By Michael W. Harris
N.B.—This is a lightly edited form of my remarks delivered at the 2016 Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference held in Atlanta and the 2016 Music and the Moving Image conference held at New York University. Hence why this is nearly twice the length of my normal post.
James Horner has been a divisive figure in the film music community, fandom and scholarship alike, for many years. The cause of this division stems from Horner’s predilection for not only lifting material from other composers—Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich to name but two—but also from routinely recycling material from his own scores. But the legal debate over copyright and plagiarism is best left to the Hollywood lawyers, but understanding the debate surrounding Horner is important. His own explanations of his style and reuse changed over the years and in interviews he had even started pre-empting the question because he had heard it so much. Perhaps his most interesting defense of his music came in a 2004 interview with Film Score Monthly. In it, Horner says:
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last few months. Unlike anything else, when you write a score for a movie, somebody else owns the score; it’s not mine. If I’m a writer and I write a story or if I’m a painter and I paint a painting, the idea of a proprietary, copyrighted thing doesn’t occur as strictly as it does in music. You write a film score and you develop interesting ideas and you think you’d love to explore that more in your next score or in a serious piece—if you’re a painter you can do a whole series of paintings on a theme…In [film] music, once you’ve written it, it belongs to somebody else, and it’s a very hard thing to come up with a completely different personality in every film. It’s part of your nature, as it is in every art…[This is] the sort of thing that [film] music suffers from—that you can’t continue a style or explore ideas you’ve explored before, because they don’t belong to you. I would say, more recently, it’s harder and harder to be completely fresh each time. No other discipline requires that quite as dramatically as the music does.”
The aim of this post is not to engage in the wider debate of if Horner’s music is “good” or not. Rather, it will examine one of his earliest scores for the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), which is also the oldest score of Horner’s for which both music and film are readily available, and compare it to the music for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) as they are the scores that launched his career into a higher level and made him an in-demand composer in Hollywood. The link between these scores is strong and at times, Battle Beyond the Stars sounds like both an audition tape for the Kahn gig and a loving homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture score—which he reportedly copied at Roger Corman’s request. From these scores I will begin to develop a framework for a James Horner style, identifying stylistic calling cards, one might even say “topics,” that recur in his scores. In the end, though, my purpose is to explore and engage with many of the tropes that are present in Horner’s later work which have their roots in both the Trek and Battle scores. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “I have come here to understand Horner, not to start a flame war over him.”
To begin, let’s examine one of the clearest cases of Horner copying from himself between these two films: “Shad’s Pursuit” from Battle Beyond the Stars. This cue served as a beginning point of many cues found later in Star Trek II. The base line “groove” makes an appearance in numerous Khan cues, and in numerous later scores, and serves as general “tense” music.
More strongly reminiscent between the two scores, though, is a music gesture that most Trek fans will remember from when Spock points out the battle damage to the Enterprise after Khan’s initial attack. Also included for comparison in the below video is a clip from Horner’s Wolfen score, which was written in-between Battle Beyond the Stars and Wrath of Khan, and also features numerous cues that provided material for later films, including the Klingon theme from Trek III. In this video you hear very similar string lines and the punctuation by the low trombones.
In two examples we can see that even this early in his career, Horner was already borrowing from himself, but since it is only dedicated Horner fans that usually track down Battle Beyond the Stars, let alone watch the film—which is essentially Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai…IN SPACE—not many noticed the practice until later in his career after he had scored more blockbuster films. But, as Horner noted in his quote above, musicians of all stripes, from classical to pop, borrow and recycle from themselves. To wit, I present one of Horner’s favorite composers, Serge Prokofiev, and the gavottes from the Classical Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet ballet.
But let’s look at how both scores begin: a rousing main title theme that sets our spacefaring adventures in motion. But in both Battle and the Treks, Horner begins not with a loud brass fanfare—a la Star Wars, the film that spurred the reviving of the Trek franchise— rather it starts with a soft instrumental sound pad which lays the harmonic foundation for his title cue before launching into the melodic content. And this sort of opening is by no means isolated in Horner’s career, it is basically his go to opening device. He establishes the foundation before letting the music bubble up from almost nothing. There are other variants that follow this pattern, the textless chorus, chimes, and others, but the basic idea remains the same. And while this is not a literal copying of material, it is a stylistic trope that is became one of Horner’s signatures.
