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Lukas Foss

By John Guare

Before I give my tribute to my friend Lukas Foss, I have to acknowledge my deep friendship and love for Horton Foote whose tribute we’ve just heard. I must thank Romulus for his evocation of our friend.

Damn, it’s a sad day.

I like to think of Lukas and Horton meeting here at the Academy. The sublime conjunction of words and music.

But both were so reticent I can imagine them missing each other had not Virginia seated them at the same table. Would they have liked each other? Well, yes. Horton and Lukas were two men for whom the past existed with as much immediacy as the present.

Lukas said “I conduct because I love to make love to the past.”

All I can think of today is visiting Horton in Texas and his quiet happiness in showing me the site where he would one day be buried next to his beloved Lillian. Dear Daisy, who’s here tonight representing her sibs Hallie and Horton Jr. and Walter, I like to think of the fearless opacity of the border your father kept between the past and the present, between life and death, which fueled his work and his life all these years. Imagine living in the same house for 90 years. As Horton said to me, “Oh no, I haven’t lived all my life in this house. We didn’t move here till I was two.”

Any thought of Horton sends me back to being 15 and seeing a play on our black and white television called A Young Lady of Property, which made me burst into tears—the first time I ever cried in my living room over some non-domestic event. How did this play know my secrets? I looked to see who the magician was who knew my deepest yearnings? Horton Foote. I made a note to watch for other of his plays. Which I did. And one of the wonders is we became friends.

To you, Horton.

And now, dear Cornelia and Eliza and Christopher and your kids, I thank you for asking me to speak today about another friend, your husband, your father, the one and only Lukas Foss. I remember when he said to me—

I have to be careful. Our fellow academician, Richard Howard, observed, very wisely: “Ah, the eulogy—the most autobiographical of forms!”

Let’s just stick to the man.

In Baroque Variations for Orchestra, Lukas puckishly transformed music by Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti into something brand new. He let us hear that old music with fresh ears. Stravinsky had the same impulse. But while Stravinsky would warp the old music, Lukas revered the music he was appropriating. He treated the music of Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel as sacred reliquaries around which he built his piece.

Using the word ‘puckish’ makes me think of a story that’s been told too many times to be totally apocryphal.

The scene: A concert in the salone at the American Academy in Rome. The composer-in-residence is performing some new very difficult American music. At one point, the pianist, in a series of demanding arpeggios up and down the keyboard, loses his balance and falls off the piano stool. At that moment, by chance, Lukas Foss, passing by outside in the cortile, looks in, sees what’s happening, jumps in through the window into the salone, runs to the piano, steps over the pianist and starts playing the piece from the very point where the music had thrown the previous musician to the floor. Step over the pianist? Of course. The musician can take care of himself. But the music—the music—that’s what’s sacred.

If this leap through the tall open windows brings up images of Puck or even Peter Pan, you’re not far off. Lukas was no whimsical Peter Pan, but, my god, he was Pan.

He regularly quoted Stravinsky: “I know exactly what I want to do, and then I do something else.”

The anarchy of Pan.

He revered Mozart for his ability to “put things together that don’t belong together” and make it sound sublime.

He described composition as the search for “the right wrong notes.”

Close your eyes. Didn’t Lukas even look like Pan?

Lukas, born in Berlin in 1922, had, in a detail fitting for Pan,  no birth certificate. The birthday chosen for Lukas was 15 August. Even though Lukas was Jewish, 15 August is a major Catholic religious holiday in Europe—Maria himmelfahrt—Mary’s heaven tripthe day Jesus assumed his Blessed Mother into heaven. Just look at the image of Mary’s Assumption as painted by Rubens in the Chiesa Nuovo in Rome. Lukas would love sharing a day with this lush blonde in ecstasy flying up into heaven, accompanied by trumpeting angels playing music which he would of course write.  August 15th. That’s a day for Pan and Lukas to be born.

The joint presence of Lukas and Cornelia has cast a profound shadow over the American Academy in Rome for over fifty years. It’s where they met, when he was a fellow in 1950 and she the mere child of another fellow.

