Lukas Foss died aged 86 on 1 February 2009. His legacy as a composer is considerable and varied, and there were few areas of American musical life from the 1950s to the 1980s that did not feel his influence in some way. His important musical directorships, firstly at Buffalo and then at Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and Milwaukee, brought his controversial musical ideology into conflict with some of his audiences, performers and managers. Some works from his middle period (the 1960s especially), are more notable for the curiosity value of their innovative stunts than for their memorable musical content: why should a piece such as Geod (1969) need four conductors? Why have three alternative orchestrations (as in the Cello Concerto)? Novelty risks falling flat on its face: the graveyard of music is littered with the corpses of failed experiments. Thankfully Foss got over this period and emerged a wiser man: in a 1986 interview he spoke fondly of his early work The Prairie, written whilst he was still in his teens in 1941 and 1942. He was not the first to wonder, later in life, at his early raw talent. Born in Berlin to a prosperous Jewish family, his arrival (via Paris) in the United States aged 14 in 1937 brought immediate exposure to the American musical elite. Early encounters with Bernstein, Koussevitsky, Tanglewood and Hindemith (at Yale) made profound impressions on a young man in a new country whose musical art reached new heights of aspiration at the outbreak of the Second World War. Young Lukas quaffed this heady cocktail with relish and his boundless self-confidence sat well with the mood of the times.
He had read The Prairie by the Midwestern poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) and, even though he had never set food in an American wheatfield, he identified strongly with the vernacular imagery and enduring timelessness of the great plains. The cantata Foss produced owes something to Copland and maybe even Roy Harris but it has a coolness and clarity which is immediately fresh and original. American poetry had, as yet, made little headway into music - Leo Sowerby’s Theme in Yellow (Sandburg) and Hanson’s The Mystic Trumpeter (Whitman) being early exceptions - and had to wait for later works such as Hindemith’s 1946 Whitman epic When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and Ned Rorem’s The Poets Requiem and American Oratorio (1985). Foss, however, has left us with an early landmark of Americana. The poem was heavily cut and re-arranged (with Sandburg’s consent) and even if the lines now sound dated, the music certainly does not and indeed has transcended its times. The serene brass fanfares of peregrinations of Foss’s musical narrative are matched by the open windows of Sandburg’s lines. The finale looks forward to a future without end: ‘A sky of tomorrows ... Yesterday is a wind gone down.’ The poem is heavy with the imagery of time, of how a sunset foreshadows the birth of yet another day.
Altogether it is a delightful work and this first recording in over 30 years, released just before Foss’s death, is a poignant elegy and epitaph to a significant composer. More than half of the CD of piano music also contains music from Foss’s youth. The Two-Part Inventions, written when he was only 15, are astonishing in their command of classical form, and the Fantasy Rondo of 1944 is an extended essay in improvised jazz format within tight limits. He has formed a friendship whilst at the Curtis Institute with Leonard Bernstein, four years his senior; Foss paid tribute to him in a brief but explosive variation on New York, New York (1987). The 1981 Solo contains some of the best of Foss’s later music, proof that mid-life crises do subside. Minimalism was the ‘new’ experimental vogue of the time, and in his most eclectic manner Foss subsumes Reich and Glass into his favourite neo-classical idioms of Bartok and Baroque. The early Passacaglia (1940) too leaves little doubt as to where his true sympathies lay. As Virgil Thomson once memorably remarked: ‘Lukas Foss always does everything well.’ In some ways that is Foss’ Achilles heel, too: he needed to prove his mastery of too many musical servants. He deserves a proper evaluation but it may be that his final monument will rest on the strength of his early endeavors and on his important contributions, as a very young man, to American music’s coming of age.