James Horner: Composer who won two Oscars for Titanic, and also wrote for Avatar, Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind

Over four decades, Horner composed the scores for upwards of 150 films

James Horner, who has died in a plane crash, was nominated 10 times for Oscars, and won twice, for Titanic. He wrote for other Hollywood blockbusters including Avatar, Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind.

Over four decades he composed the scores for upwards of 150 films. "My job is to make sure at every turn of the film it's something the audience can feel with their heart", he said in 2009. "When we lose a character, when somebody wins, when somebody loses, when someone disappears – at all times I'm keeping track, constantly, of what the heart is supposed to be feeling. That is my primary role."

Horner was born in Los Angeles in 1953; his father was an Austrian-born production designer for stage and film. After first learning to play piano aged five, he later studied at the Royal College of Music in London before graduating from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.

He cut his teeth composing for films at the American Film Institute during the 1970s, low-budget student productions in the horror genre. "I did seven," he recalled in 1998 in Jazz Professional. "There was no money. They could hardly pay the musicians. I was destitute. Then I fell in with people making 'monster movies'. That's how I learned my craft."

He first gained recognition through his score for the crime horror film Wolfen (1981). "It had to be very driving and very primitive, but yet in a way that, hopefully, had not been done before," Horner recalled. "On the alien vision scenes, I knew that everything was very highly stylised, and very subjective, and I created a kind of driving rhythm which was, basically, the Wolfen's music."


He was in danger of becoming stereotyped as a horror film music writer. But Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), changed all that, in a film which director Nicholas Meyer envisaged as Horatio Hornblower in outer space, Horner adapting his musical cues to this style.

Horner won Best Score and Best Original Song in the 1998 Oscars for Titanic, even though many were surprised when he was offered the job by the film's director James Cameron. They had worked together on Aliens (1986), for which Horner won his first Oscar nomination, but the composer, given 10 days to complete the score, recalled it as " a nightmare."

None the less he took on the Titanic task having seen neither the script nor any footage. The theme tune, "My Heart Will Go On", for which he wrote the music, became the best-selling single of the year, although the film's female lead, Kate Winslet, said she felt "like throwing up" every time she heard it. A reluctant Celine Dion so disliked the song she had to be talked into singing it by her husband and manager, René Angélil, but it became her first UK million-selling single and the biggest-selling song of her career.

Horner also garnered Baftas for Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Avatar was renowned for its other-worldly animated scenes, spectacular special effects and huge budget. "The sound world that I created for Avatar had to be very different, really, than anything I ever created before," said Horner. "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."

Horner preferred classical compositions, he said. "I like dramatic scores. I'm not a disco person, and I'm not a rock'n'roll person. I guess I'd call myself more of a classical composer, and my scores tend to have more of a classical sound." He was a fast worker: "Even if I have eight weeks to do a score I finish it in four or even three and a half," he noted. "I'm at it every minute. Sheer horsepower, staying up late. I jump right in and I'm at it every minute until it's done."

His most recent project had been on the forthcoming sports thriller Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Boxing was, Horner said recently, "a world I know nothing about ... It's just a movie I've never done before. I thought it would be really challenging again. It'll be really edgy, but it will be very simple."

Earlier in his career, aside from his film work, Horner had written Spectral Shimmers, an orchestral piece which the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra premiered in 1978, and last year he had returned to the concert hall with Pas de Deux, a double concerto for violin and cello, performed by Mari and Hakon Samuelsen with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

"All of the music I write is always geared towards writing expressly for film and cinema," Horner said. "To be able to write a piece for Hakon and Mari and have it performed live many times was simply too great an opportunity to turn down."

Horner had long held a private pilot's licence. His aircraft, a two-seater S-312 Tucano turbo-prop, crashed in the Cuyama Valley, near Ventucopa.


James Horner, composer: born Los Angeles 14 August 1953; married Sarah (two daughters); died Cuyama Valley, Santa Barbara, California 22 June 2015.