Alexander Courage

A Biographical Essay by Dirk Wickenden
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Dirk Wickenden

Alexander CourageCan you think of one composition by Alexander Courage, apart from the original STAR TREK theme? This article sets out to show that Sandy Courage is under-rated as a composer. As you will be aware, he has worked exclusively as Jerry Goldsmith’s primary orchestrator for a number of years now that Arthur Morton is getting on, but there is much more to him than just playing second fiddle to another composer.

Alexander Courage was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey. He attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. After he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree in 1941, he did a five year stint in the United States Army and whilst in service, was in an army band, later becoming band leader and warrant officer. He started writing the scores for radio dramas featuring army actors. A fellow soldier’s wife was a music copyist at CBS and it was through her that Courage met and started working with Wilbur Hatch (Hatch was later to be head of music at Lucille Bali and Desi Arnaz’ Desilu, the production company responsible for the original STAR TREK series) and Lud Gluskin, head of music for CBS on the West Coast.

Courage subsequently worked with Warner Brothers composer Adolph Deutsch. With the experience gained during his army service, he worked in radio as a composer and arranger from around 1946. He toiled for seven years on such shows as THE CAMAY HOUR and SAM SPADE. During this time, Adolph Deutsch was contracted to MGM from 1948-1960 and Courage joined him, orchestrating and arranging for mainly high profile musicals (in fact, many of those that the prodigious André Previn also worked on). At the end of the fifties, Courage started composing for television at MGM and also Revue (now Universal) for such filmed series as WAGON TRAIN, PEYTON PLACE and DANIEL BOONE. In the sixties he wrote episodic music for such tare as Irwin Allen’s LOST IN SPACE and in the seventies scored episodes of THE WALTONS (with a theme by Jerry Goldsmith) when Goldsmith returned to scoring more theatrical features and took Arthur Morton (who also did WALTONS episodes) with him.

Trekking Into the Public Consciousness

Of course his most famous work was for the original STAR TREK series, wherein he composed the scores for the first and second pilots and a few episodes. Like the other series composers, including George Duning, Gerald Fried, Joseph Mullendore and Fred Steiner, his distinctive, otherworldly music was tracked into other episodes across the three seasons. His theme tune is known the world over and received lyrics by series creator Gene Roddenberry (although not used in the programme) and the upward sweeping fanfare preceding the melody has been featured in many of the theatrical movies, as well as the series STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. There are a handful of television themes that have become just as famous, if not more so than the programme they were written for. Courage’s STAR TREK theme belongs in such esteemed company as Fred Steiner’s PERRY MASON, Goldsmith’s DR. KILDARE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and the aforementioned THE WALTONS and of course Lalo Schifrin’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. One wonders of Courage’s feelings that he has not been asked to score any of the big screen TREKs, given the fact that he was the one who started it all musically. He did of course supply arrangements of his original theme for the Goldsmith-scored STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, featured in the ‘Captain’s Log’ sequences, whilst Fred Steiner assisted with the writing of some cues, given the tight scoring deadline.

Working in Widescreen

As regards Courage’s big screen assignments, his workload was typical for many in the Golden Age such as Ernest Gold, doing adaptations, orchestrating, arranging and of course composing. Unfortunately, unlike Gold, he has never had an EXODUS to his credit, which may be one of the reasons why he hasn’t become a bigger ‘name’ as a composer. Other than Jerry Goldsmith, Adolph Deutsch and André Previn, some of the film composers he has orchestrated for include David Raksin, Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, Lyn Murray and John Williams.

His work on movies and movie musicals in the fifties includes SOME LIKE IT HOT, GUYS AND DOLLS, KISMET, FUNNY FACE, GIGI, THE FIVE PENNIES and PORGY AND BESS. In the sixties, he worked on INSIDE DAISY CLOVER, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, MORITURI (his first work for Jerry Goldsmith, writing sourced German band music), DOCTOR DOLITTLE and HELLO, DOLLY! The seventies saw features such as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (on which John Williams was the musical director), TORA! TORA! TORA! for which he wrote Japanese marching band music for Goldsmith and LOST IN THE STARS. In the eighties, Courage worked with Jerry Goldsmith on the ill fated LEGEND before taking over as the composer’s primary orchestrator in the nineties.

