scores had a noteworthy presence in their respective movies; Horner’s largely gave way to classic staples. A listen to the album release reveals what a sumptuously beautiful and tender late-period work The New World is.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.