University of Rochester

Alexander Courage ’41E: Composer of Star Trek Theme—and Much More

HONORED: Alexander Courage ’41E was nominated for two Oscars and two Emmys and won an Emmy in 1988.

It was the early ’80s, and our professor of film music, Rayburn Wright ’43E, mentioned that we had a special guest visiting the Eastman School. I’d never heard the name Alexander Courage ’41E, but when Professor Wright told us he was the composer of the theme for Star Trek, my ears and interest perked up.

After shuffling into a classroom, we were treated to an hour of anecdotes and stories from the life of a real live “Hollywood” composer. I was taken not just with what he’d done but also how plain normal he seemed. Eminently approachable and self-effacing about his many accomplishments and accolades, he somehow made my dream of someday being “one of those people in Hollywood” less of a dream and more of a possibility.

Film music can be many things, but it’s often at its most resonant when the use of an unforgettable melody somehow captures the feeling and essence of a dramatic world. The confines of “film time” often place a burden on the condensed compositional statement to say more than it really should have time to, and in his work, Mr. Courage took our art to a whole new level of memorability and fun.

I’m sure Mr. Courage, who died on May 15, would like us not only to remember his wonderful Star Trek theme, but also the countless hours of music he skillfully crafted as underscore to the many films and television shows that entertained a generation of viewers like me in the ’60s and ’70s. He contributed scores to such shows as The Waltons, Lost In Space, and several others. Themes of Americana in film are full of the dangers of cliché and overstatement, but he managed in his 150-plus episodes of The Waltons to create an authentic and resonant portrayal of American life—an emotional world that was both honest and humble.

Throughout his long career, and especially later in his life, Mr. Courage skillfully orchestrated the film scores of other A-list film composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. As any composer knows, orchestration is an act of composition. In his wonderful book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin makes a compelling case that the timbre—the very “sound” of a piece of music—is part of what sticks it in our brains indelibly. Mr. Courage the orchestrator and composer understood this well—how could we ever separate the strains of his Star Trek theme from the triumphant French horns and the theremin-like female vocal?

It was a perfect match of ’60s sci-fi kitsch and the PG-13 sense of melody and harmony that wonderful talents like Mr. Courage beamed into our living rooms on a regular basis.

Thank you, Maestro.

—Jeff Beal ’85E

Jeff Beal ’85E is an Emmy-winning composer whose work can currently be heard in television shows such as Monk and Ugly Betty.