How I wrote… Pas de Deux – James Horner

The 'Titanic' composer takes us through his first foray into concert music for 30 years - and the first major double concerto for violin and cello since Brahms.

James Horner conducting

On Thursday 13 November 2014, Classic FM’s Orchestra in the Northwest – the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – under Vasily Petrenko performed the world premiere of Pas de Deux, the first concert piece that Oscar-winning composer James Horner has written in three decades. 

This double concerto was commissioned by violinist Mari Samuelson and her brother, cellist Hakon Samuelson. 

Here, Horner himself guides you through his latest work.

Date written: 2011-2014 

How would you describe the music to someone who’s never heard it before?
It’s far from being a traditional concerto, more a duet for cello and violin with orchestral accompaniment. I saw it as a piece in motion, as a traditional dance piece – a pas de deux – where the lines that the two soloists play embrace each other. I’ve always wanted to write a ballet.

You haven’t written anything ‘classical’ since the 1980s. What was the biggest challenge in composing Pas de Deux?
No double concerto for the violin and cello with orchestra has been written since Brahms. So that was always in the back of my mind – not in an intimidating way but in a ‘How do I solve this puzzle?’ sort of way.

The biggest challenge was deciding the musical language I wanted to speak – whether it was going to be something more adventurous tonally or something slightly less adventurous tonally, but perhaps more accessible. I wanted the piece to be very accessible yet push the soloists and the orchestra – but not crazy challenging, there’s no point in that.

So you aimed primarily for an accessible sound world?
There are only so many patterns of melodies and rhythms and I think at a certain point the language has to be expanded a little bit. But audiences aren’t comfortable with music that is atonal – or what they perceive as atonal – so we are locked into this relatively tonal structure.

Did you have a musical ‘EUREKA!’ moment where everything fell into place?
I don’t have eureka moments – I don’t write like that. It just wrote itself in a way. I usually get an idea for something and it’s a 30-minute idea. With film, I have to tame it down to being 12 minutes or 8 minutes or whatever the film’s needs are. So it was easy to generate a 30-minute piece in that respect.

Is there a moment in the piece that you’re most proud of?
The whole piece of music is very impressionistic, so there is no one part that I’m proud of. It is very vaporous in its nature and the colours I chose. The orchestration I did is very typical of my sense of colour. It is a lot like painting for me when I talk about orchestration. It’s brush strokes and colours and all about that sort of magic that happens. It’s less about long melodic lines and sonata form and those things – it’s more about expressing an idea in a gesture and having it performed.

Are there any particular composers who have influenced you?
I am sure in my early work there were influences of tons of people. Having studied all the ‘lads’ for so long, how do you get all of that stuff out of your head completely? There are so many people I admire, particularly how certain composers solved problems – all the way from Richard Strauss and Mahler to Arvo Part, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. His War Requiem is one of my absolute favourite pieces. It’s just a stunning piece. 

I also love the music of Ligeti. I studied with him for almost a year in Hamburg. I took time off from school and left London and worked with him and we studied Thomas Tallis, of all things, because Ligeti was very influenced by that era of music even though you wouldn’t know it from his own compositions. 

Why have you decided to return to composing for the concert hall?
I guess I’ve come full circle in a way. I have sort of achieved what I wanted to achieve in the film world and felt I needed to develop a new skill set to be able to write a successful concert piece or ballet.

So I will be writing serious music, trying to still make a living in film in between, and seeing how that develops. I’ve been commissioned to write a concerto for four french horns for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I know the horn players very well and I always ask for them to play on my films.


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