On 27 April this year saw the premiere of Titanic Live where James Horner’s bestselling movie score to the 1997 movie we’re all so familiar with would be brought to life by a 90 piece orchestra playing to a screening of the movie with original music removed. An iconic movie about an iconic ship in an iconic venue that had hosted the Titanic’s memorial concert in 1912 turned out to be a proposition that was hard to resist for me and many other aficionados of the Titanic story.. Predictably, In keep with that, I had booked my tickets more than a year earlier in April 2014 after seeing an advert in the newspaper on the way home from work on the London Underground. The event was advertised “Film with Live Orchestra – Conductor James Horner.” It may have been more than a year away but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, especially with the great man himself lifting the baton.
I had thought with the centenary of the sinking, the 3D re-release of the movie and Blu-ray edition in 2012 (which I reviewed for Encyclopedia Titanica at the time, I wouldn’t be seeing much that was new of ’Titanic’ in the near future. But the prospect of seeing the film with the music performed by a live orchestra promised an exciting new experience of a movie I’d seen countless times before. Undoubtedly, James Horner’s score was one of the most memorable and impressive aspects of the film: the Celtic themes intertwined with the dramatic crescendos of a full orchestra added so much to the film's dramatic moments: the triumphant departure from Southampton, Captain Smith and Mr Murdoch taking her to sea, the eeriness of searching the wreck, the drama of trying to avoid the iceberg; the potentially deadly chase down the grand staircase and the tumult of the sinking. This is not to mention the song that not only defined the movie but is an era defining ballad of the 1990s. Without Horner’s score, the film may well not have enjoyed the mind-boggling success it did. All doubts about this were dispelled by the two Oscars won for the film by Horner’s music and the public who made the soundtrack CD the biggest selling orchestral film soundtrack of all time with over 20 million copies sold; a record that remains unsurpassed to this day. It is fair to say that the original soundtrack to James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ is a beautiful work of art in itself.
As almost a year passed and the day of the concert approached, I was emailed by the Albert Hall to say that James Horner would be unable to conduct as he had injured his shoulder. The conductor on the night would be Ludwig Wicki who would direct the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra while Horner himself was present and .would take part in a live Q&A before the main show with producer Jon Landau. It was a somewhat surreal experience as I arrived to the Albert Hall at about 5.45pm to find the grand, cavernous venue in darkness with three figures illuminated on the stage. Their talk was fascinating and gave an amazing insight into the film’s production. I’ve found out subsequently that James Horner fell out with James Cameron after their previous collaboration on Aliens in 1986 and Horner assumed he would never work with Cameron again. However Cameron put their old differences aside after Horner’s continued success, especially Braveheart which was one of the highest grossing movies of 1995James Horner went onto disclose that unlike with ‘Aliens’ he was given 32 hour or 36 hour versions of ’Titanic’ with scenes shown from multiple angles so he would have the most comprehensive feel for the proposed film as possible. Within 25 minutes of finishing the screening, he had jotted down most of the main themes, wanting to include his signature celtic motifs and mindful of Cameron’s instruction he did not want a clichéd soundtrack with violins. Horner demonstrated to Cameron what he had written on the piano with no other instruments or preparation and Cameron ‘got it’ from that one performance. A section of this piano demo became the music for ‘The Portrait’ track when Jack illicitly sketches Rose. Initially Cameron had been skeptical about including a song in the score but Horner composed one anyway without Cameron’s knowledge. He recorded with Celine Dion in only two takes and presented it to Cameron who was still unconvinced. Horner joked he had recorded a demo of it with himself singing but the demo did not survive. When the final cut of the film was ready, Cameron invited Celine Dion to a showing and only decided once seeing Dion’s tearful reaction to the end of the film that the song was perfect for the end credits and it duly took its place in cultural history. Both James Horner and Jon Landau reflected that the production of the film was now nearly 20 years in the past and it had changed their lives in a way that had not been expected. Jon Landau commented that it was one of the last “old Hollywood” films made in that a gigantic set was constructed. Were Titanic to be made today, the ship scenes would in all likelyhood be entirely generated by computer graphics he opined. The two gentlemen retired from the stage to warm applause and appreciation and it was time for us, the concert/movie goers, to brace ourselves for the treat that was about to happen.
Jon Landau and James Horner Q&A
The auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall filled to capacity in anticipation of the main event. The 20th Century Fox Logo came on the big screen, Ludwig Wicki raised the baton and crowd gave an excited cheer. The orchestra and choir produced an eerie and haunting sound as the opening titles of the Titanic filmed in black and white came on and continued as they merged into the debris field as the dialogue between Bill Paxton and Lewis Abernethy swung into action. When it became ‘Payday boys’ the orchestra reached its first crescendo and everyone sat back in their seats as the helicopter taking Rose to the Keldish swept in. The orchestra took a break until it heralded in the scenes of Southampton and “Taking her to sea, Mr Murdoch” both of which took our breath away. When it came to the Irish Party in Third Class, a Ceilidh band was perched on the left hand side of the stage ready to take the reins of the live music from the orchestra. They dug in on their traditional instruments with gusto, the scene of Kate and Leo dancing upon the cargo hatch cover swept past like never before. The audience again erupted into rapturous applause for the celtic musicians whose only gig in the concert had concluded. This ‘feel good’ section of the movie was infectious to the audience as I saw several people smiling throughout it. A solo pianist took centre stage to emulate Horner’s demo performance for ‘The Portrait’ and the orchestra took centre stage again for ‘Hard to Starboard’: the immortal scene where the Titanic strikes the iceberg despite William Murdoch’s heroic attempts to avoid it. The pitter-patter of the snare drum as Murdoch watches from the bridge rail giving way to the ominous beats of the timpani as the iceberg draws nearer was truly mesmerising. The intermission was brought in with some original music not on the soundtrack and I certainly had never heard before that greatly heightened the sense of foreboding as Thomas Andrews informed Captain Smith that no matter what they did, the Titanic would founder. It set the atmosphere for the drama that was about to unfold in the second half.
