Alexander Courage: Composer of the 'Star Trek' theme

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).

John Riley

Alexander Courage, arranger, orchestrator and composer: born Philadelphia 10 December 1919; three times married; died Pacific Palisades, California 15 May 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...