Considered by many as one of the greatest achievements of James Horner’s early career, Willow represents the action-fantasy genre at the height of its emotional heart, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. But the long tracks (a typical Horner staple) can distract first time listeners and make them miss the wealth of thematic goodness comprised in this 73-minute album, not to mention the 30 minutes of unreleased music. This two-part article is a detailed description of the score’s eleven themes, six of which appear in the first track alone.
“Wonder Motif.” Reprised later in The Pagemaster, these three notes performed by a female chorus offer a minimalist yet extremely efficient introduction to the magical nature of this universe. They’re also the very first and the very last things heard in the film, in the tracks Elora Danan and Willow the Sorcerer respectively, bookending the tale wonderfully. The female chorus comes back a few times throughout the score, reminding us of this magical quality, even when they’re performing different melodies.
“Nockmaar Motif.” This is unquestionably the most prominent element in the Horner canon: the infamous four-note tremolo heard in countless other scores, such as Troy, The Perfect Storm and Enemy at the Gates only to name a few. First heard to punctuate the villainous queen Bavmorda, this signature makes its world premiere at 0:34 of Elora Danan and recurs more often than any other theme throughout the score. A little-known fact, however, is the presence of a major-key variation of this motif in the unreleased music of this score. It is indeed the same four notes that accompany the mysterious “dust of broken hearts”, as heard at 43:51 in the movie. Is it to illustrate that love poses an even greater threat to men than evil queens?
“Menace Theme.” This theme does its foreboding job in a clandestine, counterpoint manner, making it harder to pick out and remember. But it is no less important to the fabric of the score. Its first low, indistinct rumbling drench the nightmarish dungeons of Nockmaar until it comes to life fully at 1:33 of Elora Danan, but it can be heard much more clearly throughout the beginning of Tir Asleen (especially at 2:07). The theme has its own four-note counterpoint which is sometimes heard by itself, such as 1:11 and 3:49 of Elora Danan.
“Elora Danan’s Theme.” This is the fully-realized stirring theme that people remembered upon leaving the theatre in 1988. First heard in its eponymous track at 2:25, it leaves an impression by splashing across the screen at the same time as the titles. It is the grandest, most sweeping and emotional theme of the score. It is also the most fertile, in that it offers an immense array of satellite material into which it can segue, and those satellite melodies are sometimes heard by themselves, turning them into mini-themes of their own. One example is the melody heard in the unreleased “Brownies” track (occurring at 35:45 of the movie). Another resides at 5:14 of Elora Danan (and that same melody also underscores the entire Cherlindrea encounter at 38:21 of the movie).
Follow up for part two, in which the remaining seven themes of this wonderful score will be explored.