Of Horner and Patriotic Emotions



James Horner, composer (1953 – 2015)

Boredom beckons whenever xenophobic unionists express brute criticism of five-time Academy winning Braveheart but make no criticism of its music. If anything moves the spirit more than anything else it’s music. (There’s a link to music end of the essay.)

A brace of Academy awards must rankle – a lot! – almost as much as it mass popularity and regular appearances on television reruns, but do they realise how much James Horner’s film score alone moves the emotions?

The untimely death of composer James Horner is a great loss to good music lovers, and the film industry. Like Italy’s Ennio Morricone he had a distinct style easily identified, and could apply it to almost any idiom.

Like the best of film composers he was classically trained beginning his professional career as a concert composer and conductor. And again, like many another classically trained composer, Miklós Rózsa, for example, his concert compositions got lost in the far greater popularity of his film music.

Though American born, (from Austria-Hungry Jewish parents) he studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. His music degree comes his studentship at USC – University of Southern California – a great place to be a student if keen on film, the place a busy haven of film lectures and activity, some buildings funded by and named after America’s most outstanding filmmakers, its film course second to none.

To be honest I didn’t notice his arrival in the industry until late in his career. His first film credit was a Roger Corman starter, ‘Battle Beyond the Stars.‘ A Corman start supposes you work for your lunch and nothing more. Nor am I a fan of Star Trek’s camp formulaic trash though he scored two of the films. I believe Horner got that contract because the studio couldn’t afford the original composer, Jerry Goldsmith, but by the time a third Trek movie was on the slate they couldn’t afford Horner either. 48 Hours and Cocoon passed me by. So did Field of Dreams, though I found the fantasy of the plot strangely affecting.

It wasn’t until Aliens appeared and then Glory that I took note of a new talent. I took notice because I thought I was listening to a pupil of Prokofiev, so many passages are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and Alexander Nevsky. Later, I learned Horner was roundly castigated for lifting whole passages and modifying them to the right side of litigation. In the trade it’s called ‘borrowing music.’ In the Nineties, presumably more confident of his own skills, Horner became the ‘go to’ composer for Amblin’s (Spielberg’s company) children’s films, but it was Titanic that elevated Horner to the top echelons of movie composition. For my part, only the song remains in the memory, ‘My Heart Will Go On. (And on, and on, and on, and …)

Horner won the Oscar for Best Dramatic Score for Titanic, and for Céline Dion’s signature song. Unfortunately, he describes his collaboration with James Cameron, the film’s director, as a nightmare. The monstrous scale of that film plus changes in script, has to have imposed extra pressures on a composer as scenes are altered or dumped on the editing floor. “The script was essentially an intense love story. Cameron demanded I score without violins to avoid anything schmaltzy. In the end I defied him and used violins.”

Friends all the same

Artistic differences and disappointments notwithstanding, Horner got a second call from Cameron for Avatar.

The sound world that I created for ‘Avatar’ had to be very different, really, than anything I ever created before. There is also three hours of music. I had to find a sound world that covered so much territory; it had to cover  both the human side of the story and the indigenous side of the story and the tremendous, epic battles that take place as well as the love story that is at the core of the film. It wasn’t simply a matter of using existing instruments; I had to create new instruments, a whole library of instruments and sounds. I also found indigenous instruments, such as the gamelan, and digitized them and changed them slightly. I used a lot of voice and digitized that to create a sound world for myself, a palette of colours so that I was able to create worlds that satisfied [James Cameron] and his need for this new world to sound appropriate as a place that you had never been to. It had to be different and alien yet at same time have a warm quality.”

One has to think that Cameron took on Horner for Avatar because its theme is similar to Braveheart’s – a nation dominated by outsiders, colonialists who want its resources.


By sheer coincidence, Braveheart arrived in our cinemas at the same time as a resurgence of confidence in Scotland’s future expressed itself in political activism. For Braveheart Horner turned to ‘modulation’ and gave us a wonderful mixture of authentic Scots music suffused with its Irish origins. By this point in his career, his expertise cast in solid bronze, Horner utilises his considerable technique to raise our expectations with great subtlety. Watching the ‘Freedom’ speech, for example, it feels incredibly natural and satisfying, his music is laid very carefully underneath. We watch the scene expecting our patriotism to be inspired, and having our expectations met we feel imbued with confidence in the rightness of Scotland’s justified case for independence regained.