Titanic Live on the big screen at the Royal Albert Hall
After the intermission during which myself, my wife and our friends sampled the comforts of the Albert Hall’s luxury bars, the orchestra built the tension of A Building Panic as Kate rushed through the flooding lower decks to rescue Leo and as Third class was held behind the Bostick gates at gun point. The orchestra came spinetinglingly alive yet again with Unwilling to stay, unwilling to leave and provided music of contrasts as a rocket illuminated above Leo’s head followed by Cal’s villainous chase of the young lovers down the Grand Staircase and into the flooded Reception Room and perilously tilting Dining Saloon. More scenes of peril were audibly enhanced by the orchestra as Leo and Kate become trapped behind a gate themselves but only this time with rapidly rising water. The music played by the Titanic’s band, led by Jonathan Evans Jones playing Wallace Hartley, was left on the sound track with the exception of Nearer My God to Thee which was movingly played by a soloist on stage before being joined by other musicians standing in for the heroes of the Titanic’s band. As Chief Officer Wilde's attempt to free the two collapsible boats reach a climax following the fictional shooting and suicide on deck, the orchestra opened the final climatic scenes with The Sinking, maintaining the excitement as the guy wires of the forward funnel snapped and it fell to the sea, Father Byles leading prayers on the poop deck and scenes of unimaginable horror and destruction unfolded. Horner’s use of the choir at this stage gave the sequence an almost religious feel, doubly enhanced by that choir being present in the room with you. As the Titanic breaks apart and sinks, the continued relentless pace of the orchestra had everyone on the edge of their seats, many for the first time of seeing the movie in many yearsthey told me later. As Rose dreamed of going back to the wreck, an electric keyboard took the lead and the Celtic instruments came back to the fore. As the Grand Staircase Dome dissolved into the title card “Written and Directed by James Cameron” the audience once again burst into applause only to be quickly hushed as a Soprano rose to her feet and had the spot light put on her to begin the famous song. While it wasn’t Celine Dion herself, a very special substitute in the form of Sissel Kyrkjebø who worked with James Horner during the composition and scoring of the film took her place. There was hardly a dry eye in the Albert Hall when she finished. When the song came its conclusion applause continued through the rest of credits and then came the big finish to the evening. The three truly remarkable gentlemen present that night who made this epic film that re-defined popular culture’s view of the Titanic tragedy stood on the conductor’s podium. James Horner, James Cameron and Jon Landau embraced each other and took the audience’s adulation for almost ten minutes. The atmosphere was electric, it could not be beaten.
James Horner with James Cameron and Jon Landau
Photo by Paul Sanders courtesy of Avex Classics International
Cameron said afterwards the performance made him realise once again how important Horner’s score had been to the film’s success and how it greatly heighted its emotional impact. For myself, I met up with some fellow enthusiasts who had found it a similarly spine-tingling experience after buying our programmes as souvenirs of the evening and made our way home. I felt as exhilarated as I did when I first saw the film seventeen years earlier. It was an experience I, for one, certainly want to repeat at some point in the future, something I thought possible because of the European tour Titanic Live was to embark upon and conclude in Paris on 28 June. The Albert Hall had also provided an excellent period back drop and the service from the staff had been superb. I asked some Titanic enthuasists reaction following the concert. David Scott-Beddard of White Star Memories said “How wonderful last night was! In fact, spectacular springs to mind! The fascination with the story of Titanic, and the movie, was quite evident by the enthusiasm of the audience. It certainly was a night to remember. His colleague David Lawrence said: “This was a truly once in a lifetime event to see the film again with a live orchestra of some 90 musicians . It was big surprise to see James Cameron at the end I don't think I'll ever watch the film again and not talk about this night it was awesome” Other enthusiasts I spotted in the audience confirmed that, like me, they had purchased their tickets almost a year in advance as they knew it would be a very special occasion.
Titanic director James Cameron with composer James Horner
Tragically of course, I was among millions who found out on the morning of 23 June that it was not an experience to be fully enjoyed again as James Horner, the maestro, had died. He was pursuing his passion for flying and it later emerged there was a sad irony as the plane he died piloting was constructed by Shorts of Belfast at their works on Queen’s Island, a stone’s throw away from where the real Titanic was born. Having seen him in person at this wonderful event in London only two months earlier, I felt deeply saddened. That night at the Royal Albert Hall, he came over as a warm-hearted and modest man who revelled in the joy his immense talent brought to others. I consider myself very fortunate to have seen him in person and adored by those who loved what he brought to the world. I could never have imagined that the Titanic Live European tour would begin with him giving an entertaining talk in London and end with a moment of silence in his memory in Paris.
James Horner will be greatly missed by so many.