"I am a stone … I do not move…" Opening shot: two characters hunched down in the snow… immobile… waiting… silent. The strands of music come and go, thin and crystal-clear. (James Horner actually has built-in pauses for this scene, truly a rarity in film scoring.) The music is in a state of suspension, mirroring the calm before the storm that is about to descend upon Stalingrad. The music breathes as the characters do, with eerie strings drifting through the scales, reflecting the glances that the hunters and prey interchange. Acting instinctively, the old hunter is torn between hunger and fear, his grandson is patient yet uncertain. The music is stealth-like; it ebbs and flows, expressing both the deliberate lead-up to the imminent confrontation and the intensity of the hunters’ gazes. This duel in the Ural mountains will be left undecided, but the tentative threads point unmistakably to the inner conflict of the protagonist, who dozes off even as he is headed for a rendezvous with destiny. Which one is held by the gun: the victim or the aggressor? Which one is the beast: man or prey? The stage is clearly a metaphor for war, yet the music wisely refrains from settling the conflict and is quite content to foreshadow what, in the midst of conflicting emotions, will be the film’s core issue. Rather than taking sides, this story is about that barbarous madness that drives men to wipe each other out. The music is strong in its simplicity and eloquently profound. It flirts with silences in order to offset the extreme confusion and tension reflected in the gaze of a man already lost in the absurdity of a destiny that confounds him.
The film’s title is overwhelmingly clear from this opening image, which speaks volumes about Vassili Zaïtsev’s nature and that of the mission on which he embarks. The enemy has arrived at the city’s gate and must be ousted. The wolf, on the other hand, is indifferent to the events that will unravel, heedless of fury or death. And yet the animal will fall. James Horner is intelligent enough to keep the score from offering any absolution. Instead, the music takes us from this scene to the next, two worlds that will be revealed to have more in common than meets the eye. The death motif surges and retreats, not unlike a somber omen of the war that has been set in motion.
Together again under fire
Fifteen years after THE NAME OF THE ROSE and its bewitching electronic anachronisms, James Horner again teams up with director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Horner keenly responds to the strength of the drama, finding an ideal arena in which to express the love he has always cherished for the great Russian masters. Likewise, the director does little to hide his admiration of the Russian film pioneer, Sergeï M. Eisenstein. Horner meets Annaud under fire and delivers a score that will prove to be a cornerstone of his rich filmography. Thirteen years later, this rare blend of orchestral fury and resonating harmonies still stands as one of the composer’s finest, ushering in a decade rich in emotions and musical experiments. Granted, gone is the time when the Maestro has headed various industry lists and polls. That the French director has remained loyal to his composer of choice when others have not bears testament to the lasting merits of this masterful score.
Even after multiple viewings, ENEMY AT THE GATES remains a strong film, its commitment avowedly artistic and not political. This is a film which says its piece and firmly stands by it. Intimidating and elusive, Annaud’s film still asks of us the willingness to invest ourselves into the story and its characters. Once you’ve accepted the choices made by the screenwriter and the paradoxes in which the director indulges, you cannot help but be amazed by the sumptuous yet restrained staging, which effortlessly alternates between the large epic and the small stories, although first impressions are somewhat misleading. What looks like an anecdote takes on new meaning and truth when the historic reality invades personal stories. But the music never fails to illuminate the characters’ emotions and the journeys they are on, journeys which run parallel at times, but are often seen to be contrary or even complementary. This is home turf for James Horner the emotionalist, who is able to unleash a storm one minute and soothe aching grief the next.
