American composer

Lukas Foss, versatile and prolific American composer, dies at 86

Lukas Foss, the multilingual American composer, conductor and pianist who has led half a dozen Ojai music festivals, conducted marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as head of composition at UCLA, is dead. He was 86 years old.

Foss died at his New York home on Sunday, according to his wife, Cornelia Foss. No cause of death was given, but Foss was known to have had Parkinson’s disease.

American composer Aaron Copland once called Foss’ works “among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music.”

Foss has written over 100 works, going through three stylistic periods, from neoclassical tonal writing to experimenting with 12-tone, electronic, random and other techniques, then returning to complex but more user-friendly works.

His production includes four symphonies, three string quartets and numerous choral, chamber, orchestral and stage pieces, embodying almost every style available to a classical composer.

His best-known works are “Time Cycle” (songs with orchestra based on texts by WH Auden, AE Housman, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche); “Baroque Variations” for orchestra (deconstruction by Bach, Handel and D. Scarlatti); “Echoi” (for four instruments); two operas, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (after Mark Twain) and “Griffelkin”; Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrows); and “Renaissance Concerto” for flute and orchestra.

“The funny thing is, after all this work, I still don’t have a recipe for composing,” Foss told The New York Times in 1997.

“I always wonder where the notes are going to come from, and I bang my head against the wall again, as I do now with the string quartet I just started. It’s always kind of torture at first, until suddenly the door opens, and you have ideas, and you know what you want to do and how you want to do it. Then it’s a piece of cake, but until that happens, it’s pretty difficult.

Foss and his impressive portfolio have often been overshadowed by his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein.

“People always talked about Lukas in relation to Lenny, and that made you forget what he was and is, who is a much more disciplined composer,” composer William Bolcom told the Detroit Free Press in 2000.

“Lukas was almost cursed by his ability to do so many different things so well,” Bolcom said.

The son of a professor of philosophy and a painter, Foss was born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin in 1922. His date of birth is usually August 15, but the composer was not so sure.

“I don’t have a birth certificate,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “I have a passport, but the date of birth on it was the result of guesswork.”

Foss’s family fled the Nazis when he was a teenager. He studied music at the Lycée Pasteur in Paris from 1932 to ’37 then at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from ’37 to ’39, studying the piano with Isabelle Vengerova, who also taught Bernstein; direction with Fritz Reiner; and compose with Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson.

In addition to Bernstein, Foss’s classmates included composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Foss was also among the first class of pre-professional students at what was then the Berkshire Music Center.

Although he started composing at age 7, Foss ‘first big hit came at age 22 with “The Prairie,” a cantata based on the poem by Carl Sandburg, which won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. in 1944. The play was heavily influenced by the populist style of Copland.

“I fell in love with America because of people like Aaron,” said Foss, who became a U.S. citizen in 1942.

Foss succeeded Schoenberg at UCLA in 1953 and taught there for 10 years. He also led the Ojai music festivals from 1961 to 1964, from 79 to 80 and again in 81.

In Ojai, who experienced a number of financial difficulties, Foss was known as “a stylistic eclectic. . . a brilliant podium personality, a savvy technician, an imaginative program designer and an easy pianist, ”according to former Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer.

Foss has conducted 12 marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, each dedicated to the works of a composer or theme. The idea behind the six-hour non-intermission concerts was to attract a younger audience who were free to come in and out as they pleased.

“Each time we attracted a lot of young people,” he told the LA Times in 1996. “These were actually themed concerts years before themed concerts became devices. programming, and they were designed for the informal entry and exit of listeners. , for a relaxed atmosphere.

He has also served as Music Director or Conductor for the Buffalo Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Jerusalem Symphony, and Milwaukee Symphony.

Foss was a two-time Guggenheim Fellow (1945 and 1960) and won the Prix de Rome in 1950 and an American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers award for his adventurous programming in 1979. He has held more than 20 honorary degrees .

He has often been criticized for picking up on composition trends rather than initiating them.

“What some people don’t notice when they call me fashionable is that I came in after the trend, and usually out of curiosity,” he told the LA Times in 1987. “Like Ives” , which usually arrived too early, I didn’t do anything at the right time, and I usually arrived too late.

In an interview with the Boston Herald in 2002, Foss explained his style of composition:

“Twenty years ago, we had this club, the avant-garde, and it’s not really very functional anymore. Now any style is OK. Minimal, random, 12 tones, these are just techniques. I use them all – the more the merrier, the richer your vocabulary. It is wrong to think of style as personality. If someone says: “I am a twelve-tone composer”, it is like Bach saying: “I am a fugue composer. “

As for the future, “I hope that justice prevails and my music gets its fair share of performances when I’m gone,” Foss told the Miami Herald in 2001. “I think that’s largely very good, very important. “

Foss is survived by his wife, the painter Cornelia Brendel Foss, whom he met in 1949 while a student 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.

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Pasles is a freelance writer.


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