It appears that a large proportion of Jerry Goldsmith’s work over the last decade lacks the complexity of his earlier scores and this can be put down to the fact that he went in a new direction after TOTAL RECALL. This new direction has produced some truly great scores but nowhere near as many as the pre-RECALL period. I have often wondered how much of this streamlining of orchestration and musical experimentation is down to the change of orchestrator, i.e., when Courage replaced Stevens.

Going to Extremes

As a composer in his own right, one of Alexander Courage’s biggest movies in the Golden Age was Arthur Penn’s 1958 THE LEFT HANDED GUN, in which Courage insists he was too ‘extreme’ with his musical choices. His other features include HOT ROD RUMBLE, SIERRA STRANGER and UNDERSEA GIRL (all 1957), HANDLE WITH CARE (1958) and TOKYO AFTER DARK the following year.

Outlawed Music

Day of the OutlawLet’s look a little more in depth at a monochrome (that’s a smart alec term for black and white) movie from 1959 with a score by Alexander Courage: DAY OF THE OUTLAW. This was a western-based melodrama adapted from the novel by Lee Wells, directed by André de Toth and starring Robert Ryan, Burl lves, and Tina Louise. It concerns an outlaw (Ives) and his band of men who take refuge in an out of-the-way town in Wyoming, to the distress of the inhabitants.

The scoring is miles away from the wide-open-space western music of Jerome Moross’ THE BIG COUNTRY and Elmer Bernstein’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and so on, the sound modern audiences have come to associate with the Wild West. The idiom’s direct antecedents were of course Aaron Copland’s works such as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, composed years before. DAY OF THE OUTLAW was the more common musical style for such films of the period, especially “B” pictures, as this was before the Coplandesque sound really took hold. Around one third of the running time features underscore but there are many places that would have benefited from music. Fans of film music wrongly think that music is all-powerful and you can’t have too much of a good thing. In this case it is true. The main problem is that there is no real sense of jeopardy in the movie, which music could have helped portray.

The film commences with a credit sequence of two men on horseback riding through a snowbound landscape. Courage presents a sombre, plodding four note ascending motif, linked to a descending motif in the brass, underpinned by bass drum, which gives way to flute for some dialogue as Ryan’s character Blaize complains to his partner Dan about a farmer named Crane’s placing of a barbed wire fence across some land, preventing his 2000 head of steers feeding and drinking. As they ride on, the louder brass theme returns, plodding along through the snow toward some livery stables. The cue tails out as the two men enter the local store for a cup of coffee.

Hal Crane’s wife arrives at the store and a conversation ensues between her and Blaize. “You want to tell me something, Helen?” asks Blaize of a nervous Helen Crane and Courage scores a clarinet suffixing the line, which continues as Helen says “I don’t love you any more, Blaze” and it emerges that they had an affair in the past. The argument about her husband Hal and their affair is scored against picture, with gentle, flute-led music, playing the underlying emotions beneath the veneer of the bitterness of the lead characters. The cue tails out on the clarinet motif it began with, as Blaize leaves and Helen stirs her coffee.

Blaize arrives at the town’s hotel, wherein ensues an argument between the cowboy and Hal Crane. Blaize is angry that the farmers say people like he and his partner do not belong in the area, after they made the town safe from killers and outlaws twenty years previously, with no thanks from the townspeople. Actor Ryan’s monologue is quite dramatic and again Courage stays away. A short, regretful cue playing Blaize’s point of view on the brass and woodwind orchestration from the opening cue may have worked, spotting it as soon as Blaize headed upstairs.

Helen enters Blaize’s room and says “Don’t kill my husband,” and the cue from the store returns for another discussion. Helen grabs Blaize and kisses him, which he returns. The scene cross fades to the snowbound landscape the next morning, underscored with horns, piano and strings. The film then shows Blaize strapping on his gun belt as his theme first heard in the opening titles commences and, as he catches himself in a mirror, Courage supplies a hard hit, suggesting the man doesn’t like what he sees. This is followed by Blaize walking downstairs, past Helen who has returned, accompanied by a quieter arrangement of his theme, the ascending four note motif on woodwind, with the descending four note motif on horns.