Jean-Jacques Annaud has developed a knack for big-budget productions. And yet much to his credit, he resolutely sides with his characters, not allowing them to be eclipsed by the sweep of the action yet showing great mastery in the obligatory set pieces. Annaud puts his characters first and weaves around them a web of overwhelming drama or intimate reflection. The same can be said about the music: it alternates between rousing grand orchestral gestures and cues of infinitely delicate restraint. It does not hesitate to slow the proceedings down if a single look says it all. Horner scores both the blood-spattered battlefields and the hypnotic attraction of a simple gaze, never allowing characters to be overtaken by the relentless march of history. Horner translates their voices, their actions and their feelings into music that keenly comments on the spectacular battles but remarkably refrains from being overbearing. The music is nervous and virtuosic when it bursts forward during the film’s many brief flashes of violence breaking up stretches of meditative reflection. Annaud’s directorial choices take their cue from the intelligent screenplay, written like a sluggish threnody punctuated by sudden shocks that unsettle the viewer and throw the characters’ emotions and intentions into utter turmoil. Rigorous and precise, the score takes its time when the story needs it to. It highlights the urgency of the emotions – the beautiful love scene, for example, after the one in THE NAME OF THE ROSE – while at the same time pointing to their universal nature. ENEMY AT THE GATES uses subtle, poetic digressions to contrast the horrors of war, staged realistically and at times graphically but devoid of any sensationalism whatsoever. In doing so, the film paints with forceful strokes while also approaching its subject matter in a somewhat novel fashion, just as James Horner transcends his own classicism, filled to the brim with joy and suffering, hope and despair. Beyond its Gallic stamp, the ninth film by the most international of French directors remains remarkably dignified and serene, fueled by a score which aims straight or quite intentionally chooses the long way around. The music is all the more poignant for respecting the human scale of things and finding emotions where they originate most naturally. Horner is both dry and emotionally engaged in his observation of the ravages of war, circumstances which end up utterly defeating the individual soul. His humanist spin on a story written in blood and fire lends the film integrity and luster. It is a work of subdued magnificence. How’s that for a definition of the Hornerian touch?
The 2000s are a watershed in James Horner’s career in many regards. They could be viewed as his best decade in terms of quality and experimentation, boasting music both stylistically accomplished and cohesive in its eclectic influences. Numerous are the scores which bring closure to the composer’s obsessions, be it the fusion of orchestra and electronics, the symphonic and the traditional, fury and intimacy, all thrown into the mix or strikingly separate… Let it suffice to mention a few titles: A BEAUTIFUL MIND, IRIS, THE FOUR FEATHERS, BEYOND BORDERS, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, THE NEW WORLD, APOCALYPTO, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS. The Maestro’s talent, savoir faire, and personality all shine through in the scores composed during those ten intense years. The decade treated us to a slew of scores that are as much high-quality as they are infused with a giddy sense of innovation. Taken together, they form a body of work that resembles a dizzying whirlwind of music, which makes us regret all the more the turn his activities have taken in the past few years. If there are two elements which might keep the 2000s from being branded the most accomplished decade of James Horner’s career, it must be the two-fold abandonment, both on the part of the composer and on the part of the directors who once championed him and sought him out. James Horner himself has proven to be intransigent in his artistic choices, which benefits the integrity of his work but is a debatable move from a strategic point of view. At the same time, once-faithful directors and, to a certain extent, the Hollywood system have been turning their backs on him. Horner’s is a musical style that is no longer the flavor of the day, especially when it comes to blockbusters. Truth be told, Horner has always tried to balance big-budget projects with more intimate fare lest he should end up a prisoner of the system. In fact, musical potential and artistic liberty have always been more important to Horner than wide exposure and the lure of fame. It all shows a musician pursuing a career dedicated to the development of his art, aiming for maximum exposure (hence his choice to work in films instead of concert halls) but not at any cost. His choices mean that Horner is no longer in demand as much as he once was, a trend which started, paradoxically, right after his biggest success. At this point, James Cameron, Jean-Jacques Annaud and a rapidly fading Mel Gibson are the last renowned directors to swear by Horner. Ironically, the composer’s long-standing affiliation with both Cameron and Annaud got off to a similarly rocky start: THE NAME OF THE ROSE was a frustrating experience for Horner and after ALIENS, he swore that he would never again work with the dictatorial James Cameron. Meanwhile, AVATAR, TITANIC and ENEMY AT THE GATES have smoothed things over and Horner now routinely delivers masterful scores for these two directors, who avowedly are not the most prolific. WOLF TOTEM (a wolf, again!) marks Horner’s fourth project with Annaud, and who knows, maybe this film will bring an end to Horner’s crossing of the desert.
