Alexander Courage; Composed Theme to TV Show 'Star Trek'

Alexander Courage, 88, arranged the scores for many movies and wrote original music for television.
Alexander Courage, 88, arranged the scores for many movies and wrote original music for television. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Alexander Courage, 88, a Hollywood composer, arranger and orchestrator who dashed off what he called a piece of "marvelous malarkey" that became one of the best-known television theme songs, the opening music for "Star Trek," died May 15 at the Sunrise Assisted Living facility in Pacific Palisades, Calif., after strokes.

Mr. Courage had worked on nearly 100 films since the late 1940s, including many of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio's celebrated musicals: "The Band Wagon," "Funny Face," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Oklahoma!," "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady."

Most of the films were based on Broadway shows by top composers, so the music itself was not always new. But Mr. Courage helped make important decisions as the arranger about how to score the main and incidental music to match the mood of the onscreen action, whether a soft-shoe tap for Fred Astaire or the rousing barnyard-dance sequence in "Seven Brides."

As orchestrator, he performed the intricately detailed task of translating the ideas of harmony, rhythm and tone into musical scores for the studio orchestra.

Jon Burlingame, a leading authority on film and television music history, called Mr. Courage "an extraordinary craftsman with a thorough knowledge of the orchestra, and that's what made him so valuable as arranger and orchestrator for musicals."

But it was on television that Mr. Courage left his biggest imprint. His fanfare-style introduction to "Star Trek," eight notes played by the brass section, followed by the wordless melody with a prominent soprano voice won him enduring recognition among generations of "Trekkies" and even casual viewers of the science fiction show.

"Star Trek" originally aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969 and has been in perennial syndication.

He told an interviewer that he never was a science-fiction fan. "I think it's just marvelous malarkey," he said. "So you write some marvelous malarkey music that goes with it."

To write the "Star Trek" theme, Mr. Courage thought back to a pop song from his childhood that conjured images of going into the far distance. He came up with "Beyond the Blue Horizon," popularized by Jeanette MacDonald, and featuring a fast, train-like rhythm pulsating beneath the soaring melody.

Mr. Courage adapted the idea to the "Star Trek" job, which he completed in a week. His vision of the music included a soprano singer (Loulie Jean Norman), a flute, an organ and maybe a vibraphone. But he said the show's producer, Gene Roddenberry, wanted to accentuate the female voice. When Roddenberry was done, he said, the music "sounded like a soprano solo."

Burlingame, author of "TV's Biggest Hits," said Roddenberry went further to annoy Mr. Courage by adding words to the instrumental theme. The lyrics begin: "Beyond the rim of the star-light/My love is wand'ring in star flight."

"It was horrible," Burlingame said. "Courage was never consulted, but Roddenbury from that point on was entitled to take 50 percent of royalties. . . . This upset Courage, understandably, not that he wrote a lyric, but that he wrote a lousy lyric that would never be sung anywhere."

There was at least one exception: Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original series, sang the words to the "Star Trek" theme song on her 1991 album, "Out of This World."

Alexander Mair Courage was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 10, 1919. He began playing piano as a child and later cornet and French horn before enrolling at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

After his 1941 graduation, he served as an Army Air Forces bandleader during World War II. He was stationed in the western United States and after his discharge became a staff composer and conductor at CBS Radio in Los Angeles before entering film work.

With 20th Century-Fox studio's music director Lionel Newman, Mr. Courage earned Academy Award nominations for his orchestral scoring work on "The Pleasure Seekers" (1964), starring Ann-Margret, and "Doctor Dolittle" (1967), starring Rex Harrison.

Starting in the late 1950s, Mr. Courage became involved in writing original music for television. Earlier, producers often used cheaply recorded stock music.

In the 1960s, he wrote episodic music for TV series, including "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," "Daniel Boone" and "Lost in Space." He also wrote music for more than 100 episodes of "The Waltons," which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981, and the original theme music for the legal drama "Judd, for the Defense," which starred Carl Betz and aired on ABC from 1967 to 1969.

He shared an Emmy Award for helping arrange "Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas" (1987), which aired on ABC and featured Andrews serenading Salzburg, Austria, with Placido Domingo and John Denver.

Mr. Courage was a favorite of film composers including John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, and his film work continued apace through the early 2000s, including orchestration work on "Hello, Dolly!" "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Basic Instinct," "Jurassic Park" and "L.A. Confidential."

He also wrote arrangements for the Boston Pops during Oscar-winning composer Williams's tenure as conductor in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as albums for singers including Barbra Streisand and Kathleen Battle, as well as violinist Joshua Bell.

Two early marriages ended in divorce. His third wife, Shirley Pumpelly Courage, whom he married in 1980, died in 2005.

Survivors include four stepchildren, Raphael Pumpelly of Malibu, Calif., and Andrea Steyn, Lisa Pompelli and Renata Pompelli, all of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

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