Day of the Outlaw

Just as an unscored gunfight with Hal Crane and two of his farmer friends against Blaize is to start, the hotel bar door is thrust open and a group of armed men enter and remove the guns from the cowboy and the farmers. Burl Ives’ character of Captain Jack Bruhn and his men are being chased by the cavalry and looking for a place to hole up. One of the farmers grabs his rifle back and is shot by one of the men and still Courage doesn’t make his presence known (as it happens, there will be no underscore until much later in the picture). Although it may be cliché, a dramatic hit from the brass would have added fuel to the action. A fresh faced young man by the name of Gene enters the hotel and he is also one of Bruhn’s men. The townsfolk are made to gather in the local store whilst Bruhn goes to the “horse doctor”, to have a bullet removed. Again, music would have assisted the scene.

Later, Blaize and the others run outside when they are told that one of the townsmen, Claggett, has stolen one of the bad guy’s horses to go to his wife at their farm. I believe a cue should have started with swirling strings as they leap from their chairs to venture outside while Claggett gallops away – then the gunshot rings out, seemingly from nowhere, and he falls to the ground. The scene of course plays out without musical accompaniment and ail that is heard is the sound of the wind across the wintry landscape as Claggett’s body is taken away by Blaize and Dan. Blaze later fights and knocks out one of Bruhn’s men after a failed attempt to get the women away and he is then knocked senseless himself upon Bruhn’s orders. Not even the fight is scored, with just the sound effects of the contact of fist on flesh heard and the grunts and groans of the fighters.

A subsequent, extremely tedious sequence in the film features the bad men dancing with the townswomen against their will, and the sourced saloon piano is all-pervasive, going on for over six minutes as the men trade dialogue whilst dancing. It is heard faintly in scenes outside the saloon and in two places, has a false echo added, thus passing from source to score, if only for a few moments. But it is in effective and the repetitive, non-stop tune outstays its welcome, whilst the sequence itself, seeming to last for much longer than its six plus minutes, adds barely anything to the narrative. Blaize calls a halt to the dancing and tells Bruhn that the soldiers are on their way, and that he can lead Bruhn’s group out of the town over the mountain.

Day of the OutlawCourage at last returns as the men assemble to depart the following morning. The cue is scored for woodwind, brass and slowly beaten timpani with the ever-present wind sound effects as a kind of counterpoint. Even though Bruhn learns that Blaize is lying about a route over the mountain, he decides to go, as he is dying from his gunshot wound. Helen Crane meets Blaize, who explains his reasons for leading Bruhn’s outfit away. As the men ride out, Courage brings in his main theme from the opening credits. Now Courage will maintain a fairly constant presence right through to the end of the film, with his plodding music tor mainly brass, woodwind and sombre drums for the journey through the snowscape, with the main theme in various arrangements integrated into the ‘travelogue’ musical materials. The cue ends on a hard out for brass and timpani as one of the men’s horses collapses and the dismounted rider shoots it, taking the young man Gene’s horse. Bruhn okays the arrangement (in his own way, saving Gene) and they ride on, leaving the boy to return on foot to the town. The remaining riders move on and Courage returns with a trumpet-led statement suggesting Gene’s long walk to come, underpinned by the four note descending bass motif for the riders. It is interesting to note that Gene is the only one of the outlaws to receive a motif specifically written for him; not even Captain Bruhn has a theme.

Harmonica and oboe bridge the cut from Gene moving down the mountain to the riders moving along, playing through a short montage, which suggests the passage of time. Ominous brass plays as Bruhn falls from his horse, ending on a hard out and he tries to pull himself up to talk to Blaize but dies. Later, the bodies are buried and the men rest round a campfire. One of the men shoots another and Courage’s music adds dramatic depth to the moment, a dramatic element which was lacking from the earlier scenes in the town. Eventually, just Blaize and two men are left after the others were shot by their so-called compatriots and the ride is scored by the continuing travelling music, linked to the main theme, the passage of time evidenced by Courage’s subtle alteration of the orchestrations. This cue ends as they stop for a rest.

