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WILLOW – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Willow is a high fantasy film, which takes well-loved genre tropes from Lord of the Rings and elsewhere, and casts them in an adventure filled with magic, monsters, evil queens, beautiful princesses, soaring romance, daring sword fights, and much much more. Written by Bob Dolman from a story by George Lucas, and directed by Ron Howard, Willow is the story of a newborn baby prophesized to bring about the downfall of the evil witch Queen Bavmorda; to prevent the prophecy from coming to pass Bavmorda imprisons all expectant mothers, but after it is born, the baby is smuggled out of Bavmorda’s castle by a midwife, and eventually finds its way into the hands of Willow Ufgood, a Nelwyn (dwarf) farmer and aspiring magician. Determined to protect the baby, Willow journeys far from his home, and eventually finds himself in the company of a roguish swordfighter named Madmartigan, the good witch Fin Raziel, and a pair of mischievous woodland sprites. As the story progresses they all become involved in a large scale war between Bavmorda’s army and those who oppose her, while Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha and the fearsome General Kael continue to hunt for the baby. The film stars Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, and Jean Marsh, and has a spectacular original score by James Horner.

I’m not ashamed to admit that Willow holds a special place in my personal cinematic history. It was one of the first films I ever saw in a theater when, aged 13, I began to see movies in cinemas more frequently with my friends. It was one of the films which initiated my love of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery, something which I maintain to this day. And, perhaps most importantly in this context, it was the first ever film scored by James Horner that I heard in a cinema. I had seen and loved many other Horner-scored movies before – Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, Cocoon, Star Trek II – but my first experience of all of them had been by watching them on TV. Willow was a real, fully fledged cinematic experience, and that soaring, heroic, triumphant orchestral music, in combination with the adventure and gallantry and visual inventiveness of the film itself, was hugely influential in shaping my taste in both music and movies.

Willow is an enormous score in every sense of the word. It was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and members of the Kings College Choir, with featured solo performances for shakuhachi bamboo flutes, pan pipes, and bagpipes, and Horner squeezed every last drop of passion and power from his ensemble. It’s a score which overflows with rousing action sequences, puts you on the edge of your seat with extended sequences of brooding darkness and anticipatory suspense, engages in moments of lively folk music to capture the essence of Nelwyn culture, and contains more than half a dozen outstanding character themes. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything I have always loved about Horner’s music: memorable themes, exhilarating action, stirring emotion, interesting orchestrations, intelligent composition. But, as is always the case with Horner, there’s an elephant in the room, and that’s the classical music references.

Throughout his life, James Horner was dogged with accusations that he regularly plagiarized classical scores, and self-plagiarized his own prior compositions for other movies. Entire articles have been written about this – whether he did it or not, why he did it, whether it was justified or not – but the bottom line is this: Willow does indeed reference both his own prior scores, and several classical pieces. Anyone with a functioning set of ears can spot these references a mile away. They are completely clear and obvious. Willow’s theme is a slightly-altered version of the first movement from Robert Schumann’s 1850 Rhenish Symphony No.3. Elora Danan’s theme contains an almost unaltered reworking of an old Bulgarian folk song, “Mir Stanke Le,” also known as the “Harvest Song from Thrace”. Some of the Nelwyn ‘travelling music’ is clearly inspired by Edvard Grieg’s “Arabian Dance” from Peer Gynt. Some of the choral writing is similarly inspired by the third movement of Bela Bartók’s Cantata Profana, also known as “The Nine Splendid Stags”. At the end of the day, in order to appreciate Horner’s music, you simply have to acknowledge that this was something that he did, and move past it. No music exists in a bubble, and every piece of music written is a culmination of its composer’s prior experiences and influences. I came to terms with this element of Horner’s musical style long ago, and I am now content to simply enjoy and experience the music as it is presented to me.

