American composer Aaron Copland once called the works of Lukas Foss (FAAR’52, RAAR’78) “among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music.”
Foss died Sunday 1 February 2009 at his home in New York City. He was age 86.
Dozens of tributes have already appeared, with some of the best appearing in newspapers of the communities Foss electrified with his music and conducting, such as the Boston Globe, Buffalo News, Los Angeles Times, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and from former students (such as Ken Ueno FAAR’07).
There is also an excellent overview of Foss’ career in the Times of London, and a superb audio profile that aired on National Public Radio which complements its earlier archival interviews with Foss from the 80s (here and here) and 90s (here).
“The dazzling career of Lukas Foss resists summation”, observes AAR Andrew Heiskell Arts Director and composer Martin Brody (RAAR’02). “His prodigious genius was a fait accompli by the time he was a teen, but he always wore his authority lightly. At the Academy, he was greatly loved, and his still reverberant performances in the salone a matter of legend.”
Foss was a two-time Guggenheim fellow (1945—at age 23, the youngest ever composer to win the distinction—and 1960). In addition to his Rome Prize that he took up in 1949, he won an ASCAP award for adventurous programming in 1979. Foss held 11 honorary doctorates.
Lukas Foss wrote more than 100 works, including four symphonies, three string quartets and many choral, chamber, orchestral and stage pieces. These draw on almost every style in the currency of classical music. “When we improvise, we’re working with something we already know”, Foss said of the creative process. “When we compose, we’re creating something we don’t know.”
“In all musical matters,” continues Martin Brody, “Lukas Foss lived according to a principle of self-renewal and was fond of quoting Stravinsky’s little dictum that a composer must always be sure to know exactly what he wants to do—and then do something else. Ever ready to surprise himself and electrify those around him, he was also a very public figure who could conjure the creative force to shake up an already turbulent musical world. Each composition seemed to come out of the clear blue, always as impeccably crafted as it was unanticipated.”
Here is Foss in his own words, in the 1995 Centennial Directory of the American Academy in Rome:
“One of my favorite compositions composed at the American Academy is Quintet for Orchestra , originally  a Brass Quintet: ‘The Rocks on the mountains begin to shout’. A 5 note chord dominates the composition. It is endlessly repeated, varied, permutated, transposed and inverted. It invades the entire piece via persisitent, pulsating, echoing and crisscrossing quarter notes. Toward the end there is an explosion which liberates us from the domination of the five note chord. See this can be explained and analysed. But I cannot explain why this chord which dominates through repetition, variation, permutation, transposition and inversion of persistent, pulsating, echoing and crisscrossing lingers like a wound until ‘the rocks begin to shout’. Nor do I know what it is that rocks shout—perhaps Charles Ives does. Perhaps rocks cry ‘help’ because we do not see we are in danger; or perhaps they merely shout a reminder of what every work of art tries to tell us—that we must change our lives.”