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Star Trek Composer Alexander Courage Dead At 88

Alexander Courage, who wrote the original Star Trek title theme as well as the scores for numerous television shows and movies, died May 15 in Pacific Palisades, California at the age of 88. The Emmy winning and Oscar-nominated composer had over 90 film and television credits and at least one other TV theme (Judd for the Defense), but he was best known for the exotic, bongo-driven siren song he wrote for the original Star Trek TV series.

Written at what was the peak of artistry for television music in the mid-1960s, a period when film composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann would routinely move back and forth between major motion pictures and episodic television, Courage’s Star Trek theme stands out as unique. Originally performed by an electric violin, the theme was later arranged for female soprano. “What I based the whole thing on in a way, was an old Hebredean tune from the outer islands of Scotland,” Courage said when I interviewed him in 1996. “Because I wanted something that had a long, long feel to it, and I wanted to put it over a fast-moving accompaniment to get the adventure and the speed and so forth, so there was an old song called ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon,’ and when I was a kid I would hear it on the radio and they used to play a double time accompaniment to it, while this thing was singing over the top, so that’s what I really wanted to do, I wanted to make all of the scales go way out, and I wanted the intervals to be long, and I wanted to have a kind of exotic feel to it.”

Courage’s long-line melody was in fact so exotic that it rarely found its way into the musical underscore of the series—the exceptions were some background source “space radio” cues heard in the episodes “Court Martial” and “The Conscience of the King.” Joseph Mullendore’s score for the latter episode also sampled the melody at certain points. But it was the opening brass fanfare (heard after William Shatner’s narration speaks the words “Space: the final frontier…”) that became the most familiar element of the theme, and the show’s producers specifically requested that composers quote the fanfare and employ variations of it during any “flyby” shot of the Enterprise in space, meaning that the melody would appear in various guises numerous times in any Trek episode. Later it was adapted to open the follow-up series Star Trek – The Next Generation in the same way. Courage himself did the most direct adaptation of the full title theme on the Jerry Goldsmith-scored Star Trek – The Motion Picture in 1979, when he was asked by Goldsmith to write several “Captain’s Log” cues using a subdued take on the melody. After that, virtually all of the Star Trek films from The Wrath of Khan through Star Trek Nemesis opened with Courage’s bold fanfare, which Variety writer and TV music authority Jon Burlingame once stated was more familiar to Americans than Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Courage scored Star Trek’s two pilot episodes, “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as well as episodes like “Man Trap,” “The Naked Time” and “The Enterprise Incident.” Courage’s episodic scores certainly helped establish the musical signature of the series, but his own scores were often more subdued, moodier and more experimental than those of his fellow Trek composers and some included electric organ and early keyboard synthesizers to create sublte, otherworldly textures.

Courage himself was a genial man with an impish sense of humor. His Trek cue titles are marked by odd puns and inside jokes like “Monitor Gizzard,” “Lurch Time” (for a ship-shaking scene in “The Naked Time”) and “Banana Farm.” After Courage wrote the Star Trek theme music Gene Roddenberry offered to write lyrics to the tune—an arrangement that earned the Trek creator half of the royalties on the oft-played theme and cost Courage quite a lot of money, particularly given that Roddenberry’s lyrics were never given any authentic recording or performance until Nichelle Nichols recorded a version late in her career. Stung by the arrangement, the cheeky Courage would sometimes sign Roddenberry’s name when asked for his autograph.

An experienced arranger and orchestrator as well as a composer, Alexander Courage left Star Trek during the second season to work on the 20th Century Fox film Doctor Doolittle, which was expected to be a huge hit. The film tanked and after doing arrangements and orchestration on that project Courage returned to score some episodes in Trek’s third season. But despite his absence in season two a number of library cues based on his themes were recorded by Fred Steiner and his theme music and variations of his fanfare were heard throughout every season of the show. After Star Trek Courage continued to work in television—he, orchestrator Arthur Morton and Jerry Goldsmith alternated in scoring duties for the long-running show The Waltons, and Courage also began to share orchestration duties with Goldsmith’s longtime orchestrator Arthur Morton. After Morton’s death Courage took over orchestration duties and orchestrated Goldsmith’s Star Trek movie scores Star Trek – First Contact and Star Trek – Insurrection.

