Obituary: Composer Fred Steiner Dead At 88

Fred Steiner, who wrote numerous scores for the original Star Trek series and created the memorable theme music to the Perry Mason TV series and the beloved cartoon series The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, died of natural causes in Mexico at his home in the Mexican state of Jalisco at the age of 88.

 

Fred Steiner – 1923 – 2011

A superb composer as well as a busy orchestrator, arranger and musicologist, Steiner contributed music to films such as Time Limit (1957), First to Fight and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (both 1967), but he was far more prolific and integral to the art of television music and provided dozens of episodic scores for shows like Have Gun – Will Travel, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, The Wild Wild West, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0, Dynasty, Tiny Toons Adventures and many others.

Steiner was born in New York City and studied music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. He got a job as director of an independent record company in Mexico City in 1958 after early work arranging and composing for radio, film and television. He resumed his work in Hollywood in 1960 where he racked up countless scoring assignments in episodic television, also collaborating with composer Nathan Van Cleave on some interesting science fiction films including The Colossus of New York (1960) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

His contributions to Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek were particularly important and influential. Steiner scored 12 episodes of the series, more than any other composer. While Alexander Courage wrote the show’s theme music and composed the underscore for Star Trek’s two pilots (“The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and scored two of the show’s first regular production episodes (“The Man Trap” and “The Naked Time,”) Steiner worked on six episodes of the series in the first year alone, scoring the first regular production episode to be filmed, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” on September 20, 1966. Prior to “Corbomite” which aired later due to its complicated optical effects) Steiner scored “Charlie X” (on August 29, 1966) and “Mudd’s Women” (on September 7th, 1966)—and he would record the “partial scores” (about 10 minutes of music) for “Balance of Terror” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” during the same September 20th
sessions in which “Corbomite” was recorded. A few months later in March of 1967 Steiner would provide another partial score for the acclaimed episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” arranging much of his music around the period tune “Good Night, Sweetheart.”

Steiner’s influence on the sound of Star Trek’s music during this first season was enormous. He established a distinctively heavy, dark and mysterious vibe for the show, and because he wrote music for so many episodes his music cues would be “tracked” into later episodes that didn’t have original music written for them. Consequently Steiner’s alarming theme for the Fesarius from “Corbomite Maneuver” became the de facto theme for space danger on the show, his Romulan theme from “Balance of Terror” underscored countless alien threats and heavies, his rumbling, menacing timpani theme for the android Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” became a signature for the show’s desolate planetary landscapes, and his lush, erotic love themes from “Mudd’s Women” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” underscored most of Captain Kirk’s romantic conquests during the first year of the show.

Steiner even influenced the sound of the music recordings themselves by working with Paramount sound engineers Dave Forest and Jay Stewart to change the recording layout at Studio F on the lot where the show’s scores were recorded. Using a device from Glen Glenn Sound, Steiner and the engineers were able to precisely control the amount of reverb in the tiny studio and between that and rearranging the microphone and orchestra placement Steiner and his engineers were able to get a spectacular sound from the small groups of 25-30 players that normally recorded the show’s scores. Listening to the blasting brass performances of “Corbomite Maneuver” and “Balance of Terror,” you would be hard pressed to know that the series used such small orchestras to record its music.


Music from Steiner’s score for "Balance of Terror"

In addition to some brief music for “Miri,” Steiner would continue to score episodes of Star Trek throughout its second and third seasons: he wrote the richly archaic elegy for the god Apollo in “Who Mourns For Adonais?,” a sultry new love theme, a spectacular fight cue and an apt variation on his Romulan music for “Mirror, Mirror,” and the agitated music for the Kelvans in “By Any Other Name” for season two. He wrote yet another memorable love theme as well as some thrilling space battle music for “Elaan of Troyius” early in season three. Steiner’s final score for the series was for the legendary “Spock’s Brian,” which featured some evocative “cave man” music for the downtrodden Morg of Sigma Draconis VI.

Steiner’s contributions to the Star Trek franchise were not over, however. At the request of series producer Robert H. Justman, Steiner scored one first season episode of the Star Trek sequel series Star Trek – The Next Generation in 1987. The episode, “Code of Honor,” was not highly regarded, but Steiner’s score, often reminiscent of his “Elaan of Troyius” work for the original series, was exciting and often filmic in its evocation of a barbaric culture on Lygon II. Steiner’s music would also be tracked into the online Star Trek fan films Star Trek: The New Voyages and Star Trek: The New Voyages Phase II.

Steiner’s proficiency as a composer and arranger caused him to be called to “ghostwrite” for other composers on occasion, leading to another important contribution to Star Trek. During the high-pressure weeks of postproduction on Star Trek – The Motion Picture in late 1979, composer Jerry Goldsmith called both Alexander Courage and Fred Steiner in to assist him in completing the massive score for the first Star Trek theatrical film. Courage provided two short “captain’s logs” arrangements of his original Star Trek theme for the movie but Steiner wrote a number of the score’s most pivotal and exciting cues (based on Goldsmith’s themes), including the warp drive cues and the powerful “Meet Vejur” cue that underscores the Enterprise’s first encounter with the enormous space entity featured in the film. In 1983 Steiner would perform a similar function for John Williams on Return of the Jedi, rewriting several cues for Williams at the
last minute. Steiner also received an Oscar nomination (along with Quincy Jones and 10 other musicians) for his work on the score to Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple in 1985.

On a personal note, I had the good fortune to speak to Fred several times when I was working on my book about Star Trek music in 1998. Fred was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, and when the book was finished he sent me a congratulatory letter praising the final product. Steiner was a musicologist of some note and in his good-natured way he acknowledged that the book had some errors in it (it had plenty!), but rather than being abrupt or condescending about this, Steiner said that this was common to just about every book about music—“all books on music should be released as a second edition first,” he joked. Steiner had a modesty that belied his great contributions to the art of film and television music, and he will be missed.


Composer Fred Steiner – rest in peace

 

Jeff Bond is the author of “The Music of Star Trek” and “Danse Macabre: 25 Years of Danny Elfman and Tim Burton“; he covers film music for The Hollywood Reporter.

 

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