Fond Memories is our step-by-step overview of James Horner’s career. This article is the first in a long series which tries to be as complete as can be. If you have information that can supplement this episode, please do not hesitate to contact us.
1953-1978 – A MUSICAL EDUCATION
James Roy Horner was born in Los Angeles on August 14, 1953, the year Sergei Prokofiev died, as if Horner’s first steps in this world were a sly wink to the creator of Romeo and Juliet, one of the Maestro’s musical fathers. He was the eldest son of Harry Horner (July 24, 1910 – December 5, 1994), an artistic director of Austrian desceligetnt born in Holitz (the present Czech Republic), who along with Max Reinhardt emigrated to the United States in the mid-30s and enjoyed a distinguished career in Hollywood – he was nominated for five Academy awards and won two.
James Horner was born of the second marriage of his father in 1952 with Joan Fraenkel. He had two younger brothers, Christopher and Anthony.
The first, Christopher Horner, a graduate in architectural design, also worked in the world of film and television. For 20 successive years, he has been active as an assistant decorator (working side by side with his father on The Jazz Singer in 1980), art director (Jaws 3), screenwriter (the TV movie Deadly Games in 1994) and most recently as a director deeply concerned about environmental issues, particularly with his French documentary The Disappearing Of Tuvalu: Trouble In Paradise (2004).
His father being an avid music lover, James Horner grew up surrounded by classical music, and found himself in front of a piano at the age of 5. Around the age of 10 he decided to become a composer.
"I had been playing the piano since the age of four and I decided at the age of 10 or 11 that I wanted to be a composer. I remember distinctly when that moment happened: I was listening, at school (ed. note: probably the Holland Park School in London), to the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. I already knew the piece, but for some reason it just really struck me as especially stunning that day. When I went home I listened to it again, maybe 20 times, and that was the day I decided I wanted to compose." 1
At the behest of his father, he joined the prestigious Royal College of Music in London.
"My musical abilities prompted my father to enroll me in an undergraduate class at the Royal College of Music in London, where we were living. I was very intimidated by the idea of entering this venerable institution. When I saw that the alumni list on the brochure included Benjamin Britten, Colin Davis, Gustav Holst and John Ireland, I wondered if I would ever be able to walk in their footsteps. But the warm and creative environment quickly dispelled my doubts. I ended up totally immersed in the surroundings and discovered a taste for composition and conducting." 2
However, the young James seemed to display an aversion to the musical tastes of the period.
"I was going to college at the Royal College of Music and I was studying what everybody studies in college: Bach… I was completely, in my own head, in a different place. I was writing requiem masses and I was thinking of arias and different worlds… I left college after my 2nd year." 3
He transferred to The Hamburg University of Music and Theatre, where he studied under the famous Hungarian composer György Ligeti. At the time, Ligeti’s music featured prominently in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Three excerpts from Ligeti’s visionary work suitably depicted the metaphysical side of the American director’s ground-breaking science-fiction epic. The first was Requiem for soprano, mezzo-soprano, two mixed choirs and orchestra, which acts as a theme of sorts for the monolith and whose influence stretches all the way to the concluding strains of Death of Titanic (Titanic, 1997), where James Horner drew on Ligeti’s uncompromising approach of death to express the fury and terror of the moment. The other two Ligeti cues that Kubrick used in 2001 were Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna, which plays during Dave Bowman’s trip through an alternate reality. The time spent with Ligeti left a profound stamp on the early stages of James’s career.
"I took time off and I went to Hamburg and studied with György Ligeti. We didn’t study so much his music,
but we studied Renaissance music (ed. note: Thomas Tallis) which was a love of mine in college and a love of his, and if you study Lux Aeterna or his requiem or a lot of the Ligeti pieces, they are put together in a way that I very much admired. In a very traditional way it ends up sounding very atonal. When we first heard Lux Aeterna in 2001, when you first heard these pieces, they were considered as avant-garde in those days; but, really, they were put together like Renaissance pieces and his voicing was very similar. I was intrigued by that and I did study with him. I was also interested in studying Benjamin Britten. I had all these weird things that I liked, Prokofiev… None of the stuff was particularly taught in college, it was just the particular interests that I had." 3
His visit to Germany served to satisfy his musical interests and to hone his skills as a composer. By and large, James Horner grew up in Europe, spending most of his early years in London. He considered himself as "half-British."
