Legacy Conversations: Remembering Alexander Courage

A tribute to the award-winning composer, arranger and orchestrator who collaborated with John Williams on many projects, as remembered by his stepdaughter Renata Pompelli

Featuring Special Guest Mike Matessino

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

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Among the collaborators who worked with John Williams during his long and distinguished career, Alexander Courage (1919-2008) certainly holds a very special place. Composer, arranger, orchestrator and conductor of rare skill and incredible bravura, Alexander Courage (affectionately named “Sandy” by his family and closest friends) is considered one of the best and most revered musicians who ever worked in Hollywood at least since the 1940s. As author and writer Jon Burlingame aptly noted during his remarks at Courage’s memorial in 2008, it’s virtually impossible to sum up Courage’s career in a few sentences, as he was a man of multitudes, both musically and as a human being. His association with John Williams started way back in the mid-1950s, when Courage requested a young man named Johnny Williams to perform as pianist for the soundtrack of the 1957 film musical Funny Face starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. But before diving into the Williams/Courage connection, it’s important to acknowledge at least some of Sandy Courage’s career milestones.

A portrait of Alexander Courage by world-famous photographer Richard Avedon during the making of Funny Face (1956) (Photo courtesy of the Alexander Courage Collection, used under permission)

Alexander Courage was born in Philadelphia in 1919 and raised in New Jersey. His gift for music was noticed since an early age and he went on to study piano and subsequently got his music degree at the renowned Eastman School of Music. After serving in the United States Army Air Forces (where he worked as composer, arranger and band leader) and working also for radio, he settled in Hollywood to work in the motion picture industry, where he became one of the staff arrangers and orchestrators of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) music department run by Arthur Freed, together with such distinguished musicians as Conrad Salinger, Roger Edens and Herbert Spencer among others. He contributed arrangements and orchestrations for many classic musicals of the era, including Show Boat (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Gigi (1958), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), for which he orchestrated the classic barn-raising dance.

During the 1960s, Courage also worked as orchestrator for André Previn (including My Fair Lady and Inside Daisy Clover) and Adolph Deutsch (among them, the above-mentioned Funny Face, and Some Like It Hot). It was his association with Deutsch that led him to know a young John Williams in the mid-to-late 1950s. As Williams himself recollected, “Sandy meant a lot to me in my early life”, as he met Courage at Capitol Studios in 1956, when Courage was looking for a pianist to work on Funny Face, a gig that Williams recognize as one of his very first important steps in his Hollywood career. Courage recommended Williams to Deutsch for orchestration duties on Some Like It Hot. Williams often spoke of Courage’s importance as an arranger and orchestrator for the MGM musicals of the 1950s, comparing him to great arrangers like Robert Russell Bennett and Conrad Salinger for his uncanny ability in creating a unique orchestral sound.

Alexander Courage in a photo from the early 1950s (courtesy of the Alexander Courage Collection, used under permission)

During the 1960s, Courage worked at 20th Century Fox, where he was part of the great music department run by Lionel Newman, a golden spot in which were also working composers Alex North, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini, orchestrators Herb Spencer and Arthur Morton, music editors Ken Wannberg and Ken Hall, lyricist Leslie Bricusse, arranger Ian Fraser. During his years at Fox, Courage worked on such films as The Pleasure Seekers (1963) and Doctor Dolittle (1967), for both of which he received Academy Award nominations. He also contributed orchestrations for a few John Williams projects including John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1966) and A Guide For The Married Man (1967).

During the same years, Courage also started doing an impressive amount of work for television shows, including Lost In Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Daniel Boone, The Brothers Brannagan and Judd, For the Defense, for which he wrote a thrilling main title theme. But it was the science-fiction TV show Star Trek that delivered his name into Hollywood’s glory. In 1966, Courage wrote the main title theme for the series that became an icon thanks also to his immeditately recognizable theme musical signal, subsequently reprised by many other composers who worked on following installments of the Gene Roddenberry-created show, including Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Michael Giacchino.

Alexander Courage interviewed by writer and author Jon Burlingame

His association with John Williams continued also throughout the following decades. In 1970, Courage joined Williams as an orchestrator on Fiddler On The Roof, for which the composer won his first Academy Award (and thanked Courage during his speech). Courage contributed orchestrations for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Cowboys (1972) and also some of Williams’ blockbuster scores of the era including Superman (1978) and Return of the Jedi; In 1982, he acted as music consultant and arranger on the Luciano Pavarotti vehicle Yes, Giorgio!, for which Williams contributed a song with lyrics penned by Alan & Marilyn Bergman. In the same years, Williams asked Courage to write arrangements for the Boston Pops during his tenure between 1980 and 1993, including several that were recorded on albums released on Philips and Sony Classical.

One of the key collaborations between Courage and Williams was for the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, the last starring the beloved Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Williams was busy with other commitments, so he asked Courage to adapt, arrange and conduct the score using the material composed for the original 1978 film plus new themes that Williams wrote for the film. Courage also wrote a lot of original underscoring material, including a few of his own themes integrated with the ones by Williams. The final result is a fantastic score that goes well beyond the film, honouring Williams’ original Superman themes and expanding them into whole new creations.

During the 1990s until the early 2000s, Courage became Jerry Goldsmith‘s regular orchestrator, with whom he worked on Academy Award-nominated scores like Basic Instinct (1992), L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mulan (1998). Courage continued to collaborate also with John Williams and among his orchestration credits we find such major blockbuster scores as Home Alone, Hook and Jurassic Park. But it was the 1998 project called Gershwin Fantasy that perhaps summed up and capped off perfectly their decades-long friendship and collaboration. Williams asked Courage to arrange a 20-minute fantasy for violin and orchestra based on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to be performed by internationally renowned soloist Joshua Bell with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Courage worked as arranger and orchestrator for the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess directed by Otto Preminger, in which also a young John Williams played piano in the studio orchestra. Courage’s dazzling and virtuosic fantasy was recorded by Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, with Joshua Bell as soloist.

Williams recognized the importance of Sandy Courage in his own career several times, but most importantly he considered him also a dear personal friend. In 2005, Williams visited Courage in his retirement home to personally present him the Courage Award, a special prize established by the Malibu City municipality to honour him. After Courage’s death in 2008, Williams attended the memorial held at Pacific Palisades, where many friends and colleagues came to pay homage to Alexander Courage and celebrate him with his family. During the eulogy, John Williams used very affectionate and profound words to describe the man and the artist.

“[Sandy] was a fantastic artist, craftsman and connoisseur. He loved sports cars, cigars and life. He led a joyous, happy, highly contributive life. I feel so honoured and privileged to have been Sandy’s friend and colleague.”

John Williams

We’re very honoured to have Alexander Courage’s stepdaugher Renata Pompelli as the special guest of The Legacy of John Williams podcast to honour and celebrate Sandy’s memory and legacy on the day of his 102nd birthday (December 10). Renata is the family’s custodian of memories and historian. In this conversation, she shares many affectionate memories of Alexander Courage, both as a man and as a musician, offering an intimate, caring and lovely portrait of one of Hollywood’s true (and perhaps lesser-known) musical geniuses, including his long-standing friendship and working relationship with John Williams. Soundtrack Producer Mike Matessino also joins as a special guest, contributing essential thoughts and reflection about Courage’s musicianship. The podcast also features exclusive audio materials provided by the Courage Family, to which we extend our deepest and most sincere gratitude.

Alexander Courage (1919-2008)

Special Thanks to Renata Pompelli and George Madaraz for their kindness and friendship.

The Alexander Courage Collection, Sibley Music Library at Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY: https://www.esm.rochester.edu/sibley/specialcollections/findingaids/courage/

Superman IV soundtrack release by La-La Land Records: https://lalalandrecords.com/superman-iv-the-quest-for-peace-limited-edition-2-cd-set/

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