Weirdly enough, this is in my Top Three Horner Scores. Its "desolatedness" and forcefulness is very appealing. Like in this instance:
And here's what Doug Fake had to say about it 19 years (!) ago (emphases mine):
1942. Germany invades Russia.
Stalin orders the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) to be held at any cost. The Nazis soon find themselves battling the same adversary Napoleon once fought. Russian winter.
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the most important battles of World War II. Germany suffered its greatest defeat in history. In February 1943, the Nazis went in retreat. They never recovered.
During the battle, a real-life Russian sniper rose to prominence, boosted morale. Germany countered with a sniper of their own. A personal battle within a bigger battle. This story forms the core of ENEMY AT THE GATES.
I'm anxious to see it when it opens. Word ahead of time is mixed, but I'm up for it. James Horner certainly was.
People sometimes ask how film music can be discussed without seeing the movie first. That's what it's for. It's reason for being.
Yes. As film music. But as music in my living room, without pictures, that's something else. Now it's abstract. It's Copland's ballet music without dance. It's Puccini's operas without costume. It's Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker without a sugarplum fairy. And it works just fine.
Great film composers fashion music that serves a movie now, plays by itself later. If the movie score is a series of short cues, ideas to simply illustrate specific gestures on screen, maybe the music by itself is tame, unrewarding. But if the composer can lay a foundation, build his composition, work with it. That's something else. And it's a treat.
James Horner may be the most symphonic of composers today. He no longer attempts to mirror specific actions, the "mickey mouse" approach. His music scores moods, images as a whole. More than any other composer Horner writes substantial cues, movements, whole pieces where you can hear structure and development. If the vernacular isn't always wholly original the treatment is. Horner is composing for film the way one approaches a symphony. There are big ideas and little ones. They relate to each other! Openings are planned out, subsequent ideas get presented with logic, endings are literate, profound.
So it is with James Horner's ENEMY AT THE GATES. His world is one of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Colors are vast, the array is huge. Orchestra and chorus, chimes and percussion to bring down the roof.
The first cue ("The River Crossing To Stalingrad") is more than fifteen minutes long! No cut-and-paste job either. It's a magnificent assembly of ideas.
It begins with the tiniest of gestures. High violins, harmony in two parts. A phrase is played then - and this is rare - a pause. Not just a break, a real musical pause. Silence that's part of the music. The violins continue, the silences recur. Already Horner's fashioning music with a game plan.
Most of his primary ideas become part of the movement. There's a rapid triplet figure, heard first against a descending chromatic line in the bass. Despair, defeat from the get go. There's an anthem, the main theme. The chorus, percussion, all get their say. Fragments of a tune on trumpet foreshadows another important theme coming later in the score.
It's a big cue. Rhythms appear, the massive weight of armies and war. When it's played through, in brilliant fashion, Horner brings it all back down to those violins in two parts. Then down to a single soloist on one note. Wow!
An important device is Horner's shaping of themes. They're almost always stepwise, moving from one note to the next, up or down. They rarely leap in intervals. The triplet motif, the anthem, the secondary theme, all move around by steps.
While it's been touched on through several cues Horner finally exposes his secondary theme on clarinet with track six, "Bitter News". Dramatically, it's heard without introduction, without harmony or accompaniment of any sorts. Minor chords enter, the mood darkens. Later the line is repeated in two part harmony, bringing unity with the original opening violin idea.
The triplet figure is developed during "The Tractor Factory". While other ideas are touched upon, the triplet takes front and center. Sometimes alone, sometimes with the descending chromatic line, always close at hand. Late in the cue French horns play in two parts. More unity. It all climaxes with a crash of the tam-tam.
The highlights are many. This is a massive, major work. There are themes, developments, crescendos, intimacies, rampages, thunder. You name it.
It all probably comes down to Horner's finale. The secondary melody starts it. The main theme takes it across the finish line. With chorus in front, Horner lets the material soar. A variant of the secondary theme in violins leads to a series of rich string chords. The secondary theme again tries to assume importance, again on clarinet.
This time it does. With flute and chorus joining, it moves towards conclusion. Then Horner brings solo trumpet into view. He reduces things. Soon it's solo horn over chimes. Then, finally low strings in unison.
I've said it before and it's evident here. No composer working in film today concludes a score with such care, such musical reward. It's a business where most composers deliver cut-and-paste finales, building simple medleys from earlier cues with jarring edits. Long scores, sometimes really good ones too, come to uninspired "made-on-the-fly" conclusions.
But James Horner takes his movie music to another level. He presents his finished composition with dignity. He's saying if you stick with his stuff for an hour or so, he'll tell you a story, finish all the chapters, close the book.
That counts for a lot with me.