I find it astonishing that this delicious oratorio hasn’t been performed or recorded much. It’s every bit a crowd-pleasure and very much in the tradition of middle-American composers of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, such as Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland. Lukas Foss was born in Berlin in 1923, then moved to Philadelphia as omens of war threatened Europe. He moved to American and studied with Sergei Koussevitzky for several years before attending Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith. Foss’s early music, particularly for piano, is heavily influenced by serial techniques, but you won’t find anything terribly serial, atonal, or tres modernistic in The Prairie.
Foss was 17 when he first read Carl Sandburg’s epic poem and almost immediately started writing a cantata for it in the summers of 1941 and 1942 when he was studying with Koussevitzky. When it came together in 1944 (performed by Robert Shaw in New York), it made him famous at 22. If The Prairie has any distinct influences, though, they probably derive from Paul Hindemith’s seriousness rather than Copland’s melancholy. The melodic strains in the music have that Copland lilt and some traces of his nostalgia, but tempered by what Foss learned from hindemith about attention to balanced harmonies and lack of melodic indulgence. I thought I heard stints of Mathis der Maler in 7, for example, which is called “O Prairie Girl”. The work, thus sounds a little more European than American. Indeed, you’ll hear some of the same metrical cadences that Stravinsky picked up from his time with Diaghilev.
It’s a beautiful work, excellently performed here. Sound is terrific: clear and sharp, with just the right depth. This work and this recording belong in any decent library of 20th Century music. If you’re a fan of choral works, this is most definitely for you.