The Music Makers of Star Trek: Alexander Courage
Whenever the original 1960s NBC TV series Star Trek is discussed, one aspect continues to emerge as a critical part of the show’s success — its music. Show creator Gene Roddenberry was intentional in this, saying that he didn’t want “boops and beeps music,” but adventure music — “Captain Blood in space.” Associate Producer Robert Justman helped oversee this part of production, and his choices of music creators were among the best of the best. Out of this class of maestros, one broke the ground for all to follow and build upon — Alexander “Sandy” Courage, who composed the theme music for the show.
Early Life and Career
Born in Philadelphia on 10 December 1919 to a Scottish father and French-American mother, Alexander Courage grew up in New Jersey, where he studied piano and French horn. In 1941, he earned his music degree from the Eastman Conservatory in Rochester, NY.
Right out of school, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and was stationed at March Field in Riverside, CA, as a band leader/warrant officer. There, he gained experience in dramatic scoring for Army radio programs.
Networking was as important then as it is today; the wife of an Army buddy happened to be a copyist at CBS who introduced Courage to the right people. After his military service, he became an orchestrator and arranger at MGM Studios, working on such films as Singin’ in the Rain, Guys and Dolls, The Band Wagon, Gigi, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Courage was a master orchestrator and worked on scores composed by the likes of André Previn, Adolph Deutsch, John Williams, and Jerry Goldsmith. He composed several film scores of his own, then moved into television around 1959, working on shows like Daniel Boone, The Brothers Brannagan, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and The Waltons.
Star Trek Career
While at MGM, Sandy Courage had gotten to know Wilbur Hatch, who went on to be head of music at Desilu Studios, where Star Trek was to be produced. It was Hatch who recommended Courage to Gene Roddenberry for his upstart sci-fi TV show. In addition to his iconic fanfare and theme, Courage scored all the music for both series pilot shows, “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, as well as episodes “The Naked Time” and “The Man Trap”.
Courage had to leave the show in order to work on Dr. Dolittle, which in its day was one of the most ambitious films produced. But he returned for Season 2, to re-record the theme music and some library cues. In Season 3, he wrote scores for “The Enterprise Incident” and “Plato’s Stepchildren”.
The famous theme tune that begins every episode of the original Star Trek series opens with the heroic French horn “Enterprise fanfare” and then crescendoes into an upbeat sixteen-bar theme. It was partly inspired by the song “Beyond the Blue Horizon” from the 1930 movie Monte Carlo, sung by actress and soprano Jeanette McDonald. That song features long phrases with large jumps over a double-time accompaniment — exactly what Courage wanted for his Star Trek theme. The tune was also partly inspired by the song “Out of Nowhere”, which lent its form and supporting harmonization to the arrangement.
Early on, Bob Justman “decreed” that the Enterprise fanfare portion of Courage’s theme be played for every exterior view of the USS Enterprise moving past, the so-called “fly-by” shot. So, Courage and the other composers worked up a vast variety of adaptations of the fanfare, giving the entire series a melodic continuity with a fresh sound. Sol Kaplan’s treatment of the fanfare for his first episode, “The Enemy Within”, featured a whirling flute arpeggio over a woodwind tonal cluster ahead of the French horn melody. This would become the signature fly-by version for the series.
Star Trek’s Sonic Building Blocks
Jeff Bond’s 1999 book The Music Of Star Trek – Profiles In Style (pages 37 and 38) lists all the music cues from the first pilot, “The Cage”, along with their running times and orchestral breakdowns. The first composition listed is “Main Title”. The third instrument mentioned is heckelphone. I’m sure there are those who have heard of this instrument, but I had not. “Heckelphone” is mentioned repeatedly — all but seven of these music cues feature it!
My research led me to learn that German composer Richard Wagner had proposed to Wilhelm Heckel — a famous bassoon maker — an instrument that would fill the gap between the oboe and bassoon. Clearly Mr. Courage knew of the rare instrument (only about 150 were made) and decided it could bring a certain otherworldly quality to his music.
Remember “Vina’s Dance”, from “The Cage”/“The Menagerie”? Courage achieved an exotic sound and feel that was both accessible to our ear, yet strangely extraterrestrial at the same time. A careful listening can pick out the heckelphone in the lower registers. We can appreciate a professional like Sandy Courage knowing just what instruments to draw from in order to musically convey the heart of the story.
Waste Not, Want Not
Courage composed a mysterious pulsating cue called “Monster Illusion” that was used when the Talosians forced Captain Pike to relive the fight on Rigel VII. A distinctive feature was the soprano voice doubling the oboe melody (sung by the same vocalist who sang the theme: Loulie Jean Norman, again soaring, “Ah…”). Courage’s music here was so perfect that it was reused a number of times in Season 1, most notably in “The City on the Edge of Forever”, after the drugged Doctor McCoy arrives in 1930 New York, demanding an explanation from the shocked and stuttering homeless guy on the street.
This cue was deemed vital to the continuation of the show, so it was re-recorded for Season 2 (per requirement of the union contract) on 16 June 1967. It was audible in “Wolf in the Fold” during the “seance” scene, and in “A Private Little War” when Nona, the Kahn-ut-tu woman, heals Kirk’s bite wound. This provided us a familiar auditory backdrop for two very different and alien encounters.
Fortunately for us, Alexander Courage’s music career didn’t end with Star Trek. He went on to work on such classics as Doctor Dolittle, Fiddler on the Roof, The Poseidon Adventure, Superman, and Jurassic Park.
In 1988, Courage won an Emmy Award for his music direction on the television special Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas. He rejoined the Star Trek universe in the 1990s, with work on Star Trek: First Contact and Generations. He would often collaborate with John Williams during the latter’s Boston Pops tenure.
After years of failing health, maestro Courage passed away on 15 May 2008 in Pacific Palisades, CA. At his memorial, John Williams recalled their first meeting in 1956 at a Capitol Records session, and how Courage had made influential recommendations that helped kickstart Williams’ illustrious career. He called Sandy Courage “a fantastic artist, craftsman and connoisseur. He loved sports cars, cigars, and life,” adding, “I feel so honored and privileged to have been Sandy’s friend and colleague.”
Ultimately, it’s with deep fondness that we can still enjoy the sophistication and beauty found in the music of Alexander Courage and the Star Trek composers who followed.