A poem about love and death
James Horner’s return to the world of Jean-Jacques Annaud follows the composer’s relative dissatisfaction with the electronic experimentation in THE NAME OF THE ROSE– we don’t mind too much, we actually happen to think that the score stands the test of time rather elegantly. More importantly, ENEMY AT THE GATES was another chapter in the collaboration between two men who share a cinematic vision and especially ideas about the marriage between film and music. Horner’s music is highly individual yet universal in its appeal and this score is all violence and poetry, conflagration and meditation.
ENEMY AT THE GATES is a film about love and war, disenchantment and survival. Apart from the battle scenes, during which Horner unleashes an orchestral sound mass more representative of the chaos and the destruction than of the people that cause them, the music breathes organically and naturally, settling on one theme and staying loyal to it. The melody is put through endless variations, complementing the changes in emotions and scenes, hopeful one moment and desolate the next, the monothematic nature of the score seemingly unaware of the many sides there are to the conflict. Hence the choice, both in the film and in the score, to shift the gaze from the larger picture of war and destruction, and focus on the individual stories of men and women who, crushed by the system, take refuge in the power of their inner life.
Horner draws from a Mahlerian theme (Symphony nr. 8, Infirma Nostri Corporis…) that he had previously toyed with in BALTO’s Heritage of the Wolf cue, another score heavily influenced by the Russians. Horner had also integrated the theme into the finale of APOLLO 13 (Re-entry and Splashdown). In fact, John Williams himself had taken a page from Mahler’s book when he composed the famous SCHINDLER’S LIST theme. James Horner fully, even feverishly develops the melody’s hypersensitive lyricism. The theme does not exist unto itself and cannot be taken for a synthesis of the full subject matter. Rather, it serves the story and the characters, as always with this composer. It accents, transcends and paints but it never invades. As such, it is a luminous counterpoint to the dreadful four-note motif drawn itself from the classical (Wagner, Rachmaninov) and film music repertoire (Miklos Rozsa, Philip Glass) and pushed by Horner to its very limits. James Horner captures in music what words can’t convey, and the effect is all the more natural and enveloping for being sober and unobtrusive. In fact, if all themes are just skeletons that composers dress up more or less effectively, James Horner must truly be a master tailor, effortlessly choosing the right fabrics and all the right colors and matching them to perfection. James Horner has a voice all his own, but at the same time, this composer has always been aware of the heritage all composers draw from. He looks back fondly on the masters of the past and is not afraid to channel their music when he has a chance to, achieving a sense of dignified continuity: there’s Sergei Prokofiev (IVAN THE TERRIBLE and WAR AND PEACE) in GLORY, there’s Aram Katchaturian (Gayaneh’s Adagio) in PATRIOT GAMES (Electronic Battlefield) and Dimitri Shostakovich (fifth symphony’s Largo) in CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (Looking For Clues, Greer’s Funeral / Betrayal). There are many more illustrious examples. Horner frequently turns to musical ideas from the past and then goes on to develop their potential to the fullest. One might even say that he improves on them. Lest we forget, Horner’s predecessors had done the exact same thing: they had been aware of their heritage and developed it, thus keeping it vibrantly alive. Only an ignorant listener would fault Horner for perpetuating this cycle and adding new accents of his own along the way.
Whether one approves of this vision or not, it bears testament to Horner’s cleverness. Yes, The River Crossing To Stalingrad has shades of Dmitri Shostakovich – his music is openly quoted at the start of Danilov’s Confession. Horner uses the influence for the savagery and the intensity of the choir material. However, the choir never dominates the orchestra, rather, it complements the action and infuses it with emotion. James Horner goes back to the Russian roots but never forgets what the film is really about and respects its silences. Whatever criticism might be leveled at Horner’s inspirations and obsessions or at his avant-garde approach based on the musical past that lives on inside him and expresses itself without restraint, the composer’s ability to look beyond the emotion at hand and paint with all the right colors is just what Stalingrad’s ruins needed.
