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.”
Foss was born in Berlin in 1922. To flee Nazism, he and his family moved to Paris in 1933. In 1937 they came to the United States. There Foss studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, at the Berkshire Music Center (now known as the Tanglewood Music Center), and at Yale, under the tutelage of Paul Hindemith. He became an American citizen in 1942.
After returning to the United States from the American Academy in Rome, Foss succeeded Arnold Schoenberg on the Music faculty at UCLA in 1953. He taught there for a decade before moving on to become the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Foss later served as music director or conductor for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony. He also was a faculty member at the University at Buffalo and (beginning in 1991) Boston University.
In California starting in the early 70s Foss conducted a dozen marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl—up to six hours without an intermission—each devoted to the works of one composer or one theme. “Each time, we drew a great number of young people,” Foss told the L.A. Times in 1996. “They were actually theme concerts years before theme concerts became normal programming devices, and they were designed for the informal entrance and exit of the listeners, for an atmosphere of looseness.” In addition, Foss led the Ojai Music Festival from 1961 to 1964 and 1979 to 1981.
In 1970 Lukas Foss brought the Grateful Dead to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. (Alas, no recording, bootleg or otherwise, seems to exist.)
From the Buffalo News: review of Foss’ legendary Philharmonic Rock Marathon of 3-17-70
“Lukas was a musician of no limitations,” said David Felder, who heads the University at Buffalo’s composition department, to the Buffalo News. “He did it all, and people had no idea what to make of this.”
Foss is survived by his wife, the painter Cornelia Brendel Foss, whom he met in 1949 at the American Academy in Rome; a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Eliza Foss, both of New York; a brother, Oliver, who lives near Paris; and three granddaughters, Olivia, Sabina and Eugenia.
The American Academy in Rome mourns the loss of a dear friend and brilliant Fellow. May his music last forever.