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Thomson, Susan Nichols

The Solo Piano Music of Lukas Foss

D.M.A. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1999
(snthom@hotmail.com)

The significant and multifaceted musical accomplishments of Lukas Foss reveal his preeminence as a contemporary American composer, conductor, and pianist. Despite the tributes many of his larger choral and instrumental compositions have garnered, Lukas Foss's eight works for solo piano are virtually unknown. This oversight is odd. Foss is a remarkable pianist and has sustained his career as a performer while simultaneously pursuing activities as a composer and conductor. The solo piano music constitutes the genre of his works which is most intimately connected with Foss's own natural endowments as a pianist and composer. Foss's solo piano works include: Four Two-Part Inventions (1938); Grotesque Dance (1938); Passacaglia (1941); Fantasy Rondo (1946); Prelude in D (1951); Scherzo Ricercato (1953/1961); Solo (1982); and Tango (1983). The purpose of this study is to place Foss's solo piano music in a biographical and historical context, a context essential to the subsequent analysis and appreciation of innovative features present in the music.

The biographical and historical review examines factors contributing to the genesis of Foss's solo piano music. This review studies Foss's legendary precociousness; correlates Foss's early training in piano and composition and his continuing activities as a pianist to the formation of his solo piano works; provides full bibliographical information for the solo piano music, from his very first work as a composer (significantly, of an unpublished solo piano work entitled Sonatina) through his latest piano composition, Tango; and, finally, includes all extant critical reaction to the publication and performance of these works, from brief reviews to Foss's own insights regarding the music.

The critical commentaries help set Foss's solo piano pieces in their specific contemporary contexts, but they necessarily fail to comprehend the developing vision of Foss as a composer for the piano. The three chapters that follow provide analysis that focuses on innovative aspects in the solo piano music. These features include Foss's unique juxtapositions of conventional formal schemata, novel interplay of musical components as a strategy for growth, and instances of distinctive musical wit. Foss's solo piano music exhibits a continuity of dialectical process through the recurrence of these features.

Far from being a mere hodge-podge of eclectic elements, Foss's piano music displays a striking variety of techniques appropriate to the specific design of each individual work. Furthermore, the piano music is eminently idiomatic, "performer music." The objective of this study remains to demonstrate "how" and "why" through cohensive correlations between biographical, historical, and analytical information. The outcome of the study discloses a genre of works that surpass the essential criterion Foss himself set forth in an interview with me when he said, "I just hope they're well-written for the piano."