Transcendant four-note leitmotiv
It’s clear from the first bars: the sense of contrast and blending together, in form or content. As he often does in his most introspective scores, the maestro gets off to a soft start, if for no other purpose than to make the roaring crescendos stand out even more, pitting innocence against destruction. After the apparently peaceful prelude, undulating strings sparsely punctuated by chimes transport us with remarkable ease to the arena of the carnage that is to come, and are allowed to blossom after a tentative harmonic progression, not unlike two friends trying to spot each other in the crowds. The score’s main theme softly rises above the mass of sound as Vassili and Tania’s gazes meet for the first time. The score is all about anticipation and memory, a circle that never really closes. Using introspective choir material, the composer, more neutral and compassionate himself, goes on to direct his attention to these men confounded by a terrible fate. A triangle theme appears and the orchestra gradually swells as it reveals an individual who, like his fellow soldiers, is drawn into the infernal circus of war. The rhythm changes dramatically with increasingly choppy string figures, mirroring the urgency and confusion of the events that unfold, whereas the insistent percussion seems to lure the soldiers into a precipice that opens up right in front of them.
Four notes that appear from nowhere and blend into the orchestra’s monstrous incantations. True evil has yet to rear its ugly head, and before long, it rises out of the rhythmic acceleration in the midst of the fray, looking for its prey and engulfing the soldiers.
The tone moves from grim to tortured and finally desperate, the music commenting on the distress and the fear of the infantry who feel death sneaking up on them, unsure when exactly it will hit. From here on in, the tension, the suffering and the devastation are palpably real. A vista shot of Stalingrad besieged by flames is underlined by choir material that sounds both noble and icy, pointing towards the film’s almost documentary and cold interpretation of war.
Four notes that infiltrate all corners of Stalingrad and are henceforth an unmistakable part of the orchestra’s narrative and dramatic journey, assuming all forms of disguise in order to prepare their terrible onslaught.
Four notes that spring up and take over whenever the combat intensifies and drives the soldiers to a fate that is deafening as much as it is inexorable. Death goes to work, mowing down troops without mercy. It’s war, and the score makes it abundantly clear.
Four notes, again and again, from one film to the next, from one scene to the next, and yet always relevant and relentlessly effective.
The horn exclamations echo the voices and the suffering of men. They precede the outburst of the percussion section and prove that the maestro has not yet exploited the potential of the brass section to the fullest. He demonstrates with panache his sense of drama and contrast. The implacable percussion instruments systematically smother the cries and the tears, but give way again to the brass, as the soldiers’ voices burst out in agony. A symbol of survival, the triangle theme reappears over a bed of soothing strings, but is buried before long by dissonant choir material commenting on the losses sustained by the Russians and the crushing superiority of the German Wehrmacht. Destined to be mere cannon fodder, Vassili is still seen to be in a state of utter isolation.
Four notes that take root in occupied territory and drain the choir’s magnificence, which slowly peters out under their influence. The soothing nobility of the trumpet is drowned out by oppressive double basses and celli. As they ready for the decisive attack, a lifeless crescendo builds up like a wall that stops the breathless infantry in their tracks. The soldiers await their orders and deaths are quite happy just to sit by and smile at the spectacle to come. Horner’s move is a simple but remarkably effective one from a dramatic point of view: a two-second silence that seems to last an eternity.
Four notes that growl and snarl in all directions, galvanizing the troops. The only way to survive is to fight. The only way to achieve victory is to believe in it. This moment marks the start of an orchestral hurricane that leaves no room for doubt and restraint. As life’s flame withers, the four-note motif still gives the soldiers every chance of survival, hence the carefully constructed energy of the orchestrations. Hope and courage are stronger than ever in this moment of utter folly and carnage.
Four notes that grow impatient and keen to put an end to this game of massacre yet repeat obsessively until the last soldier has fallen. Only after a final victorious roar do they vanish, exactly as they had appeared, but more savagely, as if to celebrate the realization of their grim designs. The battle has only just begun and the choir becomes more expressive, more engaged, looking towards the future and this leitmotiv called hope. Since there is purpose to music and no place in it for coincidence, and since life is an eternal circle, The River Crossing To Stalingrad ends with the same erratic allegretto it started with, but the silences have been removed and a pianissimo drum makes sure we understand that insouciance has given way to disenchantment.
