Now that James Horner feels he has more or less achieved what he wanted to achieve in film scoring, he makes a foray into the concert hall, a world he grew up in but said his goodbyes to well over three decades ago. Of his own admission, it is with a sense of trepidation that he embarks on this career shift, learning from fellow film composers before him that it is not easy for “guys from Tinseltown” to be taken seriously in the world of “serious” music.
Not to kick in an open door, but there is nothing less serious about film music than music written for the concert hall. It is just that they are two very different beasts. In its basic form, a film score is a cinematographic and narrative tool that works in the exact same way as a montage and photography: it is designed to be: 1. largely invisible (and therefore working on a subliminal level); and 2. an instrument the filmmaker uses to tell a story or, more importantly, to clarify the arc a character goes through. In short, on a very basic level, film music has very little to do with music. The most brilliantly composed music might be entirely and laughably inappropriate when applied to a given scene, or even worse: the most daringly conceived musical tone might trigger a catastrophic disconnect between the audience and the characters.
Film scores do, however, have true musical potential. For over three decades now, James Horner has recognized this potential and drawn from it through a seemingly endless flow of scores that not only serve the basic needs of their movies’ stories and characters, but radically redefine them as deeply musical statements. In Horner you will not find any ambient drone passing itself off as music and congratulating itself on creating some vague “soundscape”, but an honest and dogged attempt at creating musical narratives and conveying meaning through instrumental colours and tonal landscapes. The former requires a rich thematic tapestry and meaningful thematic interplay, the latter a keen awareness of harmony and texture. When done right by a skillful composer who knows his way around music theory, this makes film music an intellectual exercise and effortlessly elevates it to the level of “serious” music. In this respect, Pas de Deux is a logical extension of Horner’s film work.
Themes help build a strong narrative and give us listeners something to hang onto. Pas de Deux is not without its own thematic building stones. The first movement opens with the soloists performing an upward moving motif that sets the music in motion. Snippets of the motif return fairly frequently, most markedly towards the end of the 13-minute second movement, when Horner uses another performance of the motif by the soloists as a foundation for a swelling crescendo. Tellingly, at 22 minutes into the concerto, this crescendo is only the second swelling of emotion, and thus only the second time that the music “raises its voice”, which goes to show how intimate and fragile James Horner wanted the whole piece to be.
The first actual theme is introduced early on in the first movement: a delicate phrase with characteristically stretched-out notes, as if to convey a deep yearning. The stretched-out nature of the notes makes them easily recognizable later on, as the theme is handed to other sections of the orchestra and makes repeated appearances in the rest of the piece, notably as an additional presence during the first swell of lyricism, six minutes into the second movement.
A secondary theme makes its first appearance at the start of the second movement. To this writer, the melody feels like a lullaby and would not have been out of place in the scene where a mother comforts her child with a story about the mythical land of Tír na nÓg as their compartment floods near the end of Titanic. (By the way, I will refrain from establishing too many links with James Horner’s film scores, since these links are largely irrelevant in the context of the concert work that Pas de Deux is. But if you like to play this game, listen to the harmonic influence of Krull’s end title cue 15 seconds into the first movement, segueing into echoes of the gentle rhythmic foundation of Iris’s opening, over which the concerto’s first theme plays at 1:13. And the insanely vigorous ending of the third movement, which recalls the fortissimo finale Horner has been toying with since Star Trek II and Rocketeer, with variations in Legend of Zorro and Flight, is a joy to behold. It is a testament to James Horner’s artistry that he freely draws from his own previous work yet still manages to make it sound fresh and new every time. Which becomes all the more impressive when you realize that this artist has stayed the course for over three decades.)
While the thematic building stones are undeniably there and very attractive in and of themselves, I found Pas de Deux less overtly and straightforwardly thematic than many of Horner’s film scores. I am not a trained musician, so undoubtedly I am missing a lot of compositional subtleties, but I did not find myself guided through the narrative of the piece by the constant presence of themes and melodies. In fact, I have always had a hard time connecting emotionally with music devoid of clearly identifiable themes and motifs. But such is James Horner’s genius that he never loses me for a second in Pas de Deux. And he doesn’t even need themes to accomplish that. I feel the true greatness of this piece is to be found outside the province of thematic writing or displays of virtuosity. It is in the unmistakable and inimitable tone.
