From the Archives: Lukas Foss

Black and white photograph from 1952 of a light skinned man in a short sleeve shirt seated at a table; he holds a page of sheet music; a piano can be seen behind him
Lukas Foss in his Casa Rustica studio, 1952 (photograph from the Institutional Archive, American Academy in Rome)

When the composer Lukas Foss (1952 Fellow) arrived at the American Academy in Rome in 1950, he was just beginning a remarkable career. Born in Berlin in 1922, he fled with his family first to Paris in 1933 and then, four years later, to the United States. Although he was an immigrant, Foss became known as one of the most original voices in American composition, alongside Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, who were also his great admirers.

During his Rome Prize fellowship, Foss met his wife, the painter Cornelia Brendel Foss. “We eloped,” Cornelia once told the New Yorker. “We had a secret wedding at the Campidoglio.”

At the Academy he worked on Piano Concerto No. 2, which premiered at the Venice Biennale Festival in fall 1951 before traveling to Boston, where the piece won the Boston Symphony’s award for the best contemporary work of the year. For both performances, Foss played the piano. Three years later, Piano Concerto No. 2 earned the New York Music Critics’ Award. While in Rome, Foss also completed an oratorio, Parable of Death, that was based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.

Shortly after his return from Rome, Foss succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as the head of composition at the University of California, Los Angeles. He later served as music director or conductor for the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony, and the Milwaukee Symphony.

Foss returned to the Academy in 1978 as a Resident, where he made progress on an orchestral composition, Quintets. He also presented, as a piano soloist and with a select group of musicians, several works by Bach: Concerto in F Minor, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, and Concerto in D Minor. AAR President Bill Lacy aptly described how Foss transformed the performance space “into a gilt candlelit baroque drawing room…. Foss didn’t play and conduct music—he was music and the audience responded.”

Lukas Foss died in Manhattan in 2009 at the age of 86.

Oral History Project

Listen to the audio of an interview with Lukas Foss, conducted in 1999 by Katheryn Alexander and Paul Moravec for the American Academy in Rome Oral History Project. A transcript is available.

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