In this case, the music is presented to me in eight lengthy suites – the shortest is almost four minutes, the longest more than eighteen! – each a mini symphony following one of the score’s major set pieces. The first, “Elora Danan,” is the film’s opening sequence, and over the course f its nine and a half minutes, introduces the majority of the film’s recurring themes. It begins with those gorgeous, sparkling choral textures that Horner previously used in scores like Krull, and which would subsequently crop up in scores like The Pagemaster, among others. At 0:34 Horner introduces the infamous ‘four note danger motif,’ which has been used in countless numbers of his scores over the years, and over time became something of an in-joke, but in this instance it is a specific motivic idea relating to Queen Bavmorda. The four-note motif is everywhere in Willow – it may appear more frequently in this score than any other – but its sinister power and oppressive nature, especially when it is conveyed by the lowest registers of the brass section, cannot be overlooked.

The score’s main theme, Elora Danan’s Theme, begins at 2:26 to coincide with the opening credits, and goes on to underscore a montage accompanying Ethna, the heroic midwife who smuggles the baby out of the castle and who, in her last moments before she is killed by Bavmorda’s devil dogs, sets it floating down the river Moses-style to safety. The main title, and the action sequence of Ethna being attacked, introduces another one of the score’s important ideas – the breathy wail of the Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flute, which is performed by virtuoso soloist Kazu Matsui, and is used throughout the score as a shrill, anguished texture of horror, danger, and mystery.

The theme that begins at 5:14, for cooing voices and shimmering pastoral strings, is a secondary theme for Elora Danan, and is the theme most inspired by the Bartók classical piece. This theme initially speaks to the innocence and magic inherent in this little baby, but Horner also uses is as a sort of ‘nature theme,’ emphasizing the baby’s connection with the world around her, and the woodland creatures that reside within it. At 5:54 we are introduced to yet another theme, a folksy piece for the community of Nelwyn dwarves, which uses pan flutes and a dulcimer along with the orchestra, and accompanies the scene where Willow’s wife, Kaiya, and their children, Mims and Ranon, find Elora Danan in the river by their home; the sweep of strings at 6:17 reflects their inherent honesty, and down-to-earth goodness. The comedy interlude at 6:58 is a pompous little march for Burglekutt, Willow’s officious Nelwyn nemesis, which features an array of light percussion ideas, a harpsichord, and a waddling tuba.

The second cue, “Escape from the Tavern,” is the score’s first action set piece, underscoring the scene where Willow and Madmartigan – who is disguised as a tavern wench – frantically try to escape from the Nockmaar soldiers searching for Elora Danan by commandeering a rickety horse and cart, and racing full pelt along a forest road. Horner’s action writing in this cue, and throughout the score as a whole, is quite sensational. At times, Horner is clearly channeling the swashbuckling derring-do of Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Horner said himself, in numerous interviews, that he was an inspiration – whereas in other places the action music is turbulent, chaotic, sometimes even quite brutal, with thunderous percussion hits and moments of savage dissonance. However, for me, the action writing is at its best when it is full of barnstorming heroism: triumphant brass heraldry, swirling racing strings, tempestuous percussion rhythms, and explosive thematic glory. This cue introduces yet more themes: the first performance of the dastardly Nockmaar motif – muted staccato brasses accompanying the malevolent presence of General Kael and his soldiers, who hail from Bavmorda’s Nockmaar Castle – appears at 0:34. “Willow’s Theme,” which is the theme most inspired by the Schumann classical piece, then appears at 0:42 as a broad, celebratory brass fanfare, rousing and unashamedly heroic.

Two of the things I love about this cue is the thematic density – listen for the action setting of Elora’s pastoral theme at 0:47, or the contrapuntal setting of Willow’s heroism on trumpets against the Nockmaar motif on trombones at 1:27 – and the endlessly fascinating instrumental touches that Horner introduces for no other reason than they sound cool. The inclusion of anvils into the percussive palette adds a different sonic dimension, while the passage for throbbing trumpets at 3:08 echoes the one he wrote for one of the main battles in Krull five years previously.