But before we get into that, let’s go back to the second aspect of what makes James Horner a great composer: he thinks in colours and images. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this exercise in free-form writing (as opposed to the rigid timings imposed on film scores). Pas de Deux is a double concerto for violin and cello.
Says James Horner:
“It was written really as two soloists or two dancers, with orchestral accompaniment. It really is a very intimate piece with orchestra.”
The resulting music is halfway between a concerto and a ballet. Horner elaborates:
“It’s far from being a traditional concerto, more a duet for cello and violin with orchestral accompaniment. I saw it as a piece in motion, as a traditional dance piece – a pas de deux – where the lines that the two soloists play embrace each other. I’ve always wanted to write a ballet.”
Looking for more information on the ballet dance of pas de deux, I found that there are two variations: a pas de deux in romantic ballet and one in classical ballet. Both feature a boy and a girl dancing together, but where the romantic pas de deux is soft and fluid, the classical version focuses more on elegance, clear lines and technical variation. Interestingly, the pas de deux follows a somewhat fixed pattern: 1. an adagio for both dancers interacting with each other; 2. alternating solo performances by the boy and the girl; and 3. a coda, a kind of finale that moves along at a faster pace. It is tempting to view the three movements in which Mercury Classics presents James Horner’s concerto as a tribute to this classical pattern.
All of this tells us very little about the unique tone of the piece.
Says the composer:
“The biggest challenge was deciding the musical language I wanted to speak – whether it was going to be something more adventurous tonally or something slightly less adventurous tonally, but perhaps more accessible. I wanted the piece to be very accessible yet push the soloists and the orchestra – but not crazy challenging, there’s no point in that.”
“the whole piece of music is very impressionistic. It is very vaporous in its nature and the colours I chose. The orchestration I did is very typical of my sense of colour. It is a lot like painting for me when I talk about orchestration. It’s brush strokes and colours and all about that sort of magic that happens. It’s less about long melodic lines and sonata form and those things – it’s more about expressing an idea in a gesture and having it performed.”
The resulting work conjures up images of dancers, but especially, it revels in the refinement and the fragility of their interlocking movements (which, indeed, makes Pas de Deux highly sensuous and romantic). More than any other aspect of the piece, this is what James Horner must be the most proud of. Its utter subtlety and refinement within the chosen confines of accessible tonality is what sets this piece apart from most other contemporary concert hall music. Even when there are no themes for listeners to hang onto, the infinitely subtle ways in which the soloists interact with one another or with the larger orchestra is what commands our attention from start to finish. Pas de Deux is full of intricate motion, but as always in Horner, the whole is an exercise in coherence and stability, a kind of steadfastness that is an easy source of comfort in the chaos we call life.
It’s one more thing about James Horner’s penchant for contemplative restraint, as exemplified by the two lengthy and surprisingly introspective suites he created for the Back to Titanic album. What Horner took away from the rollercoaster ride that this particular project had become is a sense of serenity, a term he used again later, when he described his music for Avatar’s planet Pandora. Factor in the shy nature of the composer as a human being and the fading interest he takes in writing action music per se (even though precious few in the film business do it as well as he), and a pattern begins to appear. I find in Pas de Deux further proof of the singular musical voice Horner has carefully crafted for himself. It is not a showy one, it is not even necessarily virtuoso. Maybe this is a composer who realizes that silence is the start and the end of all good music, that music needs a darn good reason to break it, and that among the few deserving intrusions on silence are emotions expressed with restraint, respect and elegance. Music as a contemplation of what is ordinarily hidden from perception: this is what makes him a “mystic”, as I have called him before. If any of this is a conscious decision on his behalf, then that is what makes James Horner a master in my book.