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Chameleon as Composer: The Colorful Life and Works of Lukas Foss

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The following is a guest post from Music Archivist Chris Hartten who will be presenting a High Noon Lecture in the Whittall Pavilion on Tuesday, February 24. The talk is free and open to the public – see the flyer below the post for more details.

Portrait of Lukas Foss, Louise Talma Papers, Music Division.
Portrait of Lukas Foss, Louise Talma Papers, Music Division.

If ever there was a blue chip prospect among composers of the twentieth century, it was Lukas Foss. Born in Berlin in 1922, the prodigious Foss began piano and theory studies with Julius Goldstein at the age of seven and developed a passion for the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Such was his musical aptitude that at the ripe old age of nine, Foss declared himself a professional musician and shortly thereafter began musical training with leading members of the Paris Conservatory, where he was exposed to the works of neoclassicist Paul Hindemith.

Upon immigration to the United States in 1937, Foss was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music and soon amassed a dizzying array of musical accolades. He studied composition with Hindemith, became friends with Leonard Bernstein, rubbed elbows with Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, and was touted as one of the brightest stars at the newly established Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood under Serge Koussevitzky. Astonishingly, Foss had achieved all this and more before his twentieth birthday.


Sketches for The Praerie, 4th movement, Lukas Foss Papers, Music Division.
Sketches for The Praerie, 4th movement, Lukas Foss Papers, Music Division.

Despite his classicist training, Foss’ greatest musical contributions perhaps came with his turn toward avant-garde composition during the late 1950s and early 1960s. His work with the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at the University of California, Los Angeles, broke new ground in compositional technique, as did his experiments with controlled-chance elements, inaudibility, and unorthodox notation. The critically acclaimed Time Cycle (1959-1960), Echoi (1960-1963), and Baroque Variations (1967) are regarded as some of the finest examples of these compositional and performance techniques. Foss was a master of reconciling the old with the new, and his diverse body of work provides a unique look at the evolution of musical trends in the twentieth century.

Please join me on Tuesday, February 24th at 12:00 in the Whittall Pavilion, Jefferson Building, to view treasures from the Lukas Foss Papers and explore the life and musical contributions of one of America’s most colorful and intriguing virtuosos.




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