I spent most of an afternoon last week listening to selections of James Horner's music. It was a small token of appreciation for the composer, 61, who died in a plane crash. And it was a mere sliver of his life's work -- mostly the unforgettably brilliant score of Braveheart. Film composers are unsung heroes almost by nature.
Like an umpire or referee, you tend to notice them at their most overbearing -- read: not best -- moments. But they are integral to the medium nonetheless, capable of setting the mood in pitch blackness, before an actor utters a line or a camera pans or zooms.
If you are here already, my guess is Horner's name registered when this news broke. His score for Titanic is the best-selling orchestral film soundtrack ever (thanks, Wikipedia!), after all. But even if you are as appreciative of and obsessed with film scores as I am, my guess is that the breadth and depth of his work may have surprised you.
If nothing else, his age probably raised an eyebrow. Horner was truly prolific. Starting in 1982 with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he bordered on ubiquity. A simple bit of subtraction tells you that he spent his entire adult life working on major motion pictures, and that he was a pretty much instant success. He was 28 when Khan was released. Most of us will spend our entire lives trying to work on something as momentous as a Star Trek movie. And the range from there forward is staggering.
He did action (Commando, Aliens, Patriot Games, Jumanji) and family films (An American Tail, Field of Dreams, Honey, I Shrunk the Kid, The Rocketeer) and fantasy (Willow, Avatar) and sweeping historical epics (Glory, Braveheart, Titanic, Apollo 13) and quiet pensive dramas (A Beautiful Man).
At least to my attuned ear, there isn't a defining quality to his sound like, say, John Williams. But I'd like to think that's a positive -- that Horner blended in to each of the films he worked on.
That Braveheart score of his remains my favorite of any that I have heard. Even if it isn't yours, there's a halfway decent chance that one of Horner's pieces might be, whether you connect the work to his name or not.