“Willow’s Journey Begins” is out of order chronologically – the events it accompanies actually occur before the tavern chase – but it nevertheless offers some welcome respite from the frantic action that preceded it. It’s the cue that accompanies Willow and his band of Nelwyn friends who, at the urging of their village’s High Aldwyn wizard chieftain, have agreed to take Elora Danan away from the village, and search for a ‘daikini’ human to give the baby to. The gorgeous oboe-led statement of Elora Danan’s theme is melancholy and wistful, the subsequent string statement sublime. The skirl of bagpipes at 1:41 marks the beginning of their trek, while the quick statement of Burglekutt’s theme at 2:11 underscores the delightful scene where he experiences baby vomit for the first time. But there is danger on the road too – the combined appearance of both the Nockmaar motif and Bavmorda’s motif at 2:57, replete with pounding drums and howling shakuhachi, finds the travelers hiding from the soldiers still searching for the baby – before Elora Danan’s theme returns to accompany them further on their quest. Finally, at 4:10, the band reaches the Daikini Crossroads – the border between Nelwyn land and Daikini land – and Horner scores their encounter with trepidation bordering on horror: more shakuhachis, rumbling pianos, pizzicato textures. The stinger at 5:00 is where Willow first meets Madmartigan, who at that point has been locked inside a crow cage as punishment for some crime.

“Canyon of Mazes” begins immediately after Madmartigan and Willow escape with the baby from Sorsha and the Nockmaar snow camp in which they had been imprisoned; dark, imperious brass fanfares herald the arrival of yet more soldiers in the small mountain village where they are hiding, while low, brooding strings add tension and menace, underlining the gravity of their situation. It is here that Madmartigan again reconnects with Airk Thaughbaer, a fellow heroic soldier, who is leading what remains of his army of men into a final battle with Bavmorda’s troops. After a brief skirmish, Madmartigan and Willow manage to take Sorsha hostage, and head through the eponymous canyon towards the castle of Tir Asleen, where they hope they will find help and reinforcements. Horner’s music here is again a thematic tapestry, blending together deconstructed statements of Willow’s theme, the Nockmaar motif, Bavmorda’s motif, and both of Elora Danan’s themes, often with unusual and unexpected orchestrations, and often contrapuntally against each other. The statement of Willow’s theme on thoughtful sounding woodwinds at 2:54 is interesting, as is the back-and-forth between fragments of Willow’s theme and the Nockmaar motif around the 4:00 mark. This track is also one of the few cues on the album where the love theme for Madmartigan and Sorsha is heard, beginning at 5:38. In the film it’s usually heard as a lilting piece for strings, but here it is styled with an undercurrent of mistrust, perfect for the reluctant lovers who spend as much time kicking each other in the face as they do kissing.

“Tir Asleen” is another immense battle scene, set in a deserted castle which has been cursed by Bavmorda and had all its inhabitants turned to stone. Here Madmartigan and Willow face off against Sorsha, Kael, and the Nockmaar army for what appears to be their last stand – until Airk arrives with reinforcements, and Willow accidentally turns one of the disgusting trolls inhabiting the castle into an immense two-headed dragon which begins attacking everyone indiscriminately. The first glimpses of the cursed castle are underscored with eerie shakuhachi blasts, pan flutes, and some abstract orchestral and electronic textures, but as the cue develops and the battle begins in earnest, Horner again pulls out all his main themes, using them leitimotivically as the characters interact. There are several especially imposing statements of the Nockmaar motif augmented with the shakuhachi and layers of dissonant brass, several ebullient blasts of Willow’s theme, and some terrific sections of rhythmic dynamism that showcases the percussion section and which again features prominent clanging anvils, especially the one beginning at 4:38. In fact, the whole middle section of “Tir Asleen” contains some of the most powerful action writing of Horner’s entire career. The sweeping statement of Madmartigan and Sorsha’s love theme at 6:07 acknowledges the moment that Sorsha sees the error of her ways, declares her love for Madmartigan, and switches sides. The enormous statements of the Nockmaar motif and Bavmorda’s motif towards the end of the cue highlight the moment when General Kael successfully rips Elora Danan from Willow’s grasp and races off with her, heading for the castle.

