Leonard Bernstein plays the piano during a rehearsal at his apartment in New York with conductor and composer Lukas Foss
Lukas Foss was a dominant figure in postwar American music, a composer, performer and academic. He constantly explored the nature of creativity and the artist’s relationship to tradition, moving from Neo-Classicism, through more avant-garde techniques to freewheeling polystylism.
Foss’s birth certificate was lost when he was young, so he took August 15 as a probable birth date. A prodigy, he studied piano and theory with Julius Goldstein-Herford, beginning a lifelong love of Bach and Mozart, and started composing at 7. But under the threat of rising fascism, his Jewish family moved from Berlin to Paris when Lukas was 11 where his curriculum expanded to include flute, composition and orchestration.
Four years later, in 1937, the family progressed to New York, and Foss enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia while studying conducting with Sergei Kussevitzky and composition with Paul Hindemith. That year some piano pieces he wrote while travelling on the subway were published. His early work was Neo-Classical with a spiky jazziness that showed a familiarity with Bartók and Prokofiev. In 1944 his Coplandesque cantata Prairie, a setting of the American poet Carl Sandburg, won the New York Music Critics’ Award and he embarked on a six-year stint as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s pianist. In 1945 he became the youngest composer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship; his second came in 1960.
Foss’s Americana continued in his amusing 1949 one-act opera The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, after Mark Twain. But the previous year he had also looked back to his Jewish roots with Adon Olom: a Prayer, which employed a cantor and was the first of several religious works.
In 1950 he received a Fulbright grant and moved to the American Academy in Rome. Three years later he returned as Professor of Composition at the University of California, Los Angeles. But if they were looking for a Neo-Classicist to replace the avant-garde Arnold Schoenberg, that is not what they got. However, his commitment equalled his predecessor’s, and, increasingly, composition, performance and education were interlinked. Later Foss taught or was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, Harvard, Yale, Manhattan School of Music and Boston.
At the end of the 1950s Foss experimented with serial techniques as well as controlled improvisation and chance procedures. In 1959 he also wrote his last stage work, the one-act opera Introductions and Goodbyes to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, after several ballets and the children’s opera Griffelkin (1953-55).
In 1957 Foss founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, a quartet that did exactly what it implied. Leonard Bernstein, disappointed that Eugene Ormandy, and not himself, had conducted the premiere of Foss’s Improvisational Concerto, urged Foss to add aleatoric \ elements to his song cycle for soprano and orchestra Time Cycle.
It caught the mood of the time: after Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic played it twice at the 1960 premiere, it won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and was recorded by CBS. It includes a setting of Nietzsche’s poem Midnight Song that Mahler had used in his Third Symphony. Always engaging with tradition, Foss wrote Baroque Variations in 1967, a wry deconstruction that included the smashing of a bottle and a xylophone spelling Bach’s name in Morse code. He continued to reflect on the past in Renaissance Concerto (1985), a prismatic Baroque-jazz flute concerto, which includes the percussive clicking of the silent soloist’s keys. The Salomon Rossi Suite (1975) was a more conventional pastiche in the Respighi mode.
Foss followed his curiosity where it took him. When, in the early 1980s, his experimental period ended, he did not see this as a retrenchment, merely another direction for his creativity and attempts to be “crazy, in the sense of unexpected”. Solo (1981), his biggest piano piece, brought together dodecaphony (the 12-tone system) and Minimalism, and is a key piece in his move towards a more audience-friendly approach. He produced orchestral versions of it in 1982 (Solo Observed) and 2000 (Solo Transformed).
Among his tribute and memorial pieces are Night Music for John Lennon (Prelude Fugue and Chorale) for brass ensemble and small orchestra in 1981, and For Toru, a stately flute-led dance marking the composer Takemitsu’s death in 1996. His last piano piece, For Lenny (Variation on New York, New York) was dedicated to Bernstein in 1988 and a year later he wrote Elegy for Anne Frank, whose first narrator was Foss’s actress daughter Eliza.
Foss’s performing career was equally packed. He gave the premiere of his own First Symphony (1946) and the Stravinskian Second Piano Concerto (1951) and was soloist when Bernstein recorded his own The Age of Anxiety. In 1959 he joined three other star composer-pianists (Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions) to record Stravinsky’s Les noces under the composer’s baton.
He was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, 1963-70, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, 1971-90, the Jerusalem Symphony, 1972-76, and the Milwaukee Symphony, 1981-86, devising a stream of stimulating programmes.
Whatever style Foss employed in his hundred-plus works, he was always concerned to connect with his audience. Always aware of the debt that any creator owes to their predecessors, he tended towards the evolutionary rather than the revolutionary, fascinated not by the fact of the debt but what the inheritor did with it.
Foss is survived by his wife, Cornelia Brendel Foss, a painter, and their son and daughter.
Lukas Foss, composer, conductor and pianist, was born on August 15, 1922. He died on February 1, 2009, aged 86