MAP (Musicians at Play)
For Lukas Foss at 100
Today, August 15, is the 100th birthday of the German-American composer, conductor, pianist, educator Lukas Foss. I studied with Foss in grad school, and I’ve written about him on more than one occasion. For his 100th, though, let’s go into the archives.
When I was living in Washington, DC, pre-pandemic, I carved out a couple of days a week to spend at the Library of Congress, ostensibly in service of a long-gestating research project, but also just to enjoy what was there. That included a perambulation through Foss’s papers, some tidbits of which I previously highlighted. But there was also this curious treasure:
It’s an “A-minor Sonata” for piano, a full-fledged, four-movement classical-style effort: an opening Allegro con brio, an Andante theme and variations, a Vivace scherzo and trio, and a final Allegretto rondo. Foss dated it “Marz-April 1930,” when he was seven. I don’t think this copy is from 1930, at least not all of it; some Durand & Cie.-brand manuscript paper and occasional marking—
—would hint that it dates from at least 1933, when Foss and his family left Berlin for Paris. But did he first write it in 1930? I’d believe it; parts of it are both correct and incorrect in exactly the way you might expect from a precocious, self-confident seven-year-old. Then again, interestingly, some of the handwriting bears a strong resemblance to the adult Foss’s manuscript. I wonder if Foss, who, in later years, became fascinated with the idea of bringing the music of his early life into the present in some memory-refracted way (for example, his Fourth Symphony, subtitled “Window to the Past”), toyed with resurrecting this particular snapshot.
I’m still working on deciphering the piece—Foss’s handwriting is breathtakingly messy in spots—but here’s a phone recording of the first movement.
Perceiving the future in a creative artist’s juvenilia is a dangerous temptation, but there is one detail worth highlighting. In a few places in the first movement, particularly in his opening theme, Foss seems to have been undecided on whether to bar the music with two beats to the bar or four; after erasures and negotiation, he settled on a momentary detour into two:
In the recapitulation and coda, though, he left this passage all in four:
Same notes, same rhythms, different downbeats. Maybe this is just the young Lukas Foss still getting the hang of mixed-meter, but the nominally-grown-up Lukas Foss loved this sort of maneuver. A lot of Foss’s more avant-garde works have similar moments in which the performer’s eye and ear go out of phase with each other, semantically, conceptually, or just literally, like here. How does that change the performance? How much does it change the sound? Can the performer communicate such a change to the listener? It’s an obvious manifestation of Foss’s idea of musical performance as a kind of elaborate game between the composer, the performer, and the audience, each with their own fluid roles, each with their own tweakable rules.
Games are both serious and not, as was Foss’s music. Maybe that’s why Foss’s centenary seems to be flying a bit under classical music’s institutional radar. What few commemorations I’ve been able to find—the Buffalo Philharmonic’s two-part mini-series being the most substantial—largely celebrate Foss the neo-classicist, not Foss the try-anything-once modernist. And even that observance is an exception. The Ojai Festival, of which Foss was the music director numerous times, declined to mark the occasion. The Milwaukee Symphony, which Foss conducted from 1981 to 1986, isn’t doing any of his music. Neither is the Boston Symphony, where Foss served as the orchestra’s pianist in the 1940s, and which gave the premieres of several of his early works. In many of Foss’s more far-out pieces, there’s a risk that the performance—and the performers—come off as more ridiculous than profound, a risk that the classical-music world, at the moment, seems disinclined to take. But Foss knew that the classical tradition, as it had persisted into the contemporary world, was both absurd and profound, and that there was a unique power in that duality. He loved plugging into that power, wherever he could find it.
Other writing on Foss and his music:
A master of music’s complexities (Boston Globe, February 7, 2009)
Foss plies his maverick spirit in idealized Americana(on Foss’s The Prairie) (Boston Globe, August 2, 2014)
Style Points (includes a long digression into Foss’s Solo) (NewMusicBox, August 27, 2014)
Rediscovering a piece of Boston’s choral and architectural history (on Foss’s Behold! I Build an House) (Boston Globe, February 27, 2020)
Lukas Foss: Complete Symphonies (notes for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s recording)