But beyond copying from himself, many critics single Horner out because of his copying of classical composers, especially the Russian masters. From Rachmaninoff to Prokofiev, and especially Shostakovich, Horner unabashedly lifts from many of his musical forbearers. But he was not alone, John Williams has also learned a lot from them, especially Prokofiev—whose score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky basically laid the groundwork for Hollywood scoring. Again, the reason why we single out Horner might be because he doesn’t hide it as well. He makes it easier for us to point out.
Twice in Battle Horner dips into his reserve of Russian music for inspiration. First is when he borrows from Prokofiev’s seminal music for Alexander Nevsky’s Battle on the Ice. In that cue, Horner blends the accompaniment from Goldsmith’s music for the Klingons in Star Trek: The Motion Picture with the rumbling low brass from Prokofiev’s Nevsky cue. Horner later interpolates this music into part of his own music for the Klingons in Star Trek III.
The second time he borrows from the Russians is when he references the third movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #5, which he mined for material numerous times in his career. In this instance, Horner takes the basic musical material and gestures of an oboe solo and uses it to accompany the death of Gelt in Battle Beyond the Stars.
In Star Trek III, Horner once again turned to Prokofiev for material to help depict the melancholy of the Enterprise crew as their ship faces its impending decommissioning. The theme first appears in the score as the damaged Enterprise approaches space dock at the beginning of the film and flies past the Excelsior, a ship that is supposed to replace the aging Federation flagship. It then reappears as the Enterprise self-destructs and falls out of the sky above the Genesis Planet. In this way, the melody can be heard as a sort of requiem for the ship, so it might be fitting that Horner turned to the music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet that is for Juliet’s death and funeral, the same Romeo and Juliet ballet that I mentioned earlier as featuring Prokofiev borrowing from himself.
If there is one motif that Horner fans and critics alike know by name, it is his so-called “Danger Motif.” This brief, four note motif, is heard many times throughout his career. The first true instance of it seems to be in Wrath of Khan, but there are hints of it in earlier scores, including Battle Beyond the Stars, especially in the battle music and Horner’s lift from Alexander Nevsky mentioned above. This motif is the Horner stylistic trademark that his detractors like to cite the most as his over-reliance on previous work and his overall lack of creativity and originality. Many have even said that this motif is another instance of Horner lifting from a classical composer, in this case the first symphony of Serge Rachmanioff.
What we hear in these varied examples, though, is Horner putting the motif in different musical settings, like trying to discover the best place for a shelf or painting in a room, seeing what affect it might have in a different context. How one sets a melodic figure can change it in radical ways. From the methodical, deliberate setting of the danger motif heard in Khan, to the frantic pace of it heard in the cue “Achilles Leads the Myrmidons” from Troy. You could call the danger motif Horner’s signature, not unlike Dimitri Shostakovich’s DSCH motif, the four note sequence that musically spelled out Shostakovich’s name, using the German names for S and H. Shostakovich’s motif appears in many of his works, notably in every movement of the Eighth String Quartet and as the opening motive in the Cello Concerto.
I could go on with these comparisons: the kernel of the main theme from Star Trek II and III is embedded in the main theme from Battle Beyond the Stars. A trumpet riff from Battle appears in Trek III. And most funny, to me at least, is Horner’s barely hidden lift of the accompaniment for his love theme for Battle from Goldsmith’s score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Enough people, though, have gone examined these lifts endlessly and I need to add to those lists, but this just leads us back to the same reality: Horner is by no means alone in this practice. Composers have reused motifs and ideas from earlier composers since at least the medieval period. There is nary a composer or music student who has not reused the Gregorian chant of “Dies Irae” from the requiem mass in some project. Surprisingly, the “Dies Irae” might be one of the few pieces Horner has not explicitly used.
