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Sunday, May 30, 2004

Exploring the CD Collection

Here's something I've been meaning to do for a while: just a sporadic series of posts in which I give a few brief thoughts about some CD or other in my collection*. Today's disc is James Horner's score to Braveheart.

James Horner is a very problematic figure in film music circles, because he has a very long history of relying on a limited set of musical ideas and stylistic quirks over and over again, in score after score after score. (I wrote at length about "the Horner problem" here.) That old saw about Antonio Vivaldi, that he wrote the same concerto five hundred times, can with some validity be reworked to James Horner. Horner is, very basically, a very talented composer who takes almost no risks in his scores, which is highly frustrating to film music fans who want him to live up to his potential and less so to fans who are perfectly happy to have him exercise his unquestionable strengths (melody and the shaping of longer score cues to fit a scene).

So, what to say about Horner's Braveheart music? Well, of all of Horner's scores, this is the one to which I return the most often. It is more mature and more meditative than the Horner scores that are more commonly beloved by filmscore fans (Star Trek II, Willow). This score springs from what was probably Horner's highest point of creativity, when in the course of about a year he produced three remarkable scores -- Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and Apollo 13. (His greatest commercial success, the score to Titanic, was to come two years later. Even though I was not enamored of the Titanic music, I didn't begrudge Horner the Oscar he won for it because of the work he did in 1994 and 1995 on those three earlier films.)

In Braveheart, Horner makes some rather odd instrumental decisions. He uses the Japanese shakuhachi flute mostly for atmospheric effect in certain scenes (when Wallace leads the attack on the English lord who has killed his wife, for example), even though the Japanese flute wouldn't seem to have a single thing to do with the film's Scottish setting; ditto his use of a South American kena flute and Uilleann pipes in the score as opposed to traditional Scottish bagpipes. And the "Horner Bag of Tricks" pops up again and again, right down to my very favorite Hornerism, what I call the "James Horner Rolling Chord of Melodic Punctuation", which is given prominent place in the "Sons of Scotland" track (at about the 4:40 mark).

And yet...I still return to this CD, again and again, because of the first ten tracks (which comprise the music up to and including Wallace's victory at Stirling). In the film, Mel Gibson strove for a very dreamy atmosphere, in which gestures are slowed down, dialogue is spoken at a measured pace, and characters hold one another's eyes. The emotional core of the film comes early, in those scenes of quiet courtship between Wallace and Murron (Catherine McCormack), when love is expressed by a quick and private smile or a shared glance as they pass each other within a crowd. This is where Horner's score shines.

The two tracks to listen to here are "Wallace Courts Murron" and "The Secret Wedding", both of which are long and quiet, and yet, surprisingly complex. The only rhythm in these two tracks is provided by a harp that is so distantly placed one is at first not even certain if it is even there. The melody Horner creates for these two lovers is a very long one indeed, and he varies it slightly each time it is heard -- first in the violins, then in the wavering tones of the kena flute (played with thick vibrato) and finally, most memorably, in a long line for solo oboe that is as heartbreaking a passage of music as I have ever heard.

There is very little bombast in this score, with full tutti passages ending fairly quickly when they arrive. Even during the battle scenes, Horner maintains a measured pace with lots of repetition of sonic effects, which is a marked shift from his more common approach to action sequences. (This is no small point. I doubt that even Horner's staunchest defenders would list restraint amongst his gifts.) The score does lose some energy in its second half, much as the film itself does, but it is regained at the end, in the music for the execution scene and the end credits suite.

James Horner is far from my favorite film composer, but the first ten tracks on this CD constitute some of the finest film music in my collection.

There is a second CD available, More Music from Braveheart, which is just that: additional cues from the film, this time including dialogue extracts (a practice that inflames most film music fans, although I admit that it rarely bothers me that much), and some traditional bagpipe music not from the film. I don't listen to the supplemental CD all that often at all.

(*This series is intended, obviously, to give me a never-ending wellspring of material, since I acquire at least one new CD per month, and if I stopped new acquisitions right now and did not start up until I posted about every disc in my collection, at the rate of one such post per day it would be over a year-and-a-half, and probably closer to two years, before I started acquiring again. These will not be in-depth reviews of the discs, just a few random thoughts as to why I like or dislike them so much.)

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