“Willow’s Theme” is a concert arrangement suite of several of the main themes put together especially for the album, and which is sequenced here to provide a welcome buffer between the action sequences that precede and follow it. Willow’s Theme is followed by a glorious performance of Elora Danan’s Theme with the melody led by the shakuhachi, a second refrain of Willow’s theme, and then a magical performance of Elora’s secondary theme for a cooing choir that slowly fades into the mist.

The gargantuan 18-minute “Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast” is essentially the film’s finale, and begins with the scene where Bavmorda appears on the battlements of her castle and casts a spell which turns Madmartigan, Sorsha, Airk, and all his soldiers – all of whom have now camped outside and are laying siege – into pigs. Coolly abstract orchestral textures, wandering trumpet lines, and shrill shakuhachi chords eventually coalesce into a terrifyingly dissonant sequence underpinned by low, blatting brass and numerous statements of both Bavmorda’s theme and the Nockmaar motif, as Bavmorda’s spell takes over the camp. However Willow, with Fin Raziel’s guidance, has cast a protective spell over himself, and now has to use his fledgling magical powers to transform the cursed good witch back into her human form; Horner uses spiritual-sounding voices and woodwind flutters to give depth and weight to the transformation sequence, and a bittersweet statement of Elora’s secondary theme at 4:36 to illustrate the sad realization that, even though she is back in her human form, Raziel is not the woman she used to be.

Meanwhile, up in the castle, Bavmorda has begun a ritual on Elora Danan that, once completed, will banish the baby’s soul to another dimension and stop the prophecy coming to pass. Horner uses more darkly menacing orchestral textures, shrill outbursts from the shakuhachi, near-subliminal growling electronics, and more statements of both Bavmorda’s motif and the Nockmaar motif, to capture her evil power, as well as the pseudo-religious overtones of the ceremony. Horner jumps back and forth between the ceremony and siege camp, where Raziel has successfully transformed everyone back into human form, and where they are now making plans to storm the castle, save the baby, and end Bavmorda’s reign once and for all. Both of Elora Danan’s themes and the folk-like Nelwyn theme make prominent appearances, before an explosion of triumphant brass at 9:36 which coincides with the moment where Willow and Raziel’s ruse successfully tricks General Kael into opening the castle drawbridge, and the final battle begins.

The final eight minute sequence of the cue is another action extravaganza, full of more wonderfully arranged and tremendously exciting fully orchestral battle music. There are numerous bold performances of Willow’s theme juxtaposed against brutal statements of the Nockmaar motif, and several haunting reprisals of Elora Danan’s theme during cutaways to the banishment ceremony. As Madmartigan and Airk battle with General Kael in the courtyard, Willow accompanies Sorsha and Raziel into Bavmorda’s throne room, where the two witches engage in an unexpectedly vicious magical duel. The cascading string writing at 13:32 is a vintage Horner compositional technique he often used to illustrate the concept of a ‘desperate struggle,’ while the magnificently dark brass writing at 15:11 underscores the culmination of the desperate sword fight between Airk and Kael which ends with Airk’s death and Madmartigan vowing vengeance for his slain friend. The cue ends with the fight between Madmartigan and Kael, and with Madmartigan’s victory – Kael’s death is accompanied by a massive statement of the Nockmaar motif and Bavmorda’s four-note motif.

