About this Piece
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (antique cymbal, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, snare drum, tambourine, temple blocks, triangle, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, celesta (= piano), strings, and soprano solo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: Nov. 21, 1962, with soprano Adele Addison, Zubin Mehta conducting
Foss enjoys equally stellar reputations as a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and spokesman for his art. A true all-around musician, he was appointed professor of music at UCLA in 1953. In 1956, wanting to include improvisation as part of the training for composers and performers at UCLA, he founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble. Foss himself entered a period of experimentation in his composed works, where he began probing and questioning the ideas of tonality, notation, and fixed form. Time Cycle, for soprano and orchestra, dates from these years and is his best-known work. For the piece, Foss chose texts on the subject of time by four writers, two in his adopted language and two in his native tongue: "We're Late" by W.H. Auden, "When the Bells Justle" by A.E. Housman, an excerpt from a 1922 entry in the diaries of Franz Kafka, and "O Mensch! Gib acht!" from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra.
The piece is a dark, fatalistic look at time. Although both the music and the texts are incredibly eerie at moments, Foss emphasizes the importance of comic elements here as elsewhere in his work, saying, "Humor is absolutely essential to me. Being serious without humor is not being serious enough." The first song, Auden's "We're Late," is a riddle of time, purpose, life, and death, written in a canon (Foss' idol is J.S. Bach, and he makes great use of forms from the Baroque era). The second piece, "When the Bells Justle," becomes a kind of scherzo, with thrusting and unpredictable lines sometimes calling to mind Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. At the start of the song, the voice jerks around, just like bells knocking against one another. By the end, the jostling is gentler, now without voice, the bells gracefully bounding around in repetitive patterns, instead of pushing each other.
"Sechzehnter Januar," Foss' Kafka movement, is atmospheric. The sounds set the physical scene of a grimy, windy January day in Prague. Where Kafka writes about the incongruity of internal and external time, a temple-block begins, inaudibly at first, to mark the unheeding, unrelenting ticking of a clock. The piece contains the creepy sentence that inspired Foss' use of contrasting tempos, a primary musical technique of the cycle. It reads, "The clocks do not synchronize: the inner one chases in an inhuman manner, the outer one goes haltingly at its usual pace."
The final song, "O Mensch! Gib Acht!" is both the most "improvisational" and the most lyric of the four - asking for two flutes and two violins to be placed at a distance in the far corners of the stage. At the conductor's discretion, orchestral musicians not playing are "called upon to whisper the twelve numbers of the clock strokes." From a subdued beginning, the vocal line rises expressively. The music sinks into quiet at the close, and the last action is the tone of antique cymbals, once again marking time passing. Time Cycle was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and first performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in October 1960.
- Jessie Rothwell is a freelance musician and writer living in Los Angeles.