Alexander Courage: Composer of the 'Star Trek' theme
Saturday 31 May 2008
Alexander Courage worked in film and television through five decades, but his best-known work was the theme tune to Star Trek. The astonishingly protean orchestrator could equally be said to be the distinctive "voice" of MGM musicals, as well as of composers as various as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.
In 1965 he spent a week writing and recording the main theme and scores for two pilots for a new sci-fi series. At the time he thought Star Trek was "just another show" and sci-fi is just "marvellous malarkey, so you write marvellous malarkey music". He amused himself and others by giving various parts of the score punning titles, filled with in-jokes. Courage was inspired to write the long-limbed melody by the song "Beyond the Blue Horizon", which he remembered from his youth, and also provided the "swoosh" of the Enterprise by breathing into a microphone.
He only scored a further four episodes but his music became inextricably linked to the series. The opening fanfare, striving and probing the unknown, was used for the spin-off TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation (1987-94) and woven into all the Star Trek movies. Michael Giacchino, composer of the 10th film, said: "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."
The Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry had asked Courage not to write "space music", but he still went for a mysterious texture, though the famously controlling producer changed the sound-balance to highlight the soprano. Roddenberry then wrote words to the theme, simply to get half the music royalties. In response, Courage, when asked for an autograph, would occasionally sign Roddenberry's name.
Alexander Courage, known to his friends as Sandy, was born in 1919 in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey. After piano, he took up cornet and horn and studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, with its strong band tradition. He graduated in 1941 and the following year moved to California, enlisting in the Army Air Corps to become a bandleader at bases there and in Arizona.
After the war, he joined CBS Radio as a composer and in 1948 became an orchestrator at MGM, the pre-eminent musicals studio. Courage worked on a series of blockbusters including Showboat (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Guys and Dolls and It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Funny Face (1957) – its pasa doble was one his proudest achievements – and Gigi (1958). For the composer John Williams, Courage was "one of the architects of the MGM sound, a particular style of orchestration, which was an extension and development of what was done in the theatre in the 1920s".
The late 1950s also saw original dramatic scores, including Shake, Rattle and Rock! (1956) and The Left-handed Gun (1958), but none were big hits and he continued television work for Universal, MGM and Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's Desilu Productions. He also worked at 20th Century-Fox, including the fantasies Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and Lost in Space (1965-68). He later won Emmys for scoring Medical Center (1973) and arranging Liberty Weekend (1986) and Julie Andrews: the sound of Christmas (1988).
Although their heyday was over, many musicals continued to be made and Courage orchestrated My Fair Lady (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1969) and others. Alongside Lionel Newman, he was nominated for an Oscar for The Pleasure Seekers (1963) and Doctor Doolittle (1967). He gave Jerome Morros' The Big Country (1958) a thrilling outdoor quality and orchestrated Alex North's imposing Renaissance-modern The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
After Star Trek, Courage continued his film work, forging a true collaboration with two composers, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. He met Williams as the soundtrack pianist on Funny Face, and worked on the Oscar-winning adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), through disaster movies like The Poseiden Adventure (1972) to the singing themes of Jurassic Park (1993).
When Williams stepped aside from the Superman franchise, Courage used his themes in an original score for Superman IV: the quest for peace (1987). Courage had adapted Porgy and Bess for the screen in 1959 and some years later Williams asked him to write a Fantasy on Violin Orchestra, based on themes from the opera, for Joshua Bell and the Boston Pops.
He worked with Jerry Goldsmith and the orchestrator Arthur Morton on over 100 episodes of The Waltons (1972-81), with its clip-clopping theme, as well as four television movies. After Morton's death, Courage became Goldsmith's main orchestrator. Their work includes the slinkily sinuous Basic Instinct (1992) and old-fashioned action films like The Mummy (1999).
Orchestrators are the unsung heroes of film and television scoring but Courage was one of the few who broke through that anonymity and was openly and generously acknowledged by composers. He also broke cover to appear on screen as the conductor in the Pavarotti vehicle Yes, Giorgio (1982).
Alexander Courage, arranger, orchestrator and composer: born Philadelphia 10 December 1919; three times married; died Pacific Palisades, California 15 May 2008.
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