While he will be best known as the creator of the Star Trek theme, Courage’s credits range from musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls (all of which he wrote arrangements for) to episodes of Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the score to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.

Giacchino on Courage
Michael Giacchino, who will score J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie late this year, had this to say about Courage’s contribution to the series:

I feel that Star Trek owes a great deal to the music of Jerry Goldsmith. His work for the movie series is just amazing. However, in my opinion, Alexander Courage is responsible for the musical heart to the world of Star Trek. I feel that if you were to strip away everything, bit by bit, in order of importance, the last thing you would be holding in your hands would be the sheet music for the opening fanfare to the Star Trek Main Theme. To me, that small piece of music is and always shall be Star Trek.


UPDATE: John Williams on Courage

In the LA Times obituary on Courage, Oscar-winning composer John Williams had this to say about his friend:

He made a very big contribution to the musical life of Hollywood from the end of the second World War to recent years. He was known to most musicians in the community as having been one of the architects of what we used to refer to as the MGM sound, which meant that most of the musical films from MGM had a particular style of orchestration, which was an extension and development of what was done in the theater in the 1920s. They actually took that to a very high art form, particularly in the musicals produced by Arthur Freed.

 

Courage Documentary
The following is an excellent documentary on Courage narrated by Courage’s friend, Oscar-winning composer John Williams.

More video Archive of American Television Interview: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

More on Courage:
Obituary at Film Music Society

Entries at: Memory Alpha | IMDB | Wikipedia | StarTrekSoundTracks

 

Jeff Bond is the editor-in-chief of Geek Magazine, the author of "The Music of Star Trek" and is also a regular contributor to Film Score Monthly.

 

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Chris Doohan
May 28, 2008 5:19 pm

He will be missed. My best goes out to his family.

Izbot
May 28, 2008 5:26 pm

One of the very greatest.

Imrahil
May 28, 2008 5:28 pm

I wish we had some of those “subdued cues” from the TMP score, but they didn’t get released on the special edition soundtrack album.

Driver
May 28, 2008 5:30 pm

One for the ages and will never be topped. Farewell, Heart of Star Trek.

May 28, 2008 5:30 pm

I wish the best for his family as well.

He did a lot of great work for Star Trek and it was so wonderful that I had the privilege to hear a lot of his missing work he had done for Superman IV this year. If there was ever a person who wanted to leave his mark on something, he did it. I hope the music he has given Star Trek will continue to live on both inside and outside the Trek series.

Captain Alex
May 28, 2008 5:31 pm

Will miss his greatness, he wrote one of the most recognized theme songs ever, the Star Trek theme. Thank-you Alexander.

Redjac
May 28, 2008 5:32 pm

Godspeed, Maestro Courage! You’ll be missed! Condolences to your family….and, thank you for all the great music you gave us over the years.

Star Trek would not have been the same without your great theme!

Timncc1701
May 28, 2008 5:34 pm

Who would have thought that a fanfare could be the signature of so many TV shows and movies. I hope it is honored in the film. Star Trek would not be Star Trek without Courage’s work.

CmdrR
May 28, 2008 5:39 pm

Such a great part of the Trek ethos. Thank you, Alexander.
All the best to your loved ones, from a fan.

CanuckLou
May 28, 2008 5:41 pm

Condolences to the Courage family. His Trek fanfare still gives me goosebumps.

…the adventure continues…

May 28, 2008 5:42 pm

We’re starting to lose so many now. Now once again we have lost one of the core members of everything that is Star Trek. Courage’s fanfare is not just Star Trek’s theme but an anthem, a call to exploration to the heroes of the future. Today is a bittersweet celebration. Well done and Godspeed to the stars!

