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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: F—Lukas Foss

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International events and crises are not always welcome. But with World War II, the United States welcomed many European composers, musicians, and conductors immigrating here and exerting a strong influence on the musical landscape.

Lukas Foss (1922-2009) was born in Berlin, Germany, and after exhibiting a strong talent, was encouraged to develop his musical studies. Born into a Jewish family, he and his parents immigrated to Paris in 1933 with the takeover of Hitler and the Nazi party. There he continued studies in piano, composition, orchestration and flute. The family moved again in 1937 to the U.S., where Foss was accepted into the Curtis Institute. He continued composition studies with Randall Thompson and studied conducting with Fritz Reiner; an auspicious start for the young Foss.

At the age of 15, he met Aaron Copland in Philadelphia, who influenced Foss perhaps more than he realized at the time. He wrote, “I had fallen in love with America because of people like Aaron,”  and in a personal letter to Copland said, “Yours is the only American music I have performed consistently over the years.” His composition classes continued with Paul Hindemith, another German immigrant, at Yale and he was able to study conducting at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and with Serge Koussevitzky.  Later, he was the pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1943 to 1949.

His teaching positions and composition work were realized on both the east and west U.S. coasts. An early success was the cantata The Prairie, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg. Multiple grants and awards followed (Fulbright grants and Guggenheim fellowship in composition) and in 1953, he was appointed a professor music at the University of California at Los Angeles in composition and conducting.  While at UCLA, he initiated his mission to recognize and support contemporary composers and new music. In 1963 he returned to the east coast and assumed conductorship of the Buffalo Philharmonic programming new music, enhancing the orchestra’s reputation, and providing a platform for 20th century compositions.

With his appointment in 1970 as conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, audiences during his twenty-year tenure would hear programs featuring modern composers with the standard known repertoire. He initiated thematic programs (still in practice today), composer marathons, (programs featuring only one composer), and most likely the biggest feature still in practice in today’s classical concerts, pre- and post-concert discussions. How do you know the “what” or “why” a piece is being performed unless you talk about it?

Grounded as he was in the European tradition of classical training, he may be remembered most for his avant-garde turn while he was at UCLA. He was not afraid to experiment with chance elements and unorthodox notation, still in practice today. It’s always good to have a universally accepted format (print music notation) and then it’s good to stretch that idea for growth.

We currently have one audio book with Lukas Foss in the NLS digital audio collection, but after listening to some of his piano compositions, I am looking forward to adding them to the collection.

DBM 00277 Bach and Twentieth-century Composers.

For your listening pleasure, I would recommend Three American Pieces for flute or violin and orchestra.

NLS materials listed above are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow music related talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

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