The first part of the final cue, “Willow the Sorcerer,” underscores the conclusion of the magical battle where Willow successfully tricks Bavmorda into believing he has teleported Elora Danan somewhere else – in reality, it’s his old ‘disappearing pig trick’ – and the evil witch accidentally completes the final part of the ritual on herself, banishing her own soul instead of the baby’s. Anguished shakuhachi blasts, eerie chanting choirs, dissonant orchestral textures, and an enormous rendition of the Nockmaar theme accompany her downfall and disappearance into the ether; the subtle inclusion of the Nelwyn theme at key moments – especially the one underpinned by a bank of massive throbbing drums at 2:01 – is a clever touch. With Bavmorda vanquished, relief takes over as the dominant emotion, and Horner takes the opportunity give several of his themes a final dust-off, as alliances are forged, love blossoms, and heroes return home. The performance of the Nelwyn theme at 3:38 is especially lovely, and the statement of Willow’s theme beginning at 5:32 is strongly emotional, as he finally reunites with Kaiya and his children after being away for so long. The end credits begin at 5:53 with an upbeat performance of the ‘Nelwyn Village Party Music’ from earlier in the film – fiddles, Celtic harps, and bagpipes, all performed with an infectious folk music charm – before final statements of Willow’s Theme and both of Elora Danan’s themes, to bring the album, and the score, to a close.

The album for Willow was originally released in 1988 by Virgin Records, but it went out of print very quickly, and for many years it was a highly priced and much sought-after collectible. It is more widely available now, thanks to online streaming services and so on, and with a running time of more than 73 minutes, one would expect it to provide a fairly comprehensive overview of everything the score has to offer. However, despite its generous length, a great deal of music remains unreleased. The entire sequence with Willow and the fairy queen Cherlindrea, the entire sequence where Willow first encounters Fin Raziel on an isolated island, the entire sequence where Willow and Madmartigan escape from the Nockmaar snow camp (including the chemically-enhanced seduction scene between Madmartigan and Sorsha), and much more besides, are all missing from the soundtrack album; as such, this is one of the few long James Horner scores which desperately needs an expanded edition – preferably a 2-CD set of the entire score, re-mastered and re-edited into chronological order. Considering that 2018 is the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, the time to do this is now.

As you can probably tell, Willow remains one of my favorite James Horner scores, and one of my favorite scores in general. As I mentioned before it contains everything I love about film music – swashbuckling themes, powerful action, suspense, huge orchestras, choirs, fascinating arrangements – and the fact that it is filtered through James Horner’s unmatched dramatic sensibility, and is primed with his unmistakable emotional content, just makes it all the more special to me. Anyone who loves his most rousing fantasy music will find Willow to be perfectly attuned to their taste, and providing you can ignore the classical ‘homages,’ it will provide endless hours of entertainment as you listen, over and over, and uncover all its emotional and compositional depths. It’s my favorite score of 1988, and even after all this time retains a special place in my heart.

Buy the Willow soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Elora Danan (9:45)
  • Escape from the Tavern (5:04)
  • Willow’s Journey Begins (5:26)
  • Canyon of Mazes (7:52)
  • Tir Asleen (10:47)
  • Willow’s Theme (3:54)
  • Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast (18:11)
  • Willow the Sorcerer (11:55)

Running Time: 73 minutes 08 seconds

Virgin Records America CDV-2538/0777-7-86066-2-8 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and The Kings College Choir. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Featured musical soloists Ian Underwood, Kazu Matsui, Mike Taylor, Tony Hinnigan and Robin Williamson. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner and Shawn Murphy.

  1. May 24, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    My all-time favourite James Horner score. A great review…

  2. Kevin
    May 25, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    Talking of classical “homages,” I’m surprised you didn’t note that the Danger motif itself was a direct lift from Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony. Horner definitely loved the Russians.

  3. Shinji
    September 7, 2018 at 5:27 am

    I’ve been really wanted to get the score of Willow since I watched the movie in 1989. Is there anyway to get it?

  4. Greg Hebert
    December 11, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    There is also a tiny bit of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto.

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