The 1990s were a time of transition in movie music, as the classicism that dominated the '80s slowly gave way to more experimental approaches that integrated more diverse instrumentation — including a new generation of electronics — into film scores. There were still plenty of traditional orchestral scores, though, and it was those that the Academy chose to honor.
Catch up with our looks at Oscar-winning scores of the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s — and for highlights from every decade, listen to Lynne Warfel's three-hour special on the Movies and the Music.
1991: John Barry, Dances with Wolves
John Barry — already decorated for Born Free, The Lion in Winter, and Out of Africa — came through once again with an expansive, melodic and foreboding score that proved the perfect complement to Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. That movie took Best Picture and Director (Jeremy Irons's career-defining turn as Claus von Bülow beat Costner out for Best Actor), and Barry's score easily prevailed over its competition. One of the losing nominees, though, ultimately enjoyed a much longer pop-culture moment: in recent years, John Williams's Home Alone score has been making the rounds as a piece for live orchestra accompanying film screenings.
1992: Alan Menken, Beauty and the Beast
Once the Academy started giving Best Original Score Oscars to the then-new wave of Disney animated films, it couldn't stop. Menken's Little Mermaid score won for 1989, and then Menken won again for follow-ups Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992), with Hans Zimmer taking the 1994 Oscar for The Lion King and then, after Musical or Comedy Score was split off again, Menken picked up another for Pocahontas (1995). Of all those movies, however, Beauty and the Beast was the only one also nominated for Best Picture: the first animated feature ever to earn that honor. Three out of five Best Original Song nominees were also from Beauty and the Beast, with the title track winning in that category.
1993: Alan Menken, Aladdin
Accepting his third Oscar for Best Original Score in four years, Menken acknowledged that Aladdin "was a major transition for me, from my longtime collaborator and friend Howard Ashman to a new role and a new songwriting partner in Tim Rice." Rice stepped in as lyricist after Ashman died, in 1991, after beginning work on the film. Ashman was posthumously nominated for the "Friend Like Me" lyrics in the Best Original Song category, but it was a Menken/Rice song from the film, "A Whole New World," that took the Oscar.
1994: John Williams, Schindler's List
For his Holocaust story Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg again turned to his longtime collaborator John Williams — and the master didn't disappoint, demonstrating that once again he could match the mastery of the versatile director. Itzhak Perlman is a featured soloist on the score, which also features Jewish folk music. Williams's Oscar for Best Original Score was one of seven that went to this year's Best Picture winner.
1995: Hans Zimmer, The Lion King
For all the vast influence Zimmer has had over the past two-plus decades of film music, his only Oscar is this one: for scoring a Disney movie that's better-known for Elton John's songs. (Three of them were nominated for Best Original Song, and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" won.) Zimmer was picked for the job because he'd worked on two previous films set in Africa: A World Apart (1988) and The Power of One (1992). The original soundtrack release featured only highlights from Zimmer's score, which was finally released in full in 2014.
1996: Luis Enriquez Bacalov, Il Postino: The Postman (drama); Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, Pocahontas (musical or comedy)
This year the musical/comedy score category was split off again, and of course the Oscar went to the Disney film: the one that burst the bubble of Disney's return to animated-feature glory, the controversial and tepidly reviewed Pocahontas. In the Dramatic Score category, Argentine-Italian composer Luis Bacalov pulled out a surprise win with his music for Il Postino: The Postman, which wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Now 83, Bacalov has had a long and diverse career in film music and beyond: he was previously nominated for The Gospel of St. Matthew (1964), and Quentin Tarantino featured Bacalov's songs in Kill Bill and Django Unchained.
1997: Gabriel Yared, The English Patient (drama); Rachel Portman, Emma (comedy or musical)
69 years into the history of the Oscars, a woman finally won an Academy Award for film scoring for the very first time. British composer Rachel Portman, who would later earn nominations for scoring The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000), took the musical/comedy scoring Oscar for Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared — later a nominee for scoring The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003) — won one of nine Oscars, including Best Picture, for The English Patient.
1998: James Horner, Titanic (drama); Anne Dudley, The Full Monty (comedy or musical)
The very next year after a woman won a scoring Oscar for the first time, it happened for a second time: another Brit, Anne Dudley, won the only Academy Award for the beloved Full Monty. In other categories, the lovable male strippers were swamped by a night of historic proportions for Titanic. The James Cameron disaster movie took 11 Oscars, tying the record previously set by Ben-Hur (1959) and later tied again by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) — this year, La La Land could tie or break that record. James Horner won two of those awards, for his score and for Best Original Song "My Heart Will Go On."
1999: Nicola Piovani, Life is Beautiful (drama); Stephen Warbeck, Shakespeare in Love (musical or comedy)
If you wanted to win a best-scoring Oscar in the '90s, it never hurt to be working on a Disney movie or a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. That did the trick for Stephen Warbeck, who cashed in on his only Academy Award nomination with a prize for Shakespeare in Love, this year's Best Picture winner. In the Best Original Dramatic Score category, Italian composer Nicola Piovani won for Life is Beautiful — the film that produced a classic Oscar moment when it won for Best Foreign Language Film and Roberto Benigni made his way partially to the stage by jumping on the backs of chairs.
2000: John Corigliano, The Red Violin
Shout-out to composer Thomas Newman, who's been nominated for 14 Oscars without ever winning — and his 14th opportunity, for Passengers, almost certainly won't break that pattern given that he's up against Justin Hurwitz's La La Land score. If he was going to have a year, it was going to be 2000, when American Beauty won five awards. Newman's score, though, lost to the John Corigliano score that was integral to the plot of The Red Violin. Once again (after Schindler's List), an Oscar-winning '90s score featured a star violin soloist — in this case, Joshua Bell.