Monday, February 2, 2009

Lukas Foss: The Passing of a Prolific American Composer

Lukas Foss, the American composer, conductor and pianist who succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as head of composition at UCLA, died Sunday at his home in New York. He was 86.

Foss wrote more than 100 works, passing through three stylistic periods, from tonal, neoclassical writing through experimentation with 12-tone, electronic, chance and other techniques, then returning to complex but more listener-friendly works. His output includes four symphonies, three string quartets and many 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 after texts by W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche); "Baroque Variations" for orchestra (deconstruction of 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 that after all these works, 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 still beat my head against the wall, as I'm doing now with the string quartet I've just started. It's always a kind of torture at first, until suddenly the door opens, and you get 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 it happens it's quite difficult."

Although he began composing at 7, Foss' first major success came at 22 with "The Prairie," a cantata based on Carl Sandburg's poem, which won the 1944 New York Music Critics' Circle Award. The piece was heavily influenced by the populist style of Copland.

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