Omni Publishing’s release of James Horner’s full score to Willow is absolutely magnificent. It is over 350 pages full of music transcribed from Horner’s own original handwritten manuscript, as well as detailed analyses of the themes and motives from the film.  After the dedication, which simply says “for James,” the book dives right in to the analysis of the themes and motives.  Each theme is picked out and isolated from the score and also shows the harmonies present with the melodic notes. The analysis also talks about incomplete nature of several of the themes and goes on to explain why the themes exist in this form (to accommodate the rapidly-changing action on the screen).
It is no secret that Horner was an exceptionally studied musicologist and while studying in academia and beyond, was exposed to and analyzed a lot of music.  Horner used this vast knowledge in creating his score for Willow.  As the newly published score’s analysis mentions in regards to the background and inspiration of the themes, Horner paid homage to Bulgarian folk music, as well as composers Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok, and Sergei Rachmoninoff.  Even with these influences, as the analysis states, “the application and execution of the material to the screen image is authentically Horner.”  He based the main theme (simply titled Willow’s Theme in the book’s analysis) on the Bulgarian harvest song Mari Stanke Le, though Horner extended it and altered it to create his own beautiful melody (see our article: WILLOW: BETWEEN QUOTES). The analysis also discusses Horner’s use of “Horn Fifths,” a technique used by composers in the Baroque era when brass instruments did not have valves and could only produce certain pitches.  (Early brass instruments were only able to play along the overtone series fundamental to that instrument.  Valves were added in the 19th century, and composers started writing music with more chromatic passages with the new enhancements.)  This is another way that Horner effortlessly brings the listener (and film-viewer) back to a time long ago.
Horn Fifths from Willow

Something that really stood out for me as I started looking through the score was length of the cues and how Horner wrote his music to span and transition from cut to cut, scene to scene. It's just stunning!  The first cue, for example, lasts a total of 216 measures, which is about the first 10 minutes of the film.  Throughout this time, we are introduced to several main characters, and there are several scenes which lay the groundwork for the unfolding plot that Horner weaves in and out.  Personally, I have always found that transitions are always the toughest – both to craft in a composition and also to perform (for both myself and the students I teach).  Horner moves around so effortlessly; it's just another tangible bit of proof of his musical genius.
Omni Publishing’s release of Horner’s Willow is a must-have for any score collection.  Having recently received a copy of this stunning publication myself, I look forward to diving deeper into the score and learning even more about the craft of composition from the masterful mind of James Horner.
From the back cover:
    “The story of Willow stemmed from the mind of legendary filmmaker, George Lucas.  He enlisted the directing talent of Ron Howard.  James Horner was given the task of creating the music, and while relatively young, his reputation was gaining respect in Hollywood in the 1980s.  Willow was a creative breakthrough for not only the composer, but also the visual effects team, who pioneered the early use of computer technology.  Nearly every possible dramatic element is represented through the music, whether it be adventure, romance, fantasy, or the otherworldly.  He created music for epic moments with as much care as those of tender reflection.
    Horner instinctively knew that the musical landscape would need to be a familiar one to Western audiences.  Yet, the story, while seeming to take place in medieval times, existed in an alternate land where witches and evil sorcery existed.  To accomplish this, Horner anchored the score with a traditional-sounding orchestra, and layered on top of it the sounds of various pan pipes, didgeridoo, hammered dulcimer, the South American quena, and also an instrument from the Renaissance period known as a shawm, an early double-reed precursor to the oboe.
    With this musical palette at his disposal, as well as conjuring memorable themes and motives, Horner was able to create an original sound for the film Willow.  It was the highest budget for a motion picture score at the time, and Horner put it to great use.  It included the King’s College Choir of Wimbledon, 2 Alpine horns, no fewer than 40 different percussion instruments, and the shakuhachi, the use of which would influence many other contemporaries to include in their own film scores.
    Now musicians, music students, conductors – any music lover – can study Willow in this durable, high-quality edition, carefully reproduced and edited from the original handwritten manuscript.”

Timothy Rodier
=> Find on the second page the story of how this publication came to be, as told by Tim Rodier.


  1. Oh lordie!!!! Please someone make a complete release of it on CD now!!!!!!!!!! It is time to release an extended version.

  2. Just by chance I spotted a cd in a local shop to us, by Incantation, named On Gentle Rocks. I went inside and bought it. On opening the pages once home, to my happy surprise I could see track 7-Find the Child, written by James Horner. Quickly played it-a different version of the Willow main theme. So glad I got it.

    1. The Incantation albums are indeed lovely. Pamela, you should check out Tony Hinnigan’s website, If you register, you can download mp3 versions of the Incantation albums, including “Camera” which features several Horner pieces. Also, in the “Movies” section, he shares some wonderful stories about his experiences with James Horner.

  3. Thank you for your info John. I do have the Camera cd, which is great. Will look up the movie notes he has written. Had the pleasure of talking to Tony about JH music,a few years ago now, at Inca’s concert near Milton Keynes. Wish they would do another. Cannot wait now for the final two new cds. Pamela.

  4. What a great interview Ron Howard gave yesterday on Classic Fm At the Movies programme-he spoke so fondly of his friendship with James and how he respected his musicality…and above all, like many of us, thought this collaboration would go on and on for ever. Thank you Ron Howard. Pamela

  5. What a great thing you’ve done with this! Such incredible music from a classic film! I’m working on an essay on film music analysis from an ethnomusicological perspective, and I was very excited to learn of Horner’s borrowing of the Bulgarian song “Mir Stanke Le”. Although I don’t require the entire book (yet), I’m very curious about the diegetic Nelwyn music during the festival in the Nelwyn village, as well as the Nelwyn music that begins the end credits (I believe, without having the film currently at my disposal to check!). Is this another case of Horner asking musicians to improvise over a set structure? Or did he compose more aspects of these pieces than just chords/main melody, etc.? Do you know who the musicians were who performed on these tracks? Did he take inspiration from somewhere, as was the case with “Mir Stanke Le”? Thanks in advance for your reply – and those of anyone else who may come across this and have an answer!

  6. Holy c!!! I have lived a life being madly in love with Willow’s Theme after being a crazy fan of the movie as a child. It is my wake-up melody now. I was curious how the writing of it came to James Horner, and googled the story behind the idea. WOW. The thought of it stemmed from Mari Stanke Le, a song a knew well as a child in Bulgaria. Yup, I am a Bulgarian. It all just made total sense. Thank you for the inspiration, James. I just found out that we shared the same birthday too. Rest In Peace.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top