Rediscover Lukas Foss: Love, Universality, Knowledge, Art, Spirit

February 05, 2019

In the archives at the Library of Congress is a note that Lukas Foss received on his 55th birthday. The note, written on the stationery of one Leonard Bernstein, contains more than just a standard birthday greeting. It features an original acrostic poem formed from Foss’s first name: Love, Universality, Knowledge, Art, Spirit. Given the note’s brevity it’s tempting not to read too much into it. But a brief look at Foss’s life, not to mention his lifelong friendship with Bernstein, invites deeper reflection.

Foss Letter
Leonard Bernstein to Lukas Foss, August 15, 1977.
(Photo Credit: Lukas Foss Collection, Library of Congress. Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office.)

Foss was born in Berlin in 1922. Precocious and talented, he began piano studies at age seven and was quickly recognized as gifted. With German hostility toward Jews rising, the family moved to Paris in 1933, then to the U.S. in 1937. By that time Foss had studied with some of Europe’s leading teachers and, though only fifteen years old, enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

That Foss and Bernstein should become friends is both surprising and unremarkable. Scan their resumes and you’d be forgiven for confusing the two. They entered the Curtis Institute in the same year and shared many of the same teachers. Fritz Reiner helped jumpstart each of their careers by allowing them to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony. Foss and Bernstein attended Tanglewood (then the Berkshire Music Center) together, where they were among Serge Koussevitsky’s most prized pupils. And each was a triple threat: equally adept as composer, conductor, and pianist.

Given this, the relationship could have just easily developed into a bitter rivalry. After all, Foss was four years the younger and, in his own estimation, “a terribly arrogant bastard.” At Yale, Paul Hindemith ultimately rejected him as a student because he wouldn’t do as he was told. George Szell stopped speaking with him for twenty years after Foss criticized the way he conducted one of his pieces. In a 1996 interview for the Carnegie Hall archive with Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Foss described Bernstein as the only friend he never argued with and chalked it up to fact that, despite their many similarities, they were fundamentally very different people.

And they were.

Foss Shapero Fine
From left: Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, and Harold Shapero. Tanglewood, 1946. 
(Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)

For Bernstein, enrollment at the Curtis Institute came after distinguished studies at Harvard. For Foss, Curtis followed an arduous journey across the Atlantic and a name change. (The family name was Fuchs, but they changed it upon the advice of the Pennsylvania Quaker family that took them in when they arrived in the U.S. Bernstein, many know, was famous for refusing to follow Koussevitsky’s advice and change his name.) Foss never earned a college degree, but he did receive eleven honorary doctorates—including one from Yale.

Bernstein spent his career with the New York Philharmonic as his primary institutional connection. Foss bounced from orchestra to orchestra and among institutions, never staying long but always leaving a legacy. He transformed the Buffalo Philharmonic into a top ensemble, and made it a beacon of new music. At UCLA, where he succeeded Arnold Schoenberg, he established an improvising chamber ensemble and held adventurous programs at the Hollywood Bowl—each lasted six hours without intermission and allowed the audience to wander in and out at will.

Bernstein’s wanderings from classical forms led to jazz and the theater. Foss’s led to minimalism and the avant-garde.

And Bernstein composed methodically. Every note followed logically from the one before and had a purpose. He composed in a range of genres over several decades, but he always sounds like Bernstein. Foss was more erratic. His work ranges from conventional tonality to aleatoric (chance operations) and improvisational methods. He constantly looked to past composers for inspiration, often literally recomposing their work in his own idiom. His early orchestral works have the same classic American sound as those by Bernstein and Copland. Later works like Phorion appear to presage John Zorn’s early work. “I start from scratch with every work. It’s as if I’ve never composed before, “ he remarked in the same interview at Carnegie Hall.

Foss and Bernstein also exhibited different relationships to Judaism and Jewish identity. For Bernstein, these shaped a world view and critical perspective that he brought to bear on much of his work. He wore his Jewishness on his sleeve and allowed it to be a guiding force in his life. Foss never dwelled much on his Jewishness. (Indeed, the annual Foss family Christmas party was the place to be and be seen). But he did make an interesting observation in a 1998 interview with the Milken Archive:

“I think all my music is Jewish, whether I realize it or not. . . . I have an identity there that I think comes to the fore, whether I want it or not.”

Whether or not a pervasive Jewishness can be sensed in all of Foss's music, he did leave us with several works that have a direct Jewish connection, several of which are featured below, as well as on our Spotify playlist.

View Lukas Foss's Artist Profile

Elegy for Anne Frank

Elegy for Anne Frank was composed in 1989 for a 60th anniversary concert commemorating what would have been Frank’s 60th birthday. Foss, then conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, was commissioned to compose a piece for the event, which was part of larger commemoration that involved television programs, a symposium, and an exhibition. Composed for piano obbligato and strings, it utilizes a free-floating piano line to represent Anne Frank and incorporates brief motifs from the German national anthem in the string parts, which oscillate between mournful and foreboding. Foss recalled it as “one of the most soulful things I’ve ever done.”

Read more about Elegy for Anne Frank

Adon Olam

Like many other composers of his era, Foss was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman to compose for New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue as part of its adventurous music program. 1947’s Adon Olam is Foss’s sole foray into Hebrew liturgical music. With its exquisite vocal lines and stately, sometimes other-earthly mood, its devotional and ethereal quality is an apt interpretation of the poetic expressions of faith contained in the text.

Song of Anguish

The 1953 solo voice cantata,  Song of Anguish, is a musical meditation on passages from the Book of Isaiah recounting God's anger and prophecies of doom for those “that call evil good, and good evil.” Lammdeni was composed in 1974 during Foss’s tenure as music director of the Kol Yisrael Orchestra in Jerusalem. Loosely based on the two oldest known Hebrew manuscript fragments containing notated prayer texts. Believed to date to the 12th century, Foss was shown the manuscripts by the eminent Israeli musicologist, Israel Adler. Lammdeni is from Foss’s aleatoric period and is scored for mixed chorus and unspecified percussion.

Read more about Song of Anguish

Salamone Rossi Suite

Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570–ca. 1630) was an Italian Jewish musician who was employed at the court of the dukes of Gonzaga in Mantua. He remains a major composer who helped develop both vocal and instrumental music in the early Baroque period. Though Jewish, Rossi was held with significant regard as to exempt him from restrictions customarily placed on Jews. Known as “L’Ebreo” (the Hebrew), Rossi composed several Hebrew text settings, which are still regularly performed. Among the things that Foss was known for was his unique approach to the music of the past. Foss didn’t just hold the great composers in high esteem and present their work in concerts. He sometimes recomposed and reorchestrated them, which he did in 1975 with  Salamone Rossi Suite. The recording features Foss conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Read more about Salamone Rossi Suite

Song of Songs

Song of Songs is one of the earliest of Foss’s works included in the Milken Archive. Commissioned by the American League of Composers in 1946, it was premiered by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra the following year. Among the special aspects of the Foss­–Bernstein friendship was that they often programmed and conducted each other’s works—as is the case with the recording featured here, which also includes Jennie Tourel.

Read more about Song of Songs

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