The light of the black jewel
As the cue’s title indicates, Vassili’s Name Spreads follows the rise of a young sniper, a figment of the imagination, to be sure, and the realization that such a hero might play an important part in the conflict, a tool to perk up the Soviet troops’ moral in the face of the superior German military. Vassili and Danilov meet as rebels and in his own way, James Horner rebels against the tragic four-note motif, cleverly keeping it out of Vassili’s way. The sniper ingeniously times his hits to coincide with explosions, thus hiding his location from his targets. The composer doesn’t legitimize him in any way but expresses his vengeful anger by changing the original tones of the four-note motif little by little. A little underused in the film, the patriots’ hymn that it ushers in is free from the machinations surrounding Vassili’s fame and redresses the balance of the opposing forces during a moment of fleeting euphoria.
Much less geared towards the idea of rebellion, The Hunter Becomes The Hunted marks the first confrontation between Vassili and major Konig. The Slavic-sounding and fervent opening measures comment on street combats and executions, the tables turned in favor of the Russians. The respite of the Russian soldiers is all too brief when the four-note motif returns to the fray, now heralding Konig’s arrival. The reality of the conflict is a new source of despair for the snipers. Doubt invades their minds as it invaded young Vassili’s during the opening scene in the Urals. This time around, though, Vassili takes the initiative, not his grandfather. This exhausting game of wits climaxes into a suffocating crescendo (one of Horner’s lengthiest and most ferocious) as German bombers close in. This new Hornerian variation on the theme of death as punishment is as resounding as Alexander Mossolov’s IRON FOUNDRY. The music suggestively and expressively comments on the destruction and it is hard to resist its appeal as it draws us into the thick of the action. The bomb blanket hits the listener as hard as it does the characters. The relentless build of the crescendo resembles the ticking of a bomb and almost crushes the orchestra as the insistent percussion and a harmonic line playing over it are pushed to their extremes. It’s breathtaking stuff!
The four-note motif rises from the ashes, the cue Koulikov steeped in its obsessive resurgence. The cue resembles a funeral march laden with bad omens and the unsettling realization that the Germans are in the lead again. This ghostly musical cue of doom confuses us by taking its title from Ron Perlman’s character, who acts as a link between the two snipers. During the inexorable lead-up to a well-staged coup de theatre, the cue portrays the German sniper, whose cold-blooded determination ends up thwarting the opposing party’s plans. The duel has made two new victims, the antagonists are eye-to-eye and the mood becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Vassili is depressingly aware of the fact that he is wildlife hunted down by a proficient marksman and realizes how precarious his chances of survival are. His life is literally within inches of being blown to pieces and the game of hide and seek is working to his disadvantage. Horner reprises the triangle theme in woodwinds for this uneasy mix of distress and determination, of rage and fear. It is precisely this confusion that Konig counts on.
The Dream and Bitter News are transition cues that develop and deepen the relationships between the three protagonists. They also comment on the budding idyllic love between Vassili and Tania and the inevitable alienation of Danilov. The two cues also mark new phases in the ongoing duel between Konig and Vassili. Horner draws from the four-note motif and the triangle theme and often allows the two ideas to contrast and overlap each other. Lest we forget, the three leads once complemented each other but are now increasingly driven apart. Vassili has a dream that galvanizes his energies and gives him the strength to continue his mission, in which he now has a personal stake. Tania strengthens her resolve by reminding herself of the fate suffered by her parents and by deciding not to hide behind the comfort offered to her by Danilov. The leads all choose sides and take a stance of their own, combat or resignation, love or jealous lust, but always loyalty to their own convictions. As the triangle is shattered, the triangle theme takes on another dimension. The three characters have now taken a path that leads to separation.
After the developments on the character front, it’s back to the hostilities proper, scored consistently with the implacable four-note motif. The Tractor Factory underscores a lengthy tension scene as two the two snipers stake each other out using mirrors, and the hunted is never the one you might suspect. The music is hypnotically immobile, the rhythm carefully balanced and the motifs hammered out with relentless energy, the perfect illustration of two reptile-like creatures who are outwardly passive but inwardly on edge. James Horner inventively, aptly and insidiously wraps himself around his themes like a boa around its prey, the music deliberately drawing attention to the dead time in order to make it stand out. The music trails off and resurfaces when you least expect it to, and it follows Annaud’s meticulous and patient mise en scene. Nothing much seems to happen, but the tension can be cut with a knife and this manipulation by observation is the work of a carefully constructed and intentionally malicious symbiosis of direction and score.