What these comparisons show to me, though, is an artist who was deeply indebted to his first success, both Battle and Khan, and who continued to return to it in search of further inspiration, along with looking to those who inspire him musically—reworking, revisiting, and reimagining these materials in new and different ways. As Horner said in the interview I quoted earlier: “You write a film score and you develop interesting ideas and you think you’d love to explore that more in your next score.” And while critics might say that the “motif” or melody doesn’t change, which is largely true, the material that Horner surrounds it with does change, like I discussed with the above “danger motif.”
I said at the outset that I wanted to begin to reach an understanding of Horner’s style via these early scores. Battle Beyond the Stars and Star Trek represent some of the earliest Horner works we have access to, and as I’ve shown they demonstrate the genesis of much of his musical style. I also said at the outset that I didn’t want to start a flame war over Horner. But it is hard to try and understand Horner and to not also knock down many of his detractors. In understanding that yes, he did lift, copy, and reuse his own work and the works of others, it is important to note that all artists do the same thing. T.S. Eliot once said of poets, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different,” a sentiment that is sometimes attributed to a number of different artists of all disciplines—the musical version is usually credited to Igor Stravinsky. But regardless, the sentiment rings true, as all artists are inspired to create their art by those that came before, it is fashioned in a web wherein meaning is created through its relationship with other works. But where does Horner and his style lay on the immature/mature continuum? That seems to be the crux of the question before us. One that I am not quite prepared to answer.
In the scores discussed above, Battle Beyond the Stars and Star Treks II and III, Horner was still a beginning film composer at the start of his career, though by this time he had already completed his PhD in composition at UCLA and had turned to film after being frustrated by teaching and being an “academic composer.” But one luxury academia affords to composers that Hollywood does not is time. After 1982 and Khan, Horner became an in-demand composer, scoring seven films in 1983, 2 in ’84, 5 each in ’85 and ’86, and similar numbers throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1993 alone he scored or worked on 11 films. After his success with Titanic he started to slow down—partially thanks to the huge royalties he was raking in—and would become much more selective about his projects, scoring only 1-3 films a year. This included his replacement score for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, completed in about four weeks after Gabriel Yared, who had worked on the score for over a year, was fired one day after a bad test screening.
And it is the music for Troy that might have triggered the most scathing critic of Horner’s work. In 2004, music critic Alex Ross wrote a review of the score on his blog The Rest Is Noise, and after listing off the sources that he heard Horner lifting from—Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Benjamin Britten among them—he wrote:
“There are two possible interpretive approaches to this challenging opus. One is that Horner is presenting us with a kind of musical meta-narrative of deconstructive requotation—a postmodern tour-de-force on par with the Pierre Menard Don Quixote. Notice the emphasis on Shostakovich and Prokofiev, two composers who served unwillingly as mouthpieces for totalitarian terror. We are being told that the hero Achilles has let himself become a figurehead for the tyrannical Agamemnon. The citation of Britten, meanwhile, is a sly acknowledgement of the story’s homoerotic subtext, which was evidently omitted for fear of persecution by the Bush regime. Thus, music becomes what Theodor W. Adorno might call a negative dialectic of original unoriginality, allowing the seeming banality of impoverished invention to serve as a vessel for the lamentations of the outcast. By reducing other people’s masterworks to cheap ditties, Horner shakes his fist at the suffocating weight of bourgeois culture. In the absence of an individual voice, we are given to perceive the destruction of individuality itself.
That’s one explanation. The other is that the man is a hack.”
I do not subscribe to Ross’ stark binary, and it is likely that Ross himself was overstating the case for his audience, as so many of us might do when we write on our blogs. However, he does nicely illustrate the extreme views that some hold of Horner, part of the reason why it is tough to reconcile the legacy he left for us after his sudden death in 2015. But by putting his style in some context by looking at his early works, and recognizing the musical traditions he was seemingly working in, we can begin to approach that legacy from a position of understanding rather than polarized opinions.