May 28, 2008 5:43 pm

I cant image Trek without him

Thank you to Jeff for such a thorough and informative article and Michael Giacchino really nailed it with that quote

Brian
May 28, 2008 5:49 pm

Godspeed Mr. Courage. Your legacy will live on.

CmdrR
May 28, 2008 5:49 pm

“…just another show…” Ha. I think the guys who wrote Casablanca said the same thing. Again, thanks Sandy.

Commodore Lurker
May 28, 2008 5:49 pm

Our thanks to the father of the greatest theme in the history of television, and the driving force behind all our visions of boldly going where no man has gone before.

SirMartman
May 28, 2008 5:49 pm

Im pretty sure that right now hes with a band of angels that are playing their harps,,hes sitting in front listening to some of the most outstanding music ever written by god himself.

And telling the angels they have it all wrong

Maestro Courage’s work will live forever,,thank you for entertaining us

May 28, 2008 5:55 pm

Today is a sad day. I am very sorry to hear of Mr. Courage’s passing.

His work will live on, and not least of all in the minds of all fans of Star Trek. Without his music, Trek would never have been the same.

Godspeed, Mr. Courage, into that most final of frontiers. Godspeed.

May 28, 2008 5:56 pm

He and his genius will be missed.

16309A
May 28, 2008 6:06 pm

That fanfare is as important to Star Trek as is Kirk, Spock, McCoy and The Enterprise.

You will be missed.

Schultz
May 28, 2008 6:11 pm

R.I.P. Mr. Courage… and R.I.P. Mr. Hagen. You will both be missed. Thank you for your great music. I second Mr. Giacchino. Courage was the heart of Star Trek.

PS to Mr. Abrams: if you don’t put an “In Memoriam” title card for Courage into the Main Titles of “Star Trek”, I’ll have a grudge against you until the end of my days. I mean it.

Viking
May 28, 2008 6:11 pm

R.I.P., Alexander. Thank you for what you contributed to us, and for the magnitude of it’s impact on so many. Tell De and Jimmy we said, ‘Yo’.

May 28, 2008 6:23 pm

A man whose music hearkened back to the core trait of boldly exploring the final frontier, “courage.” Godspeed Mr. Courage.

Spocko
May 28, 2008 6:52 pm

R.I.P. Alexander Courage
The Original Series would only be half of what it is today if not for your glorious music that expanded from the sky to the stars above.

THX-1138 The Fandom Menace
May 28, 2008 7:02 pm

Being a musician, I have music floating through my head constantly. I hope that it would be thought of as a compliment to say that at some point every day of my life, there was some particular strain of Courage’s music weving in and out of the melodies I hear. He certainly had that impact on me.

I’d like to add that that was a great article.

May 28, 2008 7:04 pm

gods bless him and his family.

And Michael Giacchino is a class act.

May 28, 2008 7:05 pm

Nice writeup for an artist who will be dearly missed.

THX-1138 The Fandom Menace
May 28, 2008 7:05 pm

“weaving”

Frakkin’ proof reading.

Kev-1
May 28, 2008 7:11 pm

Coming after the Earl Hagen news this is very sad. But he did stellar work. it took me a long time to appreciate the original ST theme; it is not a typical orchestration for TV of the time. But it is so unique that it perfectly fits the then unknown longevity of Trek. A regular orchestal score might not be appreciated as much after 40 years and endless, endless, endless repitition. (yeah, I know one endless kind of says it).The “Judd for the Defense” is a great theme too. TV music is becomimg a lost art. Though Lost has some good music.

lodownX
May 28, 2008 7:16 pm

This is truly sad news… My thoughts go out to Mr. Courage’s family.
His music will surely live on.

