James Horner’s contributions to the world of film scores cannot be underestimated. Well known for his scores for movies such as Aliens, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Jumanji, The Titanic, and many others, Horner’s work has long been popular amongst cinema lovers everywhere. While many may know the Star Trek movie franchise, some might be surprised to learn that James Horner was responsible for the majority of their scores. Of course, this includes one of the most popular Star Trek movies of all time: The Wrath of Khan. Known to many fans as one of the very best movies of the series, at least some of the film’s success must be attributed to Horner’s score. The musical contributions in the movie “The Wrath of Khan” by James Horner helped to propel this film to the top of the list to many Star Trek fans by providing dramatic tension to the scenes.
James Horner was born on August 14th, 1953, and died on June 22nd of 2015. His early life was spent in Los Angeles with his parents, Jewish immigrants from Canada and Hungary, and his brother Christopher, who is currently a writer and documentarian. As a youth, he attended the Royal College of Music in the UK, and later attended both the Verde Valley School in Arizona and the University of Southern California. He later received his PhD in music from UCLA, as well as teaching a class on music theory there. Horner’s first major film score came with the 1979 film The Lady in Red. His emergence as a major player in cinema composition came in 1982, with the score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This score is what skyrocketed James Horner’s career, establishing him as a big-budget film composer in Hollywood.
In working throughout the 80’s until his death in a plane crash in 2015, James Horner’s work has really encompassed this most recent modern era of American film scores. In many ways, his scores have developed and refined the genre alongside the work of other iconic film composers of this era, such as John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, and many others. James Horner’s style can be best described as highly dramatic and orchestral, using elements of classical orchestra music alongside elements such as choral music and Celtic influences. Though these are now common elements in many film scores, at the time Horner began composing it was not the norm. In the 1980’s, movies such as Blade Runner and Tron popularized film scores entirely composed of synthetic sound effects, creating a sound that was futuristic and otherworldly. However, these scores tend to serve as more of a background layer of noise, which doesn’t always enhance or interact with what’s going on onscreen. James Horner’s work was part of a movement that revitalized the use of a fuller, orchestral sound. This can especially be seen in one of Horner’s most popular scores of all time, the soundtrack to Titanic. The score’s melodramatic and grandiose use of strings help to enhance the emotional impact of some of the most famous scenes from the movie, such as Jack’s death.
The first of the original Star Trek films was scored by Jerry Goldsmith, a composer Horner himself stated he was heavily influenced by. However, Horner wanted his distinctive voice to come through, and the producers of Star Trek II wanted the score to sound updated, more modern. The score for Wrath of Khan contains many of the elements that would be included in James Horner’s later soundtracks. These include a large orchestra alongside electronic synth effects in combination to create a sound that is sweeping, grandiose, and truly epic in scale. As in most of his scores, it is easy to tell that he wrote coming from a background of classical music. Horner often makes use of leitmotifs; a musical device often used in opera. With this technique, shots of characters, settings, and places (such as Captain Kirk or outside shots of the Enterprise) are accompanied by their own short recurring theme, little melodies that represent them. This helps to increase dramatic tension, sometimes by warning the audience of a character’s arrival at a dangerous place, or letting us know that a character is not to be trusted—often before the other characters do. This is similar to the scores of musicals and operas, which use themes throughout the score to evoke feeling and create dramatic tension.
In an interview with the magazine Cinema Music, James Horner described how he wanted his music to be remembered. He states that, “It’s always the marriage between music and picture that sticks in people’s mind. The music can help with the mood of the film and therefore it gets remembered.” Judging by the many scores he created throughout his impressive career, especially in the music of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Horner’s music most definitely fulfills these standards. His use of classical-style music to create dramatic tension enhances every movie he scored. His work will undoubtedly be remembered as definitive of the late 20th-early 21st century’s contributions to film score composition.
- “CINEMA MUSICA: INTERVIEW WITH JAMES HORNER.” JAMES HORNER. Cinema Music, 23 July 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
- “FOND MEMORIES – EPISODE 1: 1953-1978 – A MUSICAL EDUCATION.”JAMES HORNER. N.p., 26 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
- “National Jazz Archive.” National Jazz Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.