In the ‘defiance of tyranny” section the modulation is a change from one key to another, Horner ending with a perfect cadence, and then introduces new material in the minor mode. After the line “Run and you’ll live. At least a while.” William Wallace (Mel Gibson) has reached the hearts of his troops – and us, the real audience – and captured their attention, but when you analyse the speech you discover how short it is, almost attenuated to the point of terse, proving its Horner’s theme that really lifts our hearts and spirits.

Horner was a master of the mood shift.

As for Horner, born here who can tell what his sensitivity to indigenous music might have accomplished, perhaps a truly worthy Scottish national composer.

Before his death Horner scored two more films, Southpaw, and 33. Southpaw is in cinemas at the time of this essay, but not mainstream chains.

Composing music for films is very much a hit or miss affair. For an early documentary on the Italians in Orkney I commissioned two local lads who showed marked promise. Try as hard as they could they never got close to the Italian idiom, no matter how many passages from Verdi, Puccini, or Rossini I forced them to listen to. On another occasion, a film about an unemployed youth gang in Edinburgh, I chose the Royal Shakespeare Company’s music director, Guy Woolfenden, to compose the score. He had three good films to his credit. (We had collaborated on a highly successful stage musical on the General Strike set in the House of Commons.) He used a full orchestra. A year later Trainspotting, shot as if a pop video, used snatches from existing rock music and was the better for it.

On the other hand, for a drama shot in Dublin, I insisted on a local talent new to film composing. This delicate, nervous, white face lass met me and explained how she could handle the brief. I have 45 minutes of mostly unpublished music composed by a young Enya, the first to commission her. You win some, some you lose, some get their big break.

When a film’s images fade in the mind we remember the words and the music. But it’s the music that rekindles the emotional experience.

Patriotic Music To Swoon By:                                                                                                                                                                                                       Bravehearthttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHTkmN8A1T4



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12 Responses to Of Horner and Patriotic Emotions

  1. jimnarlene says:

    You’ve done it now, I’m going to watch Braveheart. Suspension of my historical knowledge, and a tear or two shed, to listen to the sounds that drive the emotion.
    Another great post, lang may the muse be with you.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Thanks, Jim.
    I try to stay close to the topical without duplicating the top-of-the-news issue, the one others are writing about. Incidentally, I’ve added a significant sentence just before the Braveheart poster and a little more about Last of the Mohicans.

    Plus you can click on the music end of the essay. 🙂

  3. John Bell says:

    It’s ‘Legends of the Fall’ that does it for me – an ok film with a superlative, tear-jerking score.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Will have a listen – and welcome! 🙂

  5. Jim Graham says:

    The Gael was, of course, written by Dougie MacLean and adapted and arranged for the film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ2MGloZV4U Listen all the way to the end.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    Many thanks for the link, Jim.

  7. YESGUY says:

    Nice one GB.

    I am a music buff myself. Love “The Gael” …..always feels just right . Such a shame to lose such a talent. You can be sure he will be remembered with his music .

    Another education GB. Good job .

    Braveheart funnily enough is one film i really enjoyed. Such a shame we haven’t had a Bruce film of any note as he is after all the real “Braveheart” or so i was taught. The Black Douglas took his Brave heart on crusade and returning to Scotland buried the heart in a secret place , to be brought back when Scotland needed a “braveheart” again.

    Could have done with that during the ref eh 😉

    Big thanks for the reminder that we Scots are a talented lot.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    “Could have done with that during the ref, eh?”
    You bet! 😉

  9. donald says:

    Being by trade a musical instrument maker I have a keen ear for good composition and the power of music to underscore and amplify whats best in us ,if its good music that’s authentic.
    All my favorite films just happen to be Last of the Mohicans, perhaps the one that speaks most to me emotionally . Avatar is in my opinion the most important film to fully understand in terms of justice and the fundamentals of physics . Mag lev , wormholes, time and space travel . The quantum world is under your nose but until your ready to wake up the giant sleeps . The elite know this and try to tether the elephant in the room with fear .