May 28, 2008 7:18 pm

It’s hard to imagine Trek without those first eight notes–the part of a musical piece that composers name the fanfare. It is particularly fitting in this case, given that its call has summoned fans for over forty years. It is the seminal geek hymn, the march for the true believer. Those eight perfect notes, noble, grand heroic, that still, these many years later, have the power to fill my heart with wonder and hope for the possibilities of the future of humankind.

Thank you, Alexander Courage for deciding that day to compose the music that speaks your name.

So say we all.

Jared
May 28, 2008 7:25 pm

Um he will always be most remembered for Star Trek???

I think more people would remember the scores for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls .

Not to diminish the Trek theme, but I think more people know about Gene Kelley singing “Singin’ in The Rain” or Frank Sinatra singing “Luck Be A Lady.”

Granted he didn’t write the score for those films but his composure of the those musicals is his best know work outside of Trek.

He also did work for the following films: Show Boat “, The Band Wagon ,Gigi , My Fair Lady, Funny Face, Some Like it Hot, Superman, The Poseidon Adventure, Jurassic Park, and the Academy Award-nominated musical films Tom Sawyer, and Fiddler on the Roof

Even as a Trek fan that list of films is way more impressive than a Trek theme.

Xai
May 28, 2008 7:30 pm

Mr. Courage,
Thank You.

Denise de Arman
May 28, 2008 7:35 pm

A fitting tribute article, Jeff, for an incredibly special man and immensely talented musician.

captmike
May 28, 2008 7:36 pm

Wow he lived a great life and he will be missed very greatly. He is the true father of the music of star trek and to me the theme will always be the most reconised and hummed. alexander may you rest in peace and may all your family live long and prosper. Thank you alexander for the wonderfull music you brought into this world as it will always be remembered.

Robby13
May 28, 2008 7:38 pm

Thank You. RIP

Scott
May 28, 2008 7:38 pm

I can still remember sitting in the theater watching “Star Trek – The Motion Picture” and thinking how, with the changes to the ship, the costumes, the theme music, etc. that the only time the movie really felt like Star Trek was when Kirk was making log entries, and that great Courage theme could be heard.

Scott B. out.

May 28, 2008 7:39 pm

.

In my opinion, Alexander Courage is responsible for the musical heart to the world of Star Trek and will be forever remembered for it…!

For now, the world is a little bit more hollow… and he certainly touched the sky… Heaven, I mean.

Go in peace, Mr. Courage… your music will live long… go on… forever…!

Jesustrek
May 28, 2008 7:39 pm

Rest In Pace Alexander Courage, Artist of Music.

Tunnn,,,Turrrrrr,,,turrrruuuuuru ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu turuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

Scott
May 28, 2008 7:44 pm

To Jeff Bond: one of my favorite pieces of music in all of TOS is also one of the few times the main title theme was adapted for use in the score. It was only used once — in Shore Leave. When Sulu fires the pistol and Kirk and crew go running to find the source of it, there is this great, urgent “running” version of the theme that is (and here I prove my utter ignorance of musical terms) in a different key? from the proper theme. Sadly, this piece does not appear on the “Shore Leave” soundtrack CD released several years ago. I assume it wasn’t written by Gerald Fried, who wrote the rest of the score, and may have been written for some other use. Can you help a fella out with any info on this cool bit of Trek music?

Scott B. out.

May 28, 2008 7:50 pm

Great obituary, Jeff. And thanks to Mr. Giacchino for his spot-on statement.

