Remembering George Perle and Lukas Foss
Over the past two weekends, the United States lost two of its most significant composers—George Perle and Lukas Foss. Although both had been sick for some time, the news in both cases was still very sad.
I am very happy that we had the opportunity to feature George Perle on this site in an extensive conversation with his one-time student and life-long friend Paul Lansky. While I had met with Lukas Foss several times over the years, a sit-down talk with him about his music chez video camera never panned out. Still, I’ll never forget his playing the entire score of his opera Griffelkin for me and a few other people at his piano and singing all the parts shortly before the work’s stage premiere at New York City Opera back in the early 1990s, four decades after he first wrote it. (The work was originally composed specifically for television and NBC aired it on November 6, 1955.)
But the important thing to do now is to make sure their wonderful pieces of music—which are all still very much with us—remain in our consciousness through live performances, recordings, etc. It was very surprising for me to discover that despite the breadth and accomplishment of both bodies of work, how little of it is in frequent circulation.
George Perle’s four wind quintets are among the most important repertoire ever composed for that medium—in fact, he won the only Pulitzer ever given to a wind quintet for his fourth and final quintet. Yet aside from the Dorian Wind Quintet’s pioneering traversal of all four quintets for New World Records, no other group has ever recorded any of them. Even though the Dorian performances are stellar, it would be really exciting to hear alternate interpretations. Isn’t that how music enters the repertory? And then there are Perle’s nine string quartets, only one of which, the last, is currently available on a commercial recording (a very nice 2 CD Perle retrospective on Bridge). George Perle was overly self-critical of his own work and took many of his string quartets out of circulation, but the ones that are readily available would well serve a young quartet looking for challenging yet substantive repertoire. Even the usually anti-new music former New York Times critic Donal Henahan, reviewing the 1989 premiere of Perle’s still unrecorded 8th quartet (“Windows of Order”), claimed that Perle’s work “stood up well” in the company of the Haydn and Debussy quartets that were also on the program that night.
While Lukas Foss’s output is more readily available than Perle’s—surfing on Amazon, I found about a dozen all-Foss discs, as well as many other discs which included individual pieces of his—these only scratch the surface of his output and nothing has become a repertoire staple. I already alluded to that fact that it took nearly 40 years for anyone to mount a stage production of Foss’s sole full-length opera. Foss also created formidable concertos for flute, clarinet, cello, guitar, piano, and even piano left hand (which had their champions in their day, but have yet to be taken up by others). And while he additionally wrote four symphonies and five string quartets, no group has yet stepped up to the plate to champion those works. When I was in high school I bought an LP containing Foss’s Baroque Variations, a wild 1967 send-up of J. S. Bach, G. F. Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. At the time, I’d never heard of Foss and had yet to become a Bach-Handel-Scarlatti junkie, but the LP’s other side was John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. While I treasure Cage’s piece, I’ve returned to those crazy variations even more frequently. To this day I’m baffled at why they don’t get programmed by orchestras all the time.
Perhaps the neglect of both of these composers has something to do with our inability to pigeon-hole them. While George Perle was firmly in the so-called “uptown camp” of composers—his book Serial Composition and Atonality is one of that realm’s sacred tomes—his approach to the 12-tone system in his own work frequently sounds eons removed from the world of aggregates and combinatoriality. In fact, if a listener didn’t know the machinations behind Perle’s “twelve-tone tonality” he or she might be forgiven for thinking it derived from the same aesthetic that informed the music of composers like Vincent Persichetti, William Schuman, or Peter Mennin, none of whose music employed tone rows. Lukas Foss’s music is even more problematic for the label-minded—some works employ chance procedures, while others feature extensive improvisation (which are not at all the same thing). Early works toy with serial procedures and later works hint at minimalism. Many, like the Baroque Variations I love so much, are poly-stylistic to their core.
In some ways, Perle and Foss crystallize American music in the 20th century—a century of mavericks who reinvented the process of musical composition to suit their own aesthetic needs, maintaining that process with vigor and conviction, and omnivores who dabbled in everything yet always remained themselves. Both are valid role models. Now it is up to all of us to make sure their legacies continue.