Indeed, the young James Horner played the French horn, a noble instrument that would turn up frequently in his later work.
In the seventies, James Horner crossed the big pond to complete his training.
"I returned to California to get a teaching job and work on my doctorate." 4
"I thought if I could land a job teaching in the United States, it would be easier to be granted scholarships, subsidies and funds to have my work performed." 5
"And even having grown up in England, I felt it was more pragmatic to get an American degree; things were bleak academically in the UK, and so I got American post-graduate degrees." 6
In 1971, he attends the Verde Valley High School (Sedona, Arizona), which in 2008 would extend an award to his brother Christopher, also a former student, for his documentary The Disappearing Of Tuvalu: Trouble In Paradise (2004).
In 1974, James Horner obtained a music graduate at USC Thornton School of Music after having composed and performed a recital in December 1973.
Front page of program from James Horner recital, in 1973.
He finished his university studies in Los Angeles, at the famous UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he studied, among others, with Paul Chihara, composer of many concert works and scores for over 90 motion pictures and television series.
Joe Gore, a San Francisco-based composer, producer and versatile instrumentalist, was 16 in 1975 and also a student at UCLA. His testimony once again reveals the uniqueness of James Horner, who pushed back from the conventions of the time:
"I attended school during the last gasp of modernism. The focus was avant-garde 20th-century music, from Arnold Schoenberg to such then-leading lights as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, and Witold Lutosławski. Post-Romantic music was considered hopelessly tacky. No one studied Richard Strauss. But I remember Jamie walking around with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony score under his arm. He was smarter than everyone else." 7
In 1976, James Horner obtained a Master's degree in music theory and composition. It is the crowning achievement of years spent studying music. It led to the creation of Conversations, a piece of chamber music written for a total of 16 musicians, including two sopranos, and based on a text by the Russian poet Andrei Vosnesenskii.
James Horner taught music theory and composition at the University of Los Angeles while working on his PhD. But before long, he grew tired of the milieu and of the difficulties he encountered in getting his work performed.
Another well-known product of this time was Spectral Shimmers, composed in 1978 in the avant-garde vein. Horner spent a massive amount of work on it and yet is was played only once, by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on January 25, 1979, in an auditorium only half-filled.
"I worked very, very hard on that piece and I worked very hard on pushing it around, sending it to all kinds of people, working very hard to finally find and orchestra to play it and a place to perform it. I went to Indianapolis and pushed them very hard to get rehearsal time and after all that work they perform it for one evening, and you say, "Now what?" It gave me such a feeling of having had an impact only on the immediate four hundred people in the audience. It was very well received but it didn't have any impact – I couldn't get another performance. It was too expensive because it was a big orchestra piece, and it's a modern piece and there were a lot of things that were going against writing modern pieces." 8
Spectral Shimmers convinced Horner to turn his back to the world of academia and contemporary music. It brought about a decisive turn in the career of the young composer.
"The almost empty hall shook my faith in contemporary music and its impact on the public. That's when I was asked to write music for a student film." 2
Article by Jean-Baptiste Martin and David Hocquet
Translation by Kjell Neckebroeck
Special thanks to Javier Burgos, Jean-Christophe Arlon and Nick Martin
1 – Titanic Live – Souvenir Programme – Pierre O'Reilly – Avex Classics International Production, page 48
5 – Interview with James Horner by Didier Leprêtre, Dreams to Dream … 's 1998.
Harry Horner: © McCarthy, Todd; Charles Flynn – Kings of the Bs (1975)