    Open the heart and you open the mind . Then come the dreams of flying and freedom . Truly ,this has been my experience. Titanic is a sleeping giant , the full meaning of which will become more apparent in the near future . The terminator films are proving to be prescient too as nano tech and 3D print melds with holographic/force field tech to produce virtual reality that you can fully immerse with and touch.
    Star Trek can be a tad LCD but its a vital intro for those who need their hands held a bit to grasp the radical shift that 21 century tech will bring to all our lives.
    Kahn the nightmare is based on a very real historical figure who plagues us still to this day and we would do well to ask what the heart of darkness is .

    While I am sure James Cameron can be strident in pursuit of his message and vision , Im sure he would have respected James Horner for sticking to his guns on the Violins .
    What most people don’t realize is that just about every musical instrument ever created started out as a weapon of the hunter/warrior . The violin is simply the combination of a shield and an archers Bow ! And im sure I don’t need to lecture the Scots about the bagpipes . Used for signals , range finding , psy ops , stirring up the courage of the men and so much more .

    The pen is mightier than the sword , but music stirs the soul and is the universal language of truth.
    So I will raise a glass to James Horner for sure tonight . A great man , a great composer and an inspiration to all those whose heart strings resonate to truth, freedom and love.

    Timely essay GB .

  10. donald says:

    Having some considerable personal experience with the Douglas Clan I can tell you that while some of them have honored their blood oath to their people , others have fallen short . This can be said of any family though, including mine .In the end we are the sum of our hearts and spirit . Any man can wave a flag and plead the patriot. Politicians do it all the time before they send your sons and daughters off to fight for them.
    Wallace fought for the people , the Bruce fought for power .
    When Hesse flew to Scotland he sought a Douglas to treat with . Why ?
    He must have saw the possibility of a deal.

    The patriot is blindly moved by flags. The true native, by love for his land and family . Mother nature pushes up the oats and barley ,the thistle and heather. Not the lairds skulking in their towers and plotting for position with strategic marriages of convenience.

    The true Gaelic/Celtic spirit was nurtured by love for mother earth long before the Hebrew god of vengeance came along. We would do well to return to our roots in the earth, not the bible and its rapacious ‘god’. You wave a flag that represents St Andrew , not the people. A Christian ‘martyr’ who was not even born in Scotland . Get a new flag that is washed clean of that stain and represents your home better.

    How many churches feud over the same damn bible interpretation ? Look what The catholic church has done to Ireland let alone Scotland. All these ‘heroes’ such as St Patrick and Bonnie Prince Charles ! Pah . Dissembling thieves and crooks ,the lot of them.
    Yet even now ,with all the exposure of pedophilia and corruption ,people still worship the totems that keep these bastards in place.

    The law of flags holds that the flag you salute/pay homage to, determines the laws you abide by. Did you see any Saltire’s flying in Braveheart ? NO. Just sons of Scotland fighting for freedom.

    “We did not come to fight for them ! “. Damn right.

    Your freedom has been hijacked by a flag that represents the crown , Jehovah and the Elite , not you ,the people of Scotland .Born of the earth on which you stand ,raised by its soil and water . That is your claim and right . How about a plain blue flag with a thistle at its heart ? Aye ,there’s a worthy symbol any Scot can embrace . A tough hardy ,thorny plant that weathers the hardest conditions with ease and a crown that bursts to spread seeds far and wide .

    Outlawed tunes played on outlawed pipes . Outlawed sons of the earth , pleading under a false flag of truce to lairds who sell them out with patriotic symbols not their own.
    See the whole truth In Braveheart , its there if you dig a little deeper.

  11. Tom Hudson says:

    I’m a bit confused, though: James Horner didn’t compose the score to Last of the Mohicans. That was Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman.

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re absolutely correct – one favourite strayed into another. Shouldn’t trust memory. Reference duly removed! South African Edelman is one of the few composers who turns to the very English Elgar for emotional inspiration!

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