First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2017
Yesterday we learned that James Horner’s soundtrack to Titanic is the biggest-selling classical album of the last 25 years. According to the Ultimate Classic FM Chart, Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture has sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, surpassed 30 million copies worldwide and risen to number one album in 20 countries.
You know you know it. Cast your mind back to 1997. First come the uilleann pipes: that’s Eric Rigler, an American player who previously worked with Horner on Aliens and Braveheart and has a band horrifyingly called Bad Haggis. His grace notes communicate right to the album-buying soul of America’s Celtic diaspora. Then comes the breathy vocalise of Sissel Kyrkjebø, the bass lines lurking like icebergs in the deep and Horner’s intriguing ability to make the real instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra sound like midi files. Celine Dion’s big tune pops up all over the place, relentlessly rousing, though without the full force of her larynx it never feels quite right. (Eventually we get Celine herself, after an agonising hour.)
Apparently Horner wasn’t even first choice for the gig — director James Cameron wanted an Enya score, but she turned him down and Horner selflessly replicated her knack for ear-gougingly fey Celtic wisp. The formula did the trick, and following the wild successes of the first album Horner made another suite “comprising light and dark sections from the score and representing the ‘soul’ of the music for the film,” which he released in 1998 under the name Back to Titanic.
Of the many disturbing aspects to this story, several have to do with categorisation. If commercial ‘classical’ radio stations devise their playlists based on algorithms and perceived popularity ratings, which they do, then the music that shouts loudest will drown out the rest, and it does. Classical crossover is a mega industry complete with its own phenomenally lucrative stars (Il Divo, Katherine Jenkins, Josh Groban) and its own glossy production aesthetics that can make a set of uilleann pipes sound interchangeable for an oboe, a panpipe or a synth. Horner’s score was lauded for its diverse influences but in truth it is ersatz everything: ersatz traditional Irish, ersatz classical strings, ersatz film score. It’s like botox on an eyebrow: with this degree of gloss, forget about grit, about risk, about surprise or nuance or authenticity.
So if you were one of the millions who purchased Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture, where to go from here? You could watch Ludovico Einaudi playing piano on an actual iceberg, or you could escape the crossover vortex. For decent Irish music try Planxty or Lankum. For decent film music try Mica Levi, creator of some powerful modern movie scores, or wind backwards through greats like Miklos Rozsa, Dmitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock’s favourites) to Erich Korngold, who arguably invented the Hollywood sound. And from Korngold meet Richard Strauss, meet Fin de siècle Vienna, heck, meet Arnold Schoenberg. Let Horner be your gateway drug.