The Music Makers of Star Trek – Fred Steiner
A total of eight composers were hired to score and conduct the music used in all three seasons of the original Star Trek series. I’d like to look into the life, career, and legacy of the composer who worked on the most episodes — twelve in all. The musician in the spotlight, Dr. Fred Steiner, was also the only composer to have worked on both the original Star Trek show and its spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Show producer Robert Justman, speaking about the composers who contributed to Star Trek, said that his “first choice always, unless there was a particular reason, was Fred, who caught the inner being of Star Trek.” He described Fred Steiner as “the John Willliams of his time,” with “broad, sweeping themes, a very melodramatic style of music.” While it was Alexander Courage who birthed the musical character of Star Trek, Fred Steiner brought it to maturity. So, who was this guy?
Frederick Steiner was born on 24 February 1923 in New York to Hungarian immigrants. His father was an accomplished violinist and conductor, having studied music in Budapest under Zoltán Kodály. Maybe you’ve heard of “Do-Re-Mi”? Kodaly went on to develop a system of music education using that “solfège” format.
Growing up in a musical family in Manhattan, Fred Steiner’s choice of profession came as no surprise, although his father discouraged it. Young Fred began playing piano at age six and cello by age thirteen. He immersed himself in his father’s recordings of orchestral and chamber music. Steiner received a scholarship from Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he graduated with a degree in composition in 1943, at age twenty. Twice he attempted to enlist in the war effort, and twice he was denied under classification 4-F, due to poor eyesight.
Steiner soon began writing and arranging scores for several New York-based live radio broadcasts under composer and orchestrator Nathan Van Cleave. He also scored wartime propaganda short films, selling war bonds as a way to support the war effort. In 1947, he left for Hollywood and became a pioneer of television as an arranger, conductor, and composer.
Prior to his work for Star Trek, Steiner had already scored “hits” with his swinging, bluesy “Park Avenue Beat” — the theme music from the courtroom drama Perry Mason — and for The Bullwinkle Show. In the late 1950s, he worked in Mexico City for about two years to compile and archive Latin American music for government-sponsored television documentaries. Back in Hollywood, he worked on shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gunsmoke, Lost in Space, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, and many others. It was CBS music director Lud Gluskin who recommended Fred Steiner for Star Trek, on the strength of his work for The Twilight Zone.
Steiner Beams Aboard
When Steiner joined the Star Trek production team, he began immediately. For Season 1, he composed music for “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Mudd’s Women”, “Charlie X”, “Balance of Terror”, and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”.
His music was richly orchestral, often with dark, heavy textures in brass and low strings. He made a practice of scoring without violins, which was both an economical and artistic choice — he could acquire more of the instrumentation he truly needed and was able to work around it for romantic moments using violas and cellos.
August to September of 1966 was a very busy time — in the span of about a month, the musical scores of eight episodes were recorded. This included one marathon session on 20 September, in which Steiner’s partial scores for “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Balance of Terror”, and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” were all recorded on the same day, producing such notable cues as the heart-pounding “Cube Radiation”, the “Romulan Theme”, and the raucous timpani-driven “Ruk Protect/Ruk Attacks”.
A First-Season Crown Jewel
But Fred Steiner didn’t stop there. He later worked on “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Among the many elements that makes this episode exceptional is that it was the only original series episode to feature “sourced music” (a previously known composition) both in its familiar form and in an adapted form. The 1931 popular song “Goodnight, Sweetheart” was composed by the British team of Ray Noble, Jimmy Campbell, and Reg Connelly, and recorded in England with Al Bowlly singing. Guy Lombardo’s version sat atop the US charts for a number of weeks.
The song had been licensed to appear in the episode, and Steiner was tasked to arrange and adapt it for dramatic use. It’s first heard as Kirk and Edith Keeler stroll past a radio repair shop where the song plays over a radio set. It sounds like a vintage recording, but it’s not. This was Steiner’s brand new arrangement, with an uncredited studio singer, and tweaked in post-production to sound lo-fi as a radio set of the 1930s would sound. But as the vocalist finishes singing, Steiner modulates into an instrumental break, and the audio is re-enhanced to hear the full range of the orchestra.
Fred Steiner also composed dramatic cues based on “Goodnight, Sweetheart”, and while this was considered new music, only episodes with new original music gave on-screen credit for the composer. So, Steiner’s brilliant work on “Goodnight, Sweetheart” went uncredited. But these remain the most memorable musical moments to me, and they are exclusive to “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Afterwards, there was only one episode remaining (“Operation: Annihilate!”) and it would have no use for the “Goodnight, Sweetheart” cues. Since union contract rules stipulated that music recordings be used only in the current season, this was it!
It’s to their credit that Desilu and the producers chose to invest in this one-and-only moment in television history. Whereas all the other first season music was done by early December 1966, a special recording session was set for 24 March 1967 to track the music for “Goodnight, Sweetheart”. This was the only recording session of original Star Trek to take place that late in the season. The show aired just two weeks later, on 6 April.
The Second Season and Beyond
Since meeting deadlines for producing Star Trek‘s music was a challenge, Steiner worked with an orchestrator to turn his composition sketches into session-ready scores. Despite the pressures involved in composing for Star Trek and contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, Steiner was well-renowned for his down-to-earth personality. Film historian Tony Thomas wrote in 1991, “In a profession often marked with personality conflicts and frayed nerves, Steiner is notable for his even temper and affable nature. It is no exaggeration to claim him as one of the best-liked men in the film music community.”
For Season 2, Steiner composed music for “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “Mirror, Mirror”, and “By Any Other Name”, as well as adapting “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the score of “The Omega Glory”. In Season 3, he wrote music for “Elaan of Troyious”, which features arguably some of his greatest work, and “Spock’s Brain”.
Following the Original Star Trek Series
In the 1970s, Fred Steiner co-founded the Film Music Society. At the University of Southern California in 1981, he earned his PhD in Musicology for his dissertation on the early work of highly regarded film composer Alfred Newman. He later lectured in composition at USC.
Uncredited, Steiner provided some of the music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi. In 1986, he was one of twelve composers who received an Academy Award nomination for their score of The Color Purple.
Steiner made a single-episode contribution to Star Trek: The Next Generation, writing the music for the nearly universally panned first-season episode “Code of Honor”. His score for the episode was recorded on 11 September 1987.
The local culture in Mexico attracted him back for his retirement. On 23 June 2011, the eighty-eight year old Dr. Steiner passed away in his home in Mexico after suffering a stroke, leaving his wife of sixty-four years, Shirley; a sister, Kay Gellert; two daughters; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
As a testament to his highly inspirational work on the Star Trek franchise, Steiner’s “Romulan Theme” cue from “Balance of Terror” has been reused in three modern Star Trek shows — Star Trek: Picard, Strange New Worlds, and Prodigy. Steiner’s musical legacy remains undiminished.