Time Cycle

Lukas Foss

Text: Texts by W. H. Auden, A.E. Housman, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche
Publisher: Carl Fischer Music
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

Time Cycle is a group of four songs, two English and two German, each referring to time, clocks or bells. The piece was originally composed for soprano and orchestra. At the premiere in 1960, given by Adele Addison with Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic [?] interludes were introduced between the orchestra songs by the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, a group of four virtuosi (clarinet, piano, cello, percussion) I founded in 1957. In the present ?chamber version? of Time Cycle the orchestration is rewritten for piano, clarinet, cello, and percussion. Interludes are not included? there is no improvisation.

The orchestra songs and the chamber version are too different in their dynamic range to be compared. The latter has the advantage of greater precision. But it neither superseded the orchestra version nor is it an arrangement of an original. The occasion, the size, the hall, will call for one or the other.


This song cycle marks somewhat of a departure from my previous work, perhaps mainly because of the absence of the neo-classical or neo-baroque. The vocal writing is in ?Lied? rather than ?Aria? style. (My ?Song of Songs? for instance, could be termed a series of arias.) Furthermore, tonality is clearly defined only in some places, totally destroyed in others. Finally, form and content, organization and substance can no longer be distinguished one from the other. They have become synonymous. Each song develops its own serial devices (of which the twelve-tone row is the least frequently used).

The four songs are not tied to each other by either motive or row. Only a chord, a single sound: C# A B D#, which undergoes various alterations, serves as unifying element. Though there is no overall musical motive, there is a literary one: the ?time-motive?. Each poem refers to time, clocks, or bells. The relationship between music and words in the individual song goes far beyond mood paining. The idea and structure of the poem is mirrored in the idea and structure of the music. Text and music are fellow conspirators. The first two poems are English, the latter German. Eventually, I intend to interpolate an Italian song (Dante) and a French one (Baudelaire). Each song is sung in original language.

I. "We're Late"
("No Time" by W H. Auden)

Clocks cannot tell our time of day
For what event to pray,
Because we have no time, because
We have no time until
We know what time we fill,
Why time is other than time was.

Nor can our question satisfy
The answer in the statue's eye.
Only the living ask whose brow
May wear the Roman laurel now:
The dead say only how.
What happens to the living when they die?
Death is not understood by death:
nor you, nor I.

This poem is the most objective of the four but also the most ?riddle-like?. Auden?s paradoxical inversions, ?clocks do not show the time of day?Nor does the question satisfy the answer?What happens to the living when we die?? led me to the final mirror canon, of which the sound is as enigmatic as the poem, but on closer examination, I hope, just as precise. The last of this song will illustrate both the use of the above mentioned chord, C# A B D#.

II. "When the Bells Justle"
(by A. E. Housman)

When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.

Housman?s frightening four lines form the scherzo of the cycle. The ?justling? of the bells is first introduced not by bell sounds but by trumpets and horns. These ?become? bells, so does the voice.

III. "Sechzehnter Januar"
(aus Franz Kafkas Tagebuchern)

16. Januar [1922]. Es war in der letzten Woche wie ein Zusammen

Available on Rental

Scores & Parts

Time Cycle - Piano Reduction/Vocal Score

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by the Ford Foundation
Composition Date 1960
Duration 00:22:00
Orchestration Solo soprano voice; 2 0 2 0 - 2 2 1 0; Timp. Perc. Hp. Str.
Premiere 20th October, 1960. Adele Addison, soprano, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor, New York, NY.


I. We're Late
II. When the Bells Justle
III. Sechzehnter Januar
IV. O Mensch, gib' Acht