R.I.P. Alexander Courage. Thanks for the outstanding music. Be sure to let Gene know he owes you some cash. :)

May09---wtf?!
May 28, 2008 7:51 pm
Can we possibly overstate the importance of Alexander Courage’s music to the artistry, success and pervasiveness of STAR TREK? Born in 72, I grew up watching TREK on Channel 13 KCOP in Los Angeles. That siren song lured me from homework, lured me from first run television, and sent me to Space Camp a teenager. It embodied not just the spirit of adventure in the show, but also the exoticism inherent in going ‘where no man has gone before.’ I’ve never read his notes on composing the main theme, but all I can say is Mission: Accomplished. I hope some of Alexander Courage’s family read our tributes. When you consider that the STAR TREK franchise kept Paramount afloat in the 80s and kept the entire Simon & Schuster publishing group in the black for 20 years, you can see this isn’t just about hopes and dreams. And I think we’ve all shown, in creating this phenomenon of fandom, that Alexander Courage’s music has inspired our hopes and dreams. STAR TREK was a case of chemistry bordering on alchemy. Take any of a number of elements out, like Jenga, and STAR TREK might just be a footnote in a different version of history. I think it’s safe to say on these pages that Alexander Courage is up there with Roddenberry, Shatner, Kelley and Nimoy as one of the essential elements. I hope Courage’s family collects fat checks for a long time. But I also hope they see that the man had… Read more »
Tom
May 28, 2008 8:08 pm

Thanks AC for providing a music that is much a signature piece as the phrase “beam me up Scotty”

BTW, Jack Black would perform the Star Trek theme with his band and he would sing the lyrics. Probably available for download somewhere.

Lou
May 28, 2008 8:09 pm

when I was little, I loved the original theme. then when I was in high school, not so much.

but now that the reruns and re-done episodes are on, I realize that (other than the corny dramatic music stabs) the music was very well done.

Well done, Mr Courage.

May 28, 2008 8:09 pm

Does anyone know why Alexander Courage never scored a Star Trek film?

I know that Jerry Goldsmith was Gene Roddenberry’s original choice to compose the theme for Star Trek, which explains The Motion Picture, but still.

You would think the guy who created the most iconic piece of Star Trek music would get first crack at a Star Trek motion picture score.

“PS to Mr. Abrams: if you don’t put an “In Memoriam” title card for Courage into the Main Titles of “Star Trek”, I’ll have a grudge against you until the end of my days. I mean it.”

By the way, that dedication should be placed during the opening fanfare.

May 28, 2008 8:12 pm

Articles like this demonstrate why this is by far the best Star Trek news site.

RIP Alexander Courage. His music is demonstrative of the imagination of television music at its peak in the 1960s. I saw some of that documentary posted above. Excellent stuff. I forgot where I saw it (I thought it might have been on one of the Trek movie DVDs).

I have every bit of confidence that Michael Giacchino will contribute a score worthy of the spirit of the music of the original show. I saw him speak at LACMA a couple of months ago and he definitely seemed like a great guy with loads of imagination and talent. The thing that made him stick out from a lot of other film composers is that his first love seemed to be movies rather than music. He seemed to have good eyes and ears for what a film needs in terms of music.

Mr. Penguin
May 28, 2008 8:28 pm

My sincere condolences to his family. Courage was one of the architects of Hollywood Music, and he will be greatly missed.

Godspeed, Maestro

Green-Blooded-Bastard
May 28, 2008 8:36 pm

You all might want to read this:

http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/trek.asp

ensign joe
May 28, 2008 8:46 pm

Kind thoughts to friends and family..

Robogeek
May 28, 2008 9:08 pm

“Marvelous malarky music” — composed, orchestrated, conducted in a mere week. And yet it catapulted him into immortality.

Obviously, Courage had an incredibly accomplished career, but he captured lightning in a bottle with the Star Trek theme — particularly the opening fanfare, which I dare say is as well known as Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and maybe even the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It is iconic, and unforgettable.

It so perfectly distills the spirit of Star Trek in that it crystallizes the majesty of it. I’m sure I’ve heard it over a thousand times, and it still gives me chills every time I hear it.

It is a call to adventure — one I’ll be thrilled to answer once more next summer.

Awdraper
May 28, 2008 9:15 pm

Mr. Courage,

I have listened to that familar eight-note fanfare for over Forty years, and it never gets old. We will miss you.

Perhaps Mr. Goldsmith was there to welcome you in…and started you orchestrating right away!

Boldly go…

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