Lukas Foss, born in Berlin on August 15, 1922, is considered an American composer, conductor and pianist of German parents. His study began with Julius Goldstein, who introduced Foss to the music of the masters studying piano and theory in Berlin. Foss studied piano in Paris from 1933 to 1937 with Lazare Levy, composition with Noel Gallon, orchestration with Felix Wolfes and the flute with Marcel Moyse. He moved to the USA in 1937 and continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music with Isabelle Vengerova, piano, Rosario Scalero and Virgil Thompson, composition, and conducting with Fritz Reiner. In addition, he studied with Koussevitzky during summer months at the Berkshire Music Center from 1939-43. He studied composition at Yale University with Paul Hindemith as a special student from 1939-40.
Foss is considered a genius by many of his colleagues. He began to compose music at the age of 15. At age 22 he received wide acclaim for his cantata PRAIRIE on Sandburg’s poem. This work received the New York Music Critics’ Award in 1944. Foss became the Boston Symphony Orchestra pianist from 1944 to 1950. In 1945 he was the youngest composer ever to receive a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1950-51 he became a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and in 1950-52 he was the recipient of a Fulbright grant. His global fame was augmented with the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in Venice on October 7, l951 as the piano soloist. The United States premiere of that work was under the direction of Munch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with the composer at the piano. This performance took place in November of the same year. The Concerto was Revised in 1953 and received the New York Music Critics’ Award for 1954.
Foss was given the position of professor of music (composition and conducting) at the University of California at Los Angeles in February 1953, where he founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in 1957. He became the music director and conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1970.He founded the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, as it’s director while at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1963. Foss has appeared as a guest conductor with numerous orchestras in the USA and Europe, and has lectured widely at colleges and universities in North America. He was appointed conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonia in 1971 and in 1972 he conducted the Kol Israel Orchestra of Jerusalem, holding both positions simultaneously. New York city became his home where he continued to serve as co-director of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo. He was composer-in-residence at the Manhattan School of Music in 1972-73.
One may consider two periods of development in Foss’s composition, separated by a transitional phase of ‘controlled improvisation’ during 1957-62. The first period from 1944-60 was mostly new-classical and eclectic, represented by such works as the Symphony in G, the concertos, various choral works and the orchestral Symphony of Chorales based on the music of Bach. Also present is an element of ‘American popularism,’ as in the PRAIRIE and the comic opera THE JUMPING FROG OF CALAVERAS COUNTY, on the story by Mark Twain.
The transitional phase started in 1956 while he began to experiment with ensemble improvisation, for the benefit of his students at UCLA. In 1957 he founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble consisting of clarinet, piano, cello and percussion and formulated what he called ‘system and chance music’, a form of controlled improvisation which made a profound change in Foss’s compositional techniques: he abandoned fixed forms and tonality for the use of serialism, indeterminancy and graphic notation. Echoi for four soloists (the players of Foss’s ensemble) marks the definitive beginning of his experimental phase. Used ‘in free, wilful manner,’ its point of departure is serialism, to provide material which the composer chooses. Although each performer has certain options- by skipping back and forth between pages of the score- and improvisatory moments, the performers freedom is limited and chance is never allowed to take over completely.
The compositions of this period – ELYTRES, FRAGMENTS OF ARCHILOCHOS, FOR 24 WINDS- ‘are based on the idea of a score containing on every page a sum total from which a different selection is extracted for each performance’. In CONCERT FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA 1966, there is an unseen cello cadenza on pre-recorded tape played against the cello soloist being divided with a Bach sarabande and gradually being distorted. BAROQUE VARIATIONS on themes by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti include a surrealist element where the variations are ‘dreams’ in which the realism pervades Variation III, on Bach’s Partita in E for solo violin; he described the effect he wishes to achieve as ‘torrents of baroque semiquavers, washed ashore by ocean waves, sucked in again, returning… submerging into and emerging out of inaudibility’.. The xylophone’s notations give way to ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ in morse code as a joke. The percussionist smashes a bottle in a bag with a hammer for further effect.
In Foss’s first decade as an ‘experimental’ composer, he assimilated most of the devices identified with the avant garde of the 1960s and added some variants of his own devising. As a conductor, performer and teacher he has contributed much to the diffusion and appreciation of the music of the 20th century.