Lukas Foss

Nils Vigeland,Lukas Foss,David Felder-Buffalo 1990 (Photo:Irene Haupt)


Lukas Foss

Surveying the life and career of Lukas Foss, a dizzying sequence of events and achievements unfold, often with a sense of some rift or sudden change in direction. Born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin in 1922, his family, with early premonition of the need to escape the Nazis, relocated in 1933 to Paris and in 1937 to the United States. When I asked him once what he remembered of his Berlin days, he replied, “riding the tram while memorizing the Missa Solemnis”. By the time he arrived in the US he had already composed his Four Two-part Inventions, a still astonishingly vital piece, its exuberance in no way diminished by its indebtedness to Hindemith. Not surprisingly, Foss studied with Hindemith as a non-matriculating student at Yale from 1939 to 1940.  By 1944 he had composed The Prarie, to texts of Carl Sandburg, which won a 1945 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award.

There’s something uncanny about the piece immediately articulated in the tenor solo’s opening song, “I was born on the prairie”. Well…no, you weren’t, but you certainly are pretty convincing that you were. While the piece is a hybrid stylistically, caught between Hindemith and Copland, it is, nonetheless, a remarkable achievement for a 22 year old immigrant, an assertion of new beginnings by a young composer of tremendous confidence. That confidence must have been near brashness as well as Lukas once related that he told Bartok during the Boston Symphony’s rehearsing of the first performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, that the ending of the piece was wrong. And, indeed, Bartok changed it! What was he doing at the rehearsals? Well, he was the pianist of the BSO and reputed to be the person who taught Koussevitzky, through incessant piano sessions, the intricacies of all the new works being commissioned and championed by Koussevitzky. What might Lukas have thought of during these sessions? Koussevitzky had a greatness of vision and generosity of spirit, yet  an imperfect understanding of the music he had made possible. And here  he was, the music director of one of the world’s great orchestras. That Lukas did have that understanding is undeniable, but what in what way would he manifest it? As  composer, as conductor, as pianist,as all three? Or perhaps it should be said, as all four, because by 1953 he succeeded Arnold Schönberg as Professor of Composition at UCLA.  He was 31 years old .

The music of the 50’s shows the gradual influence of Stravinsky, also living in Los Angeles. This is very clear in a now forgotten “big” piece, the Concerto #2 for Piano and Orchestra, composed in Rome in 1950/51. This work also received a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award . The overwhelming impression is of tremendous drive, confidence and fluency. I once mentioned this to Leo Smit, who was with Foss at the American Academy during these years but he immediately contradicted this assertion by saying that Lukas, on the contrary, worried every note into existence. One senses a mind extremely aware of other possibilities yet writing  music modeled on unilateral choice.

A game-changing direction in the real-time exploration of these other possibilities came in the form of Foss’s creation of the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in the late 50’s at UCLA. From this interactive practice came perhaps Foss’ most performed and critically acclaimed work, Time Cycle, composed in 1960. In this piece, premiered in its orchestral version by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Foss balances and channels the many strands of his vast musical heritage and creates a totally convincing whole. At the first performance, between each movement, Foss and his ensemble, piano, clarinet, cello and percussion, improvised. The piece was then repeated. The work won Foss yet another New York Critics’ Circle Award. Foss’s two worlds are represented in the texts. The first two movements are set to English texts and the last two to German ones. This textual differentiation is present in the expressive character of the music as well. The first two movements are bright and angular, the last two, darker and more anxious. Is this a reflection of an American/European division?  While Time Cycle  magically bridges the two worlds, it was a divide that Foss himself would try to unify in the next decade. For without any doubt, the next ten years were Lukas’s major attempt to gain his position within European avant-garde musical life, a position he had no doubt would have been his, had he been able to remain in Germany. He went about this in three ways.

In 1963, Foss was appointed conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra where he spent seven seasons noteworthy for the programming of new works. Amongst these was the first American performance of Stockhausen’s Momente. The appointment was highly controversial, notably because Foss had very little experience as a conductor, certainly none as music director of a major orchestra. One wonders if Lukas thought back to his days with Koussevitzky, came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do and decided, yes, I’ll take it! The first program was Ives The Unanswered Question/Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps/intermission/ Brahms Symphony #1. I was there and I remember the start of the Brahms, Lukas exultant in the timpani’s opening hammer strokes. They sounded like the portent to the Danse Sacrale.

In 1964, with Allen Sapp, he founded at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. The Creative Associates, as they were known, was an ever changing international group of young composers and performers, supported by Rockefeller Foundation funds,  who lived and worked in Buffalo, presenting an annual series of concerts at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Buffalo became home for many important European musicians at the beginning of their careers, among them, Vinko Globokar, Carlos Alsina, Cornelius Cardew and Niccolò Castiglionni to name a very few. In 1964 and 1965, two festivals of contemporary arts were held in the city which received world-wide attention. What was so exciting about these events is that the populace responded, turning out in large numbers to experience a smorgasbord of current art. The reaction was often highly dubious but there was an energy, a why not quality to the concerts and exhibitions that was exhilerating. Buffalo, an old industrial city in its last gasp of prosperity and optimism, was on the international cultural  map.

The third prong of Foss’s strategy to change the direction of his career was in his composition. He was now committed to a path begun with Time Cycle, in which his earlier classicism would give way to a personal synthesis of post-war developments. A string of strikingly different pieces followed. Echoi (1960/63), for the instruments of the Improvisation Ensemble, explores new means of intrumental projection as well as the boundaries between strict and free notation.  Baroque Variations  (1967) for orchestra, elaborates in various levels of deconstruction pieces by Handel, Scarlatti and Bach. Geod (1969) for orchestra and chorus is a 35 minute dream in which fragments of folk songs are surrounded by a kind of controlled aleatoric haze of harmony and pointillistic figuration. Each performance of the piece, though generated from the same materials would be substantially different.

Echoi is certainly a piece that should be much better known. In addition to its purely musical interest, which is high, it is the work of a composer who understood from a performer’s point of view what needs and what does not need to be notated. As Jan Williams, the noted percussionist and Lukas’s close associate for many years wrote me, “When I talk to composers about notation for percussion, I use Echoi as an example of how one composer really got it right, not over or under notated in relation to what he wanted to hear (or was hearing when he was writing the piece).” The reception of these pieces was often contentious and provoked highly divergent opinions. There were those who heard a major composer finally asserting his truly original voice and there were those who thought the diversity of the music represented an absence of direction. Lukas gave the impression of enjoying the controversy as each new piece circulated not only through American performance venues, but also, increasingly, European ones as well.

The music of the 70’s reflects the period’s preoccupation with repetition and continuous texture. One of his most extreme pieces in this regard is the 1976 String Quartet #3. Its first 11 minutes minutes are an unrelieved, four instrument assualt, fortissimo and furioso. A sudden pianissimo signals a questioning of this violence.  In the next six minutes a disquieting, nervous twittering replaces the opening agression. This gives way to a seemingingly empty, dead conclusion, which is contradicted by a final return to the opening music. One final trump card, a sudden release at the end into a C Major arpeggiation in the four strings concludes the piece. One hears Foss confronting two opposing aesthetics in American music of the time-the diatonic, motoric minimalism of Reich and Glass and the rhymically jagged chromaticism of Carter and Wuorinen. The music is motoric, but it is extremely dissonant, the two aesthetics cross-pollinating. I don’t know of any American work quite like it from this time. It’s a prescient piece as well, anticipating the grittiness of the next generation of minimalists.  Yet Foss did not stay in this world. Music for Six (1977), retains the motoric aspect of the quartet, but abandons its harmonic language for a more diatonic modality.

I’ve thought about this constant back and forth quality in Foss’s music for many years and have come to the conclusion that it represents not an absence of direction but rather a continuation of a very classical conception of the composer-of a person who creates different music for different occasions. In this regard, Foss resembles Haydn and Mozart, composing one day a divertimento and the next a Mass. The last 50  years have not been kind to this approach to composition. The more honored path is that of the monotheist, whose output stays close to one path.  This might seem surprising, given that Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the twin pillars of heroic Modernism, have each their famed tripartite stylistic divisions. Their difference from Foss, Schoenberg’s American tonal works not withstanding, is that once established, these stylistic periods were closed, not to be returned to. This is where Foss’ catalogue becomes more complicated.

By the 1980’s, the wild diversity of expression in his music of the past 20 years gave way to a return to something resembling his earlier classicism. This is overtly evident in the Renaissance Concerto (1985) for flute and orchestra, one of his most performed pieces. Three of the four movements refer directly to older composers, Rameau,Monteverdi and Melville, but without the deconstructive aspect of Baroque Variations. Here the reference is more literal. The piece presents more than a bit of a conundrum. Is its welcomed effectiveness and restoration of the divertmento principle achieved at the  loss of single-mindedness of purpose? Is this the price paid in our time by the artist of multifaceted gifts?

I know that Lukas thought about this a great deal. He understood the question from both sides. But the foxlike abundance of his gifts won out over the hedgehog road of others because he could do so much and so wonderfully. One of his great qualitiies was his constant curiosity, not only of other celebrated contemporaries but also of unheralded young people. He had that magnaminity of spirit which allowed him to trust his own judgement without seeking the approval of others. His generosity to younger musicians, his support of them, is legendary. He, himself, was ever youthful, ever in the present.

The passage of time has a way of loosening an artwork from its polemical context. This has not yet happened with Lukas’ work but I hope that in time his work as a whole, distanced from the polemics which surrounded it, will be more completely understood and recognized for what it is; a rich and remarkable expression of a truly great and complete musician.