Blaize later tries to escape on horseback and his horse is shot from under him, with Courage again adding to the visuals. The music continues, underscoring the men as they try to keep warm in the howling wind. The following morning, a stark, repetitive piano motif suggests the icy cold as we see that one of the men has frozen to death. Brass and woodwind scores Blaize’s escape on horseback, with the continuing piano line as the remaining man tries to shoot Blaize but then falls over, giving in to the cold and his encroaching death.

Blaize returns to town, accompanied by a world-weary composition for trumpets and flute. This is joined by a new theme for a trumpet and harmonica duet as Gene, who had returned to the town, says he’d like to work for Blaize. The orchestral volume increases and the film end on a rumble of timpani and crashing cymbals.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW is rather lacking due to its musical treatment, and one cannot help feeling that a more overall-scored approach would have helped. The scenes after Blaize leads Bruhn and his band away from the town see an increase in the ratio of music to footage. It is almost as if the two approaches suggest differing opinions by the filmmakers as to how the film should have been scored, one side signified by the lack of scoring up to the scene in the town when the men and women dance and the other when Blaize leads the men off the following morning. Hardly a classic, but it serves to show the composing side of Courage’s film career.

Super Arrangements for a Not-So-Super Movie

Alexander Courage’s composing abilities are overshadowed by his work as a skilled orchestrator and arranger. One of the more recent examples of his arranging skills is 1987s SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. John Williams’ scoring of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is a highly praised work, featuring the bombast of his STAR WARS scores but also more subtle emotional work. Williams wasn’t on board for SUPERMAN II and III and Ken Thorne was called upon to adapt Williams’ themes into these sequels. For SUPERMAN IV, Alexander Courage adapted Williams’ original themes but the resulting score has never been released commercially on vinyl or compact disco disc.

Courage also arranged some new themes penned by Williams especially for the occasion, in particular a winning femme fatale-styled saxophone-led piece for the character Lacy Warfield and a theme for the ‘bad guy’ Nuclear Man. Courage’s arranging skills are much in evidence throughout and to my mind, his work gives the feel of an MGM musical (which of course he is an old hand at), in that he weaves a vast number of different themes, sometimes in the space of a single sequence and the treatment is wholly effective. Basically, the film is one giant comic book (the medium which of course introduced our hero) and Courage responds to this by hitting ail the action, covered by the overused term “mickey mousing”.

The score was performed by two ensembles, the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, recorded at Bavaria Musik Studios in Munich and the National Philharmonic, which was recorded at CTS Studios in London. These film composers certainly get to travel! Two orchestrators were involved, Frank Barber and Harry Roberts and the musical advisor was the late Jack Fishman. I expect Courage had a field day – although arranging another composer’s work, he was still acting like a composer and had orchestrators to help him, rather than the other way around!
The film was directed by Sidney J. Furie and star Christopher Reeve was the second unit director, whilst also receiving co-credit for the story. So here we go with a super powered, speedy plot synopsis for the reader, in case they are not that familiar with the movie. Nuclear arms talks have broken down and a young boy writes to Superman, asking him to intervene. After much soul-searching and a visit to his Fortress of Solitude to seek the counsel of the long-dead Krypton leaders, Superman ignores their directive to stay out of the Earth’s problems and decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Lex Luthor has other ideas and creates a “Nuclear Man” from Superman’s own genetic material to destroy the man of steel.

SUPERMAN IV’s opening credits, whilst not as long as the first film’s credits (thank Krypton!) are scored with the eponymous Superman March, linked to the love theme / Lois Lane motif. The score proper gets underway with an old satellite colliding with a Russian space station and a spacewalking cosmonaut being flung off into space. Brass punctuates the disaster as the man of steel swoops in and halts the wild spinning of the space station and the cosmonaut, to the appreciation of his comrades aboard the station. Of course, Superman’s march is spotted for the rescue and one will find that whenever the superhero is in the centre of the narrative, his theme is not far away, featured both in its march structure and gentler arrangements.