Their lifelong romance makes me think of the title of the fourth movement of Lukas’ Song of Songs: ‘Set me as a seal upon thy heart.’

A few weeks ago I was in Rome and asked Richard Trythall, who has been the long-time music liaison between the city of Rome and the American Academy for a few thoughts on Lukas.

Richard was thrilled to do so. “Lukas was a wunderkind. Just think”, Richard remembered, “Lukas made his debut as a conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the age of 17. By 1940 he was at Tanglewood studying conducting with Koussevitsky and composition with Hindemith. In 1944, at age 22, Koussevitzky hired Lukas to be the pianist of the Boston Symphony so he ‘could compose.'”

And compose he did.

Richard remembered first confronting Lukas’s Solo for Piano: “You look at the score in terror. Fifteen minutes of an unbroken line of notes. Not a rest. It’s constantly changing, merging several styles into his sensibility. But playing it, you’re aware of his control over every moment of the piecethere is nothing in it that is not thought outit is a masterpiece.”

Lukas was, as the Italians say, in gamba [meaning, he really knew what he was doing].

Richard remembered a concert of new music Lukas gave in Rome. As an encore, he spontaneously played Bach and Chopinan incredible feat of memorythe music that was in his fingertips.

And this was the surpriseRichard suddenly burst into tears telling me this.

I have to go into some autobiographical aspects at this point for it was Lukas and Cornelia who first told my wife Adele and me many years ago of the wonders of the American Academy in Rome. Thanks to them, that other Academy has been the central focus of Adele’s life, our life, for the past twenty years. Thank you, Lukas.

In 1953, because of his encyclopedic musical knowledge and his success as an atonal composer, Lukas was the logical choice to succeed Arnold Schoenberg as the head of the composition department at UCLA where he formed the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble to create new work that would challenge “the tyranny of the printed note” and restore improvisation to the concert stage. Improvisation had once been the norm in the time of Mozart but had gone out of favor. In this age of jazz, it’s time for it to re-enter the modern concert stage.

In 1963, he left Los Angeles to become director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. I could imagine some people thinking Buffalo! A backwater. Instead, Lukas joined forces with composers on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo and formed the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, bringing together young performers and composers, transforming Buffalo into the locus of new music in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the 1960s and ’70s, thanks to Lukas, Buffalo was the only place in America where you could hear new music from Europe, the U.S., and Canada. Once a year, Lukas would bring his group of young musicians to New York for an appearance at Carnegie Hall. Thanks to Lukas, what Black Mountain College was to the arts, what Bennington was to modern dance, what North Beach in the 1950s to poetry, so Buffalo was to music.

Nils Vigeland, Chair of the Composition Department at the Manhattan School of Music, who grew up in Buffalo, recalls: “It was one of those kinds of places the way people talk about Vienna in 1900-1910.”

Lukas put his imprimatur on new music and never gave up the task. What a gorgeous life. His opera Grimalkin produced by New York City Opera, his amazing tenure with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, his ten-year directorship of the Festival of Music in the Hamptons.

His fervor never diminished to the end.

I was talking to fellow academician John Corigliano about Lukas. John said “What I can never get over is that after the premiere of Lukas’ Song of Songs, he got a fan letter from Igor Stravinsky! Imagine being 25 years old and getting a fan letter from Igor Stravinsky who was famous for his lack of generosity to other musicians.” John asks if I’m aware of “how important Song of Songs was to the career of Leonard Bernstein, how Lenny’s music changed after hearing Song of Songs.  Do you realize the far ranging influence of Lukas Foss?”

I only could think of how comfortably he fit into our lives.

If Stravinsky’s fan letter was atypical of him, Leonard Bernstein did something equally unimaginable in 1960 when he conducted the premiere of another Lukas masterpiece, Time Cycle. At its conclusion as the applause quieted, Lenny turned to the audience and said “This piece is so important that it cannot be appreciated at one hearing.” He lifted his baton and, for a surprised and delighted audience, played the entire piece once more. Is Time Cycle the only work in history that received two performances at its premiere?

Oh, Lukas, if we could only lift our batons, see you appear in that window, and ask you to leap in and repeat your life all over again.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 12, 2009.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters