Ronald E. Grames
May 1, 2009

Lukas Foss died on February 1 of this year at the age of 86. Composer, conductor, orchestra builder, virtuoso pianist, and respected teacher, Foss wore many hats after he made his first big splash with this audacious song of praise to the American spirit. He had been composing since age seven, but it was Robert Shaw’s 1944 premiere of this work that brought him to the attention of the musical world. The Prairie was enthusiastically programmed by orchestras and choral societies throughout the country, and won the 1945 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. It was the first of many such honors, as Foss went on to write an amazing variety of often avant-garde works. Over 30 years ago, Aaron Copland declared his oeuvre “among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music.” While later compositions returned to the more neo-Classical style of his youth, there was always a compelling spirit of experimentation and, though the influences changed, a unique synthesis of past and present in Foss’s works that made them highly appealing. The loss is huge to American music and music education—he taught at Tanglewood and followed Schoenberg at UCLA—and he will be sorely missed.

“I had fallen in love with America because of people like Aaron,” said Foss many years later and it was Copland’s earliest populist scores that were the major influences in The Prairie. Copland’s efforts to create an indigenous American school of composition had caught Foss’s attention soon after he emigrated with his parents from Germany in 1937. Hindemith, with whom he studied at Yale from 1939 to 1940, was the other obvious influence. The result is a work of tremendous heart, tempered by European austerity and discipline but motivated by American energy and rhythmic drive. It takes the vast American heartland as its metaphor for freedom and progress. The catalyst for this dream, of course, was Carl Sandburg’s poem of the same name, published in 1918. Sandburg was a voice for the common man, however much he was hailed by the intelligentsia of his time, and his poetry has a directness and openness that is perfectly matched by Foss’s music. Foss’s audacity was not only in the scale of this early work. In 1941, when 19-year-old Foss began his work, Sandburg was hailed as the 20th-century Walt Whitman, and was one of America’s most prominent men of letters. Without seeking permission, Foss cut more than half the lines and rearranged the remaining verses into seven shorter poems suitable for setting as a cantata with soloists. Only after the work was well advanced did he finally seek permission from Sandburg. It was generously granted. The resulting libretto portrays the prairie through time, from primeval nurturing mother to land of limitless promise for the future, with almost religious fervor. This sort of homespun patriotism—sans saber rattling and jingoism and fulsome in its faith in the common person—has fallen out of favor today. It was potent stuff in the post-Depression, mid-World War II period of its premiere. For those of us still susceptible to its idealism, The Prairie is a moving and inspiring work, especially when presented with such sincerity and conviction as it is here.

This recording was made immediately after a set of concert performances by the Rhode Island-based Providence Singers and the enterprising Boston Modern Orchestra Project. BMOP has been producing a most welcome series of neglected American masterworks and this recording matches the high standards of that enterprise so far. The four fine soloists, mostly young and with careers centered in New England, present the plainspoken text without a hint of pretense or unwanted sophistication. Those wishing to nit-pick may note some roughness in the choral solos, the rather androgynous tone of the tenor and some soprano wobble, but comes to little. The chorus occasionally lacks polish and absolute certainty of pitch, especially the men when exposed, but this generally doesn’t detract, and in all this is a fine accomplishment for conductor Andrew Clark and his soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

The sound is a warmly resonant combination of excellent engineering and the superb acoustic of Worcester’s Mechanics Hall; the SACD layer even more luminous than the fine CD. There are definitive notes written by the composer and the cover reproduction of Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing is so absolutely right it demands mention. First-class all the way. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about the release is the package itself, as the stupid foam tab has already ceased to hold the disc. Otherwise, fervently recommended.