Williams’ warm Smallville / boyhood theme gets a look in as Clark Kent goes to his deceased parents farm and as he looks at the remains of the spaceship which took him to earth as a baby, a recording of his mother’s voice, Lara El (Susannah York), accompanied by the haunting, ethereal music of Krypton.

Lex Luthor’s (the ever-dependable Gene Hackman) convoluted plans are scored with use of Williams’ ‘March of the Villains’, referring to both Lex and his nephew Lenny (a good performance by Jon Cryer, who surely must be related to comedian Jerry Lewis).

Clark’s first dialogue with Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), daughter of media tycoon David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) features an attractive flute-led rendition of her theme, which will often be heard with an alto saxophone but it is often dubbed too low in the mix, thus being rendered less effective than it might have been.

The Fortress of Solitude scene again features the Krypton music, conjuring up a vision of the long dead planet. The film’s worst piece of underscoring occurs in the sequence when Clark Kent again reveals his true identity to Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and they take a whirlwind flight (one of the worst special effects sequences in the film).

The treatment of the musical material is not as effective this time around, as there are jumps in the music, presumably written into the score, from one phrase to another and at least one noticeable, jarring ill-timed jump which is possibly the result of a ham-fisted music editor. It could well be that the sequence was trimmed after Courage worked on it and did not have the time to re-work the cue.

When Superman addresses the United Nations, saying he will rid the planet of ail nuclear weapons and makes another speech to the people of Metropolis at the climax of the film, the cues present a melding of the Superman theme and a largo, pastoral emotional theme, curiously sounding bath “American” and “English” at the same time, It has the desired emotional effect on the viewer; so Courage and Williams have succeeded in the job a composer is called upon to do.

The battles with Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) are full of action-specific scoring, such as hard hits falling on punches and the theme for the super villain is very dark, consisting of growling brass, it sounds almost diabolical in its arrangements for the earlier “birth” of Nuclear Man from the broiling energy of Earth’s sun but overall, it is a typical “black hat” kind of theme, distanced from Superman’s heroic march and Lex Luthor’s playful, semi-comedic meme.

The film had its moments and combined some of the elements from the first and second instalments, with the battles with Nuclear Man being entirely derivative of the run-ins with General Zod and his cohorts tram SUPERMAN II. In fact, the fights remind one of the WWF-staged wrestling matches – where was Hulk Hogan?! There were some nice moments of genuine humor in the characterisations, such as a scene where both Clark Kent and Superman must attend a dinner with Lacy and Lois. The first film was definitely a product of its times, the late seventies, whilst the others again echo the cinematic feeling of the times, The special effects in SUPERMAN IV do not even approach those of the first film, nine years beforehand. It’s a shame that the film series had to end on such a lacklustre effort, but no one purposely sets out to make a bad film. At least it was not as bad as the short-lived SUPERBOY series and the lightweight LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

The absence of John Williams was not a problem for the makers of the SUPERMAN motion picture series and both Ken Thorne and Alexander Courage adeptly handled Williams’ thematic elements, creating proficient scores for their respective sequels. No matter what one thinks of the films themselves, which were subject to the law of diminishing returns, the three sequels provide an interesting insight into how a skilled arranger, working from another composer’s material, can fashion a workable dramatic score.

Final Thoughts

I feel it’s about time a filmmaker commissioned Alexander Courage to write another score of his own… Courage is only one of a number of composers, Arthur Morton among them, whose talents are ignored, in favor of their abilities as orchestrators and arrangers. Does Sandy Courage regret he is popularly known for one theme only and has not become a composer of the stature of Goldsmith or Williams? At least he can take courage in the fact that he has been attached to some of the most memorable productions, be they musicals, dramatic films or television series in the history of entertainment.

The Alexander Courage Collection

The Alexander Courage Collection is housed at the Sibley Music Library and consists of materials donated by Courage from both his professional and private life. These include scores, sketches and recordings for film and television of Courage’s compositions and his arrangements for others, such as Alex North, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Other items include scripts and photographs and the collection’s largest items are from his arrangements for musicals and also SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE and THE WALTONS.

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