Lukas Foss 1922-2009

Written by: Martin Anderson

It is a paradox of the life of Lukas Foss that his sheer brilliance – as composer, conductor, pianist, educator, proselytizer – combined with a love of novelty, paradox and experimentation to prevent him achieving the international standing he deserved: there was simply too much talent to present the clear-cut figure required for public focus. Yet the American musical establishment learned to adore Foss, and he ended his days – on February 2nd, in New York – a much-loved senior figure in the musical life of the country.

He began them as Lukas Fuchs, scion of a cultivated family of Berlin Jews, on a date that was later guessed at as August 15th, 1922: the documentation did not survive the upheavals later occasioned by Nazi Germany and the family’s emigration to Paris in 1933. By then young Lukas was already a proficient composer (he had begun to put notes on paper at the age of seven) and pianist – there was no doubt that he was going to be a musician.
In 1937 a further move brought the family to the USA, where Lukas became a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, studying with a stellar list of tutors: Isabelle Vengerova for piano, Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson for composition and Fritz Reiner for conducting. At Yale in 1939-40 he sat at the feet of Paul Hindemith; summers spent at the Berkshire Music Center between 1939 and 1943 allowed him to study conducting with Koussevitzky, and a year later he became the pianist in Koussevitzky’s orchestra, the Boston Symphony, holding the post for six years – Koussevitzky¹s way of bringing him the financial security to compose.

Foss soon made his mark: in 1944 a cantata The Prairie (it was recorded in March 2007 by BMOP/sound and reviewed in these pages last month), to a text by Carl Sandberg, won him the award of the New York Critics’ Circle, and a year later he became the youngest composer ever to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. They were the first of a series of honours and distinctions that were to rain down on him all the rest of his life.
An academic career began in 1953, with a professorship in conducting and composition at the University of California, Los Angeles, during which time he also ran the Ojai Festival. Then came the Principal Conductorship of the Buffalo Philharmonic, from 1963 to 1970, the first of a series of orchestral appointments: the Brooklyn Philharmonia from 1971 until 1990, the orchestra of Kol Israel in Jerusalem (1972-76) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (1981-86). As a conductor he could be startlingly chaotic (his students at Boston University in the 1990s nicknamed him ‘Focus Lost’), but he brought energy and enthusiasm to the task, his ever-enquiring mind both finding new insights in familiar scores and presenting new music to his public: one concert series was called ‘Meet the Moderns’.

He was composing all the while, of course. Although his eclectic enthusiasms meant he could make striking stylistic leaps from work to work, several broad spans can be seen in his output. Initially, as in The Prairie, he favoured the American pastoralism that characterized Copland’s music at the time. In the later 1950s and early 1960s he turned to serialism and indeterminacy, which – hostage to Foss’s irrepressible sense of humour – soon began to be invaded by surrealist elements, as in the Baroque Variations (1967), one of his best-known pieces, which deconstructs music by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, managing to be mischievous and respectful at the same time. He enjoyed playing with the past: a number of later works twist the material of earlier musics through a modernist prism. The Third String Quartet (1975) offers a modernist take on minimalism, and later pieces find room for the neo-Classical enthusiasms of his early career. He was recorded, as both composer and conductor, by numerous companies, including Chandos, Crystal, EMI, Koch, Music & Arts, Naxos, Newport Classics, New World, Pro Arte, RCA, Sony and Virgin.

He knew that his apparent changes of direction gave hostages to fortune and defended himself in an interview in 1979: ‘I would agree that my curiosity has led me absolutely everywhere. But I make one qualification: I’ve never done anything at the O.K. time. In other words, I’ve never been a bandwagon jumper. I’ve never belonged to any school. I’ve never written a 12-tone piece when it was fashionable to do so.’

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the April 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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