The Oscar- and Grammy-winning Titanic composer James Horner died in a private plane crash in Santa Barbara, California, on Monday. Horner, who composed music for more than 150 films and television series, was 61.
Horner’s death was confirmed by the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, which represents the composer, in a statement on Tuesday.
“It is with the deepest regret and sorrow that we mourn the tragic passing of our dear colleague, long-time client and great friend, composer James Horner,” the statement read. “Our thoughts and prayers are with James’ family at this difficult time, and also with the millions of people around the world who loved his music. A shining light has been extinguished, which can never be replaced. It has been an honor and a privilege to have worked with James since the inception of our agency. For more than three decades, his unique creative genius made an indelible imprint on each of our lives and on those of the entire Hollywood community. There is not a person in our GSA family who wasn’t touched by the power and reach of his music, and who isn’t diminished by his loss.”
“We express our love and sincere condolences to James’ wife Sara and his two daughters, Emily and Becky,” the statement continued. “And we take comfort in the belief that in his last moments, James was doing something from which he derived such great joy. His spirit will continue to soar, and he will be with us always.”
Horner crashed his single-engine plane in Cuyama, California, north of Santa Barbara on Monday morning. The crash started a one-acre brush fire and one fatality was found at the site, Ventura County Fire Department Public Information Officer Capt. Mike Lindbery confirmed.
While Horner is perhaps best known for scoring James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic and co-writing the film’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” his work was ubiquitous on the big screen, with credits including The Amazing Spider-Man, A Beautiful Mind, Braveheart and dozens more.
Born Aug. 15, 1953 in Los Angeles, Horner spent his early years in London, training at the Royal College of Music. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Southern California before completing his master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA, where he taught music theory. His earliest work included composing scores for student films, and for Roger Corman B-movies including The Lady in Red and Battle Beyond the Stars.
But Horner’s big break came with 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which paved the way for a slew of high-profile projects, including the Eddie Murphy comedy 48 Hrs., Ron Howard’s Cocoon and Leonard Nimoy’s feature directorial debut, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The prolific composer earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for his work on two very different 1986 films: Don Bluth’s animated immigration story An American Tail, and Aliens, James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece.
In an interview with EW’s Dan Snierson in 1998, Horner talked about finding a kindred spirit in Titanic director James Cameron, particularly in terms of “the colors and the depth of our emotions that we want to bring out.”
“For me, composing is like painting and it’s inconceivable to me for one of the great artists doing a charcoal sketch and then Picasso handing it to some guy to color it in,” he said. “I think it’s all part and parcel with your presentation and I have to color it myself. You’re talking about some weird clouds of sound and there’s no way that anyone else can do that. The only person who knows how it should sound is the composer. I just like phrasing a certain way. I mix and match things on the fly. It’s just so random what my tastes are and yet I’m so particular. It’s just one of those things that no one else could fit that bill and he’s the same way.
It was that collaboration that led to Horner’s first Oscar win; after being nominated for Field of Dreams, Apollo 13 and Braveheart, Horner won best score for Titanic and shared the best song award with lyricist Will Jennings for writing the ballad made famous by Celine Dion. Horner’s Titanic music also won Horner two Grammy Awards and two Golden Globes. The film’s soundtrack spent 16 weeks at the top of Billboard in 1998 — setting a record that was only broken last year by the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen. It also led to greater fame for Horner — something he didn’t necessarily enjoy. “I just try to keep the outside world away and keep an even course,” he told Snierson in the midst of Titanic’s success.
“He was the heart of the film, absolutely,” Cameron told EW on Tuesday. “And you could say that literally, too, because he wrote the music for the song, ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ which was so much of the pop-culture propulsion of the film. The score album is still to this day the highest grossing instrumental soundtrack album of all time.”
Horner went on to compose the Oscar-nominated scores for A Beautiful Mind, House of Sand and Fog and Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar. He was slated to compose for Cameron’s 2017 Avatar sequel, and is credited as the composer for Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams, out next month.
The composer also was a lifelong aviation enthusiast and in 2010 composed “Flight,” a piece of music for an aerobatic team called The Horsemen, based on his experiences flying with the group. In a behind-the-scenes video about the composition, Horner recalled attending air shows and flying small planes when he was young. In working on “Flight,” Horner said he “re-fell in love with it and decided to re-learn, to re-qualify myself to fly again.”
“To be so immersed in my world and to be able to step out and learn a new skill that requires such precision and such a gift and sort of re-learn… stuff I used to know so long ago, and do both, that’s truly a unique experience.”
Horner’s father Harry was an Oscar-winning set designer and art director. His brother Christopher is a documentary filmmaker.
Horner is survived by his wife Sara and their two daughters.