James Horner, the prolific composer whose vaulting theme music for “Titanic” earned him two Oscars and became the best-selling orchestral soundtrack ever, died on Monday morning when the single-turboprop plane he was flying solo crashed and burned in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California. He was 61.
Late Tuesday, Mr. Horner’s spokesman, the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, confirmed that he was the pilot of the EMB 312 Tucano that crashed in northern Ventura County. He lived in Calabasas, near the Santa Monica Mountains.
Mr. Horner, a music scholar who taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, may be best remembered for his “Titanic” score and the megahit song from the soundtrack, “My Heart Will Go On.” But “Titanic” was just one of more than 100 films that featured his music, including some of the biggest box-office hits of recent decades: “Cocoon,” “Field of Dreams,” “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” two installments of the “Star Trek” franchise and, besides “Titanic,” two other blockbusters by the director James Cameron, “Aliens” and “Avatar.”
He also scored a dozen television shows and the theme music for an eclectic series of projects, including Michael Jackson’s “Captain EO” attraction at Disneyland and Katie Couric’s debut on the CBS “Evening News.” He won six Grammy Awards (including one for his work as a producer).
He had just completed scores for two unreleased movies, “33” and “Southpaw,” and for a documentary film, “Living in the Age of Airplanes.”
“The music’s job is to get the audience so involved that they forget how the movie turns out,” Mr. Horner said in an interview on the James Horner Film Music website last November.
Mr. Horner’s refrains were soaring, though some called them soupy; he was credited with elevating movie orchestration to new heights, though a few critics complained that he would sometimes recycle his own works (or other composers’). His productivity, without dispute, was staggering.
“I do it at a desk with pen and paper,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I don’t use a computer in writing at all. I’m sort of old-fashioned about it.”
A serious student of classical music, he also learned to accommodate Hollywood’s demands.
“I tend to write it and then let go emotionally,” he said in the Horner website interview. “I’ve learned that over the years I used to hang on to things, and it’s so dangerous because you’re in love with your bride, and then once it leaves your hands it goes through sound effects and mixing, and all the stuff you worked so hard on now is pushed down.
“Sometimes it ends up sounding great, and that’s what movies are about, but sometimes you work so hard on something, it gets so beat up by a film director about making every atom perfect and you hear it in the final mix, and you can’t hear any of that stuff,” he continued. “What was the point of getting beat up for a week to get that sequence perfect? It’s covered up by car crashes. It’s insane!”
James Roy Horner was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 1953, the son of Harry Horner and the former Joan Frankel. His father was a set designer and art director who won Academy Awards for “The Heiress” in 1949 and “The Hustler” in 1961.
Raised in London, James started piano lessons when he was 5 and trained at the Royal College of Music. After moving back to California in the 1970s, he received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Southern California and a master’s and a doctorate, in music composition and theory, from U.C.L.A.
“My tastes went all over the place, from Strauss to Mahler,” he recalled in the website interview. “I was never a big Wagner or Tchaikovsky fan. Benjamin Britten, Tallis, all the early English Medieval music, Prokofiev, some Russian composers, mostly the people that were the colorists, the French.”
He is survived by his wife, Sara, and their daughters, Emily and Becky.
Mr. Horner began scoring student projects for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s. That led to work on low-budget movies for the producer and director Roger Corman and on “The Lady in Red,” a 1979 gangster film set in the 1930s. His breakthrough was “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), after its director, Nicholas Meyer, said the studio could no longer afford Jerry Goldsmith, who had scored the first “Star Trek” film. Mr. Horner went on to score “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” as well.
He received his first Academy Award nominations in 1986 — for best original score, for “Aliens,” and, with two co-writers, for best original song, “Somewhere Out There,” from the animated feature “An American Tail.”
Nominated 10 times, he won two Oscars, both in 1997, for his work on “Titanic” — for best original dramatic score and, with Will Jennings, who wrote the lyrics, for best original song, “My Heart Will Go On.”
Mr. Horner and Mr. Jennings also won three Grammy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards for the soundtrack and the song, sung by Celine Dion, whose recording of it became a huge hit and earned her a Grammy as well.
“Steep yourself in the footage,” Mr. Cameron suggested to Mr. Horner during the making of “Titanic.” “Crack the melody, and it doesn’t matter whether you play it on solo piano, it’ll work.”
In the book “Titanic and the Making of James Cameron,” Paula Parisi wrote that three weeks later, having decided on Celtic instrumentation to reflect the ship’s origin and manifest — it was built in Belfast and carried hundreds of Irish people, mostly in steerage — Mr. Horner “invited Cameron out to his studio and with no preamble launched into the ‘Titanic’ theme on his piano.”
“Cameron’s eyes were tearing up by the time Horner finished,” Ms. Parisi wrote. “The music was everything he had hoped and prayed it would be, gliding from intimacy to grandeur to heart-wringing sadness. Effortless, the music seemed to bridge the 85 years between then and now.”
In the 2000 interview with The Times, Mr. Horner singled out his score for the animated film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in discussing some of his compositional methods.
“If the music is too emphatic and emotional, it might drown the comedy,” he said. “But if the music is toned down too much, the scene might not give the audience the emotional catharsis it wants from the climax.
“It’s like being a tightrope walker with one foot in the air at all times,” he added.
“When it makes me cry, then I know I’ve nailed it,” he said. “I can’t do any better.”
An obituary in some editions on Wednesday about the composer James Horner misstated the number of Grammy Awards he won. It was six, not five.