After a few hints of «urban» strains in the style of GORKY PARK and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, A Sniper’s War centers on the weaknesses of both elite snipers. With every successful or unsuccessful step and gesture, the water between Vassili and Danilov grows deeper and deeper, and Konig becomes increasingly inhuman as he is overly confident that his opponent is a defenseless bird waiting to be crushed by his hand. At this moment, Konig is the one calling the shots – no pun intended. He moves his pawns with a steadfast hand, one of them young Sacha, as he inserts himself between the two snipers, invisibly at first, but with tragic consequences. The restraint and the discomforting quiet of Sacha’s Risk serves as a scary prelude to the final act. Horner reprises the GAYANEH adagio, presenting a variation that drives the mystery to a sharp edge and a deep blackness. When Sacha’s secret is out, the repercussions are grave. The cue stands on the shoulders of the forty-five minutes that came before and can only be understood with the first half of the score in mind. The four-note motif is conspicuously absent during the cue’s first part, Horner instead opting for a rather neutral and emotionally detached double bass movement. The innocent choir then evokes Sacha’s carelessness and the temporary uncertainty of the scene. Of course, when the Betrayal is laid bare and Konig triumphs, they return.
Four notes that shatter the harmony and are hurled down by the composer like a cleaver, a lone trumpet thwarting Sacha’s many efforts and sending him to his doom. At this point in the score, the very appearance of the four notes, even played softly and legato, inspires more terror than all the orchestra’s previous outbursts.
Four notes that obsessively carry on after an uneasy silence and sneak up on prey that has recklessly moved into the open. A trumpet, double basses, four notes that trail off into darkness … the future is bleak.
As the drama kicks into gear and the bombardment of percussion instruments violently subverts the lyrical flow, Betrayal, this brilliantly-constructed eleven-minute cue allows the composer to let rip with thundering moments of despair, rendered by anguished strings and somber brass. Gone is all restraint. Instead, Horner plays up the rapid flow of events and the many strong feelings they evoke. The characters’ suffering and pain are vibrantly present in the music. The composer subsequently prepares for Danilov’s redemption, his madness expressed by a Shostakovich-like string figure and his lucidity apparent from free-flowing brass material that trails off into silence. This combination of colors lends Danilov’s Confession its bittersweet nature. The character realizes that sacrifices have been made, scores have been settled, violence has given way to peace of mind and death has revealed true love. It’s all in the score, and brilliantly so. James Horner effortlessly finds the delicate tone of the piece where others would indulge in nonsensical melodrama, sin by emotionally sterile music or, worse, leave the moment woefully unscored.
The music pulls away from the surface of the scene and goes straight for its heart. In giving the events meaning, it finds its unmistakable voice. In short, Horner sends shivers down our spine. The music gives the final sequences their overwhelming emotional impact and lingers in the audience’s imagination long after the credits have rolled. More than ever, the Maestro’s poetry expresses what the imagery does not. More than ever, his music celebrates the human soul. The death theme grows immobile when the duel is over and finally fades away. This whole cycle of construction and deconstruction of musical building stones bears testament to the rich complexity and the expressive simplicity of this symphonic poem designed as a puzzle, with pieces out of place or fitting together.
Death takes its leave, if only temporarily. The music quiets down and finds resolution but never loses track of an uncertain future. Tania, the end title (one of the Maestro’s very best) focuses on love and becomes a sober requiem playing over images of propaganda. The first part, led by the mandolin, is all warmth and softness, infused with a passion that is melancholy rather than lyrical, in memory of the fallen and missing. The music crescendos into a monumental statement of the patriotic theme before the clarinet takes over and leads the cue to a soft conclusion. The score ends on a note of infinite delicacy, leaving the listener baffled and shaken.
Not far from the Volga river, film’s poet has delivered another masterpiece.
This article has been adapted from a text published in Dreams to Dream…s # 21 in the Spring of 2001.