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.
The following is an excellent documentary on Courage narrated by Courage’s friend, Oscar-winning composer John Williams.